Too late to turn back for KIJHL?
By Bruce Fuhr
The Nelson Daily Sports
It a decision the movers and shakers at Kootenay International Junior Hockey League headquarters said would not happen, move into a larger markets like Kamloops or Kelowna.
But in 2006 Osoyoos was granted a move to Spoolmak Country and in the spring of 2010, there was the KIJHL announcing the Chase Chiefs were moving south to the red-hot hockey market of Kelowna for the 2010-11 campaign.
Nine months later the mighty Chiefs are cruising along in second spot in the Okanagan Division of the Okanagan/Shuswap Conference.
The team has made peace with the WHL Rockets — who held the junior hockey rights in the Central Okanagan City — and have quietly made an impact during season one.
“That was the rumour mill at its finest,” Ken Andrusiak, head coach of the Chiefs told The Nelson Daily prior to last week’s game against Nelson at the NDCC Arena. “We started the process of getting a franchise in Kelowna about a year ago and have always had the Rockets on side.”
“We had to get the City, we had to get the rink and we had to get KIJHL on side, so we had bigger fish to fry than the Rockets,” Andrusiak added. “So we never had a problem with them one way or another.”
Fact is the Rockets are glad to have the Chiefs in town. The junior B league allows the WHL power to groom its two 16-year-olds in preparation for a spot on the Tier I squad.
As for the rest of the roster, Andrusiak had more than enough players to choose from.
“In the first year at least half of our team came with the team,” Andrusiak explained. “We had to take some of the players from the Chase franchise and mix them in with local players from Kelowna.”
“As for the future, there is an abundance of local players . . . we have six right now on our team,” he added.
That number should grow next year and the season after. However, the Chiefs gain is a loss for many of the other teams in the league.
Nelson, for one, has used Kelowna players to fill out the majority of its roster for the past few seasons.
Stats show more than 40 players in the KIJHL originate from Kelowna Minor Hockey.
“We’re not going to be able to recruit all of those players, but I believe with our franchise now in Kelowna, we’ll put a major dent in that number, for sure,” said Andrusiak, who has two former Nelson Leafs on the roster, son Landon and winger Dane Rupert.
Both younger Andrusiak and Rupert are happy to be able to play before the 300-400 plus family and friends that attend games at the Rutland Arena.
“I really like playing at home, so for me it was the right move,” Rupert said.
“It’s a good feeling to play at home . . . now I’m going to university and to play in front of family and friends is definitely pretty special,” said Landon Andrusiak.
The Chiefs also bolsters the Okanagan invasion in the KIJHL.
The league has gone from a few teams to two divisions of four. That number grows when Chase is welcomed back to the league following a one-year hiatus.
Which begs the question, will there be two junior B leagues in the B.C. Interior in the not too distant future?
“I hope not, but reading between the lines I think that’s where (KIJHL) is going,” Andrusiak confessed. “You’d lose the characteristics of this league if (Kootenay and Okanagan teams) only played each other in the playoffs.
But economically that’s the push coming from out end of the league,” added Andrusiak, hoping the KI never loses its identity and ability for smaller communities to ice teams that can compete.
“It’s very expensive to bring a team over here for two of three games and the dollar is probably going to win out in that argument.”
Which makes you wonder why the KIJHL ever expanded into the big markets after all.
Only time will tell.
NOTES: The Kelowna Rockets have made a history of finding players in the KIJHL. Those players who have made their mark with WHL franchise, but started in the KI, include Chuck Kobasew (Osoyoos 1998-99), Shea Webber (Sicamous 2001-02), Clayton Bauer (Sicamous 2003-03), Justin Keller (Summerland 2002-03) and James McEwan (Castlegar 2003-04).