Heading into their first playoff series in the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, the Kelowna Chiefs are healthier than ever in what was an injury riddled rookie season for the franchise.
The Chiefs (24-21-1-2) host the Princeton Posse (16-26-3-3) in a best of seven first round KIJHL series beginning Monday night at Rutland Arena. Game two is Tuesday night in Rutland.
“Princeton is hard to play against because they have size, they’re well-coached and they play hard,” said Chiefs head coach Ken Andrusiak. “Offensively I think we have a little more fire power. Other than that we’re going to have to have our best game. It’s interesting to hear people say where you finish is important. It really isn’t. You still have to beat somebody four times.”
The Chiefs finished second in the KIJHL’s Okanagan Division. Its record of three games over .500 might seem pedestrian but is made all the more remarkable by the number of games the team lost to injury.
Only one member of the Chiefs played in all regular season games for the Chiefs.
The team had 130 individual games lost due to injury.
“I think we led the league in affiliate player games played,” said Andrusiak. “For a couple of weeks we only had two lines. It was a real challenge.”
Another challenge was letting people know the team existed. The Chiefs were born when Andrusiak and two partners purchased the Chase Chiefs hockey club and moved it to Kelowna.
Attendance started slowly at the renovated Rutland Arena but the team has built a core group, averaging 300 fans a night. Some nights have been much higher while week nights are a tough draw.
“I think overall it’s been pretty positive,” said Andrusiak, who not only has now worked for all three junior teams in town but also coached the B.C. Amateur’s major midget team that plays out of Kelowna as well as most levels of Kelowna Minor Hockey, including association head coach.
“It’s like the first year of a business. You learn as you go along. Overall it was pretty positive and we have a pretty decent team.”
The Chiefs have built their niche in Rutland. Most of the team’s school-aged players go to Rutland Senior and the bulk of the corporate support comes from the Rutland business community. A sign hanging in the coach’s office reads ‘the Kelowna Chiefs: Rutland’s very own.’
“I think it’s good for us to have a team here,” said Andrusiak who said the team has support from the Kelowna Rockets and also saves two 16-year-old spots for the major junior club.
“When we were doing our research we found that there was about 40 Kelowna kids playing in the KIJHL. Now we’re giving them an alternative so they can play at home.”
Those kids open their first playoffs Monday and Tuesday at home to Princeton. Call 250-862-8020 for ticket information.