Winnipeg Ice succeeding in first season since relocation, on way to playoffs

Ice forward Peyton Krebs had to wait a little longer than he wanted to show Winnipeg what type of player it was getting.

The delay has been worth it.

Major junior hockey returned to Winnipeg in 2019-20 for the first time since 1984, but Krebs wasn’t able to be part of opening night in October because of an Achilles injury suffered in off-season training. The setback could have been a disaster for both Krebs and the relocated team looking to make an impression, but he returned healthy in late November and has guided the Ice to a Western Hockey League playoff berth.

“That injury put me back a lot, going through that. Not playing a full season has been tough but the games I have played I’ve put my best foot forward. It was long being out,” said Krebs, who had his Achilles cut by another player’s skate in June — two weeks before the NHL draft. A potential top-10 pick, Krebs limped to the stage after being selected by the Vegas Golden Knights 17th overall.

The Kootenay Ice were purchased in 2017 and eventually relocated to Winnipeg under the ownership of 50 Below Sports and Entertainment, returning major junior hockey to the Manitoba capital.

Krebs is in his third full season with the franchise after two disappointing campaigns in Cranbrook, B.C., missing the post-season both years. After going 13-45-10 in their swan song in B.C., this season the Ice are 34-24-1 and have a playoff spot clinched with nine regular-season games to go.

“It’s amazing, not playing playoffs past two years has been a grind. … Not being able to play was pretty tough,” said the 19-year-old, who has 10 goals and 51 points in 34 games.

“Past couple years we didn’t have the depth we have this year. We’ve really bought into the message from the coaches and have four lines that can play, it’s why we’ve been so successful.”

While the five-foot-11, 180-pound Krebs was spending his summer rehabbing from surgery, Ice general manager and part owner Matt Cockell was preparing the organization for its first season in Winnipeg. Cockell and Co. were looking for the proper talent to add to the club, selecting qualified billets to provide homes for the players and making sure the arena would be ready in time for puck drop.

The Ice are currently playing their home games at the 1,600-seat Wayne Fleming Arena at the University of Manitoba, which underwent a $2-million renovation ahead of this season. The team will eventually move into a new arena.

“Makes for great atmosphere and certainly a great way to introduce the Western Hockey League,” said Cockell.

“The excitement and energy has been building throughout the year. Obviously introducing the Winnipeg market to junior, a whole different generation of fans given how long the gap was. We’re really excited about where things are headed.”

The Rink Player Development, The Rink Hockey Academy, Testify Sports Science and the Rink Training Facility, where the Ice practise, are all under the umbrella of 50 Below. The company says a WHL team is just one part of its hockey plan in the city, with its biggest goal being to create an integrated development model that can train kids of all ages.

The Manitoba Junior Ice was recently launched by the group and has teams for male and female players as young as six with registration for spring hockey.

Cockell recognizes all the obstacles for a homegrown talent to make it all the way to their WHL team but says “I think that would be real neat,” before adding: “It’s essentially an opportunity for both player development and teams at all different levels, high performance, as well as maybe a more participatory level. And so that’s roughly 70 teams that now operate under the Manitoba Junior Ice.”

Winnipeg drafted forward Matthew Savoie, from St. Albert, Alta., first overall in 2020 and has the recently-turned 16-year-old splitting the season between the Ice and The Rink Academy Prep team. Cockell says Savoie, who was denied exceptional-player status by the WHL, was a special case and that the plan does not include using The Rink resources to keep developing most draft picks. He believes there is something to be gained by a player staying close to home for one more season.

Krebs, from Okotoks, Alta., was back in the Ice lineup on Nov. 17. He had to serve a one-game suspension for hitting from behind from the end of the prior season before seeing game action, slowing down his return.

He says it wasn’t easy to relocate, although the change has been rewarding.

“I built relationships in Cranbrook, it was hard to say goodbye but at same time it was a new opportunity,” said Krebs. “Not winning in Cranbrook, it was a fresh start in Winnipeg and to have the success we’ve had so far is pretty fun.”

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