It was a Western Hockey League (WHL) season full of unknowns. Three-hundred fifty-six days after playing their last game, the Lethbridge Hurricanes kicked off their 24-game schedule at the end of February, and Tuesday the season concluded with a 3-2 overtime loss.
Head coach Brent Kisio says his group got better as the season wore on, going 9-12-3, with six of those wins coming in their final 14 games.
But one category where they were perfect from day one: COVID-19 testing, where the Hurricanes pitched a perfect shutout.
“We were real careful. Our guys paid attention to the rules and we did what we had to do to play hockey this year,” Kisio said.
With no WHL playoffs for a second-straight year due to COVID-19, Kisio says the feeling once the season was officially over was quite different than the mourning period that usually follows a playoff series loss.
“In playoffs, you go, go go, and you have all this life and you have a chance to win, and then when you don’t it’s a terrible feeling because it ends so suddenly,” he said.
“This year, our end was our end, we knew it was coming, it wasn’t our choice, but today waking up was more just getting excited for next year.”
The coach says his club stumbled out of the gates after the longest WHL offseason ever.
“We were shockingly far behind some teams and we had a lot of work to do,” he said.
“For whatever reason, every guy was different. I think we underestimated COVID and how guys handled it, and time away from the rink.”
The Canes kicked off the season with 7-1 and 7-2 losses to the Edmonton Oil Kings, who ultimately ended the season as the top team in Alberta.
But the Hurricanes came a long way in 67 days; beating Edmonton last month, and taking them to overtime in game number 24 on Tuesday.
That 3-2 overtime loss marked the end of WHL careers for over-ager players Mitch Prowse and Liam Kindree, as well as Hurricanes captain Dino Kambeitz.
“You just want to have fun in your last year and compete and try to put yourself in a good spot for moving forward,” Kambeitz said.
“With this group, it was fun to come to the rink every day and to see these guys as much as we did.”
Players on the Hurricanes roster spent all of their time together from the moment they arrived in Lethbridge to the moment they left this week; living in an apartment bubble near the Enmax Centre.
The opportunity to bond is one that rookie Cole Miller says will prove invaluable for him and other young players.
“Creating a bond and friendship with all the guys that are going to be back next year is just going to really help us bring it to the next level,” Miller said.
The product of Edmonton was Lethbridge’s first round pick (16th-overall) in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft, and the rookie says while there was an adjustment period to the size and speed of the league, he was happy to get his feet wet.
“Being a 15-year-old coming into the WHL and getting 11 games played is really going to help me going into next year,” Miller said.
“Towards the end of the year, I felt really confident and I felt like I was really starting to keep up with the pace and starting to make plays.”
This year’s WHL draft has been pushed from May to December of 2021.