Brandon, MB. — The curtain goes up on the 2019-20 Western Hockey League season Friday night and for the first time in 35 years the Brandon Wheat Kings will be hosting a provincial rival.
The Ice relocated to Winnipeg this past spring and this will mark the first time since 1984 that Brandon has hosted a Winnipeg based franchise.
The city of Winnipeg is rich in junior hockey history and have fielded a number of teams in both the Western Canada Hockey League (established in 1966) and the WHL. Under Ben Hatskin, Winnipeg was represented by the Junior Jets in the early days, followed by both the Monarchs and Clubs. Later the Winnipeg Warriors were born but low attendance at the old Winnipeg Arena proved to much for them to overcome and eventually the club was moved to Moose Jaw.
Winnipeg will host Brandon in its Home Opener Saturday night at the Max Bell Arena on the campus of the University of Manitoba.
So much for the Ice, after missing the Western Hockey League playoffs by two points last season, Brandon returns all but four players under a coaching staff headed by two-time WHL coach of the year Dave Lowry.
“Everyone on the team knows that missing the playoffs was a sore spot,” veteran Ben McCartney recently told Perry Bergson of the Brandon Sun. “We know what we have to do. It’s consistency, showing up every night and playing our game. We had a glimpse of it last year, having a real good hockey team, but we just have to show it every night. We’re hungry for the playoffs this year.”
Last season, the team went 31-29-4-4, and finished two points behind the Red Deer Rebels for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. One of the many reasons for the club’s disappointing year was the play of the special teams and Brandon’s new head coach knows that is an area that needs improvement.
“This team didn’t make the playoffs last year so when you’re looking at it at the start, you want to see improvement in every aspect, obviously penalty killing being one,” says Lowry. “It’s critical to winning. We’ve always talked to these guys that it’s not the power play that wins, it’s the penalty killing that wins.”
“The power play helps you to win games, but if you’re giving up a goal or two goals every night, that means you have to score one more than you’ve given up and a lot of times that puts your team at a disadvantage,” he went on to say.
While former captain Stelio Mattheos has graduated to the professional ranks, the Wheat Kings still have a number of key players back this year. Luka Burzan scored 40 goals and 78 points while McCartney finished strongly and is expected to be a key contributor this year. Others with high expectations include defencemen Braden Schneider, who is expected to be a high National Hockey Legue draft pick this year, second year center Ridly Greig and netminder Jiri Patera.
Tonight’s game will be the first of ten games between these two teams this season.
Fans are encouraged to come early as MNP Hall will host a special Tailgate Party, scheduled to begin at 5pm. There will be fun and entertainment for the whole family, including two members of the popular PAW Patrol.
Before puck drop, the Wheat Kings and Keystone Centre will unveil its brand new HD center ice video scoreboard. Following player introductions, three newly elected members of the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame will participate in the ceremonial opening face-off.
Longtime WHL official Rob Haithwaite, a Brandon native, will be joined by former Wheat King all start goalkeeper Trevor Kidd and Bob Fitchner, who in addition to playing two WHL seasons in Brandon, later coached the Brandon University hockey Bobcats.
Tickets to the game are on sale at the Keystone Centre box office, by calling (204) 726-3555 or online at keystonecentre.com