While the intention wasn’t necessarily to elicit a state-of-the-union address, a quick chat in Lethbridge last weekend with Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt certainly gleaned plenty to ruminate about.
Alas, that’s generally been the case with Anholt, a junior hockey veteran who, in these days of seemingly contrived prepared statements, speaks with a refreshing clarity and confidence. It’s plausible his candor might wrankle the odd hyper-sensitive observer, but the Naicam, Saskatchewan native is well-equipped to self assuredly weather any storms.
It’s called “credibility.”
When Anholt was hired by the Hurricanes as its assistant general manager on June 24, 2014, he also kept his fingers on the pulse in a management role at the historic Waskesiu Golf Course in northern Saskatchewan throughout that summer.
As the general manager at the renowned Stanley Thompson-designed layout located in Prince Albert National Park, Anholt was involved in spearheading strategies and building consensus, with a little help from his friends. In some ways, it may have come across as a reclamation project of sorts – much like the job that lay ahead in Lethbridge.
At golf season’s end, he departed for southern Alberta.
At the time, the community-owned Hurricanes was an organization that appeared to be on life-support. Playoff hockey had become ancient history, and junior hockey operators will always confirm that revenue generated during the post-season is absolutely critical to the bottom line. The Western Hockey League had been hinting that perhaps private ownership would be a more productive model.
“First of all, we had to get the on-ice product to where it’s supposed to be and everything plays off of that,” Anholt said. “The business side of our operations led by Terry Huisman has done a fabulous job selling our product.
“We’re at about 2,350 season tickets, which is the highest ever here. So that gives us a real good base.”
Indeed, the Enmax Centre can be an entertaining building for hockey fans, especially since its $35,000,000 upgrade. Seating capacity is about 5,500, but one wonders how the fanbase would rock the facility on a weekend where the fire marshal was on vacation.
“We’ve sold out as far as advertising, so there’s a lot of real positives,” Anholt said. “We have increased our attendance, whereas others, generally the attendance is down. We’re really proud of that.
“It’s a fantastic city, our facilities are first class and our location is really good. There are so many good things about it. I know our players love playing here and love playing in front of our fans.”
Switching gears to the present-day roster, Anholt spoke to the performance of the current group, the highest-scoring team in the WHL this season.
“We’re really fortunate, I don’t think we expected to have the start that we had,” Anholt said. “I think when you look at it, usually your first month and a half, your older guys carry you. And then once you get going, hopefully your younger guys have made strides and can contribute a little bit more.
“I think that that’s basically what’s happened here.”
From the outside looking in, the ‘Canes entered the current campaign with questions in goal, some veteran presence on the blue line and a heaping helping of hope that a couple of National Hockey League teams would return some key players. Fortunately for Anholt and his charges, things have fallen into place.
“Our overage defenseman (Ty) Prefontaine and (Koletrane) Wilson have been really, really strong and basically have been the backbone of our team,” Anholt said. “Our back end has been so important to our team.”
Indeed, the blue line brigade and the entire group’s commitment to protecting the defending zone has provided an opportunity for the young goaltenders – Carl Tetachuk and Bryan Thomson – to improve and contribute.
“Yeah, you know, a great question,” Anholt said when queried about the play of the netminders. “I think over the last number of years we we’re pretty much a running and gunning team. We’d give up lots of shots and give up chances.
“I think we’ve shut down a lot more this year. We haven’t given up a lot of shots we’ve created a lot more shots. I think we’ve helped out our goaltenders, so that’s been a real key to our success, for sure.”
The high-end talent has certainly delivered for Lethbridge this season, while others have exceeded expectations.
“Of course, (Dylan) Cozens and (Calen) Addison coming back, they’ve been really good, key performers for us,” Anholt said.
“And Alex Cotton has been a real nice fit for us,” he continued, when asked about the WHL’s top scoring defenceman. “And (Oliver) Okuliar, who we picked up in the import draft has been nothing short of spectacular for us and is just a treat to have on our team. He is all about winning. There’s no selfishness whatsoever and it’s really refreshing to have them both on our team.”
Anholt notes that the acquisition of Dino Kambeitz has been beneficial along with the improving play of Logan Barlage.
But beyond the roster, he is bullish that his coaching staff continues to do a terrific job.
Suffice to say, Anholt knows a thing or two about coaching.
He is one of 16 WHL coaches to record 400 or more victories, compiling an all-time record of 466-487-66. He is one of seven men to coach over 1,000 games in the WHL.
“I think the coaching staff here is just fabulous,” Anholt said.
“I’ve said this before – I think Brent (Kisio) over the last four years has been the best coach in our league, but he has never won coach of the year.
“But, the body of work?
“I think he’s been the best coach. And I think this year has been the best job that he and his staff have done so the success so far, it’s a testament to him.”
Anholt has played a role in the success as well. Never one to shy away from pulling the trigger if he feels a trade will improve the team’s fortunes, he asserts there has to be a method to what can occasionally come across as madness.
“I think junior hockey operators are always planning for the future,” Anholt said. “I don’t think we’re ever in a situation where we’re saying it’s all in, we’re going all in. I think we’re all, for the most part, always thinking about the future.”
Anholt acknowledged teams may define the short- and long-term future differently, based on circumstance, but it would seem he favours a big-picture view.
“There’s always different situations,” he said. “I think in our case, we’ve got a young team. We’re guarded on where we think we’re at, because of the division being as hard as it is.
“A couple years ago when we made the trade with Swift Current, the central division wasn’t as strong at that point, so my feeling was we could still possibly get to the conference final making that trade and that’s exactly what happened.
“You’ve gotta kind of read what the whole league is like, what your division is like right at that particular time. And you know, I think there’s some years where you maybe don’t have to be the greatest team of the decade to win. Maybe this year’s that year?
“So I think you’re kind of measuring a lot of different things without giving up the future. You want to keep your good players and you want to be competitive all the time.”
The Hurricanes will lose Cozens and Addison to the Hockey Canada program this week, as they vie for a position with Team Canada at the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. Okuliar will also have an opportunity to play for Team Slovakia.
Shortly after completion of the WJC, the WHL trade deadline will become the focus. Whether or not Lethbridge will be involved in anything earth-shattering remains to be seen.
“It’s a busy time of year when you get into December and January,” Anholt said. “People talk about the trade deadline, there’s players that go to international events, so there’s some juggling for coaching staffs and general managers.
“We’re going to lose three guys, so there’s opportunity for somebody else to step up and we might bring in the odd affiliate player that can help out. Really, the guys that are left have to take advantage of the opportunity.
“When you lose them to these international events, that shows you’ve got some good players and that’s great for your organization. It should make you better down the road, a little short-term pain long-term gain.”
Through Dec. 8, Cozens is atop the WHL scoring derby with 20 goals and 26 assists…Okuliar leads the WHL with 23 goals…Cotton (9-25; 34) and Addison (7-22; 29) are the top two scoring rearguards in the league…At 18-9-0-5, Lethbridge is currently tied with the Medicine Hat Tigers (20-8-1) for second place in the tough central division, trailing the Edmonton Oil Kings (19-6-5-2) by four points…The Hurricanes, 5-3-0-2 in it last ten starts, lead the WHL in scoring with 124 goals in 32 games…The young goaltending tandem has been solid this season. Carl Tetachuk, 18, has appeared in 20 games, compiling a 2.41 goals against average and a .914 save percentage. Bryan Thomson, 17, who checks in at 6’4, has appeared in 14 games, posting a 2.67 goals against average and .902 save percentage.
Sports Celebrity Dinner – Jan. 25, 2020
Anholt has reached out to a familiar colleague, as the Hurricanes prepare to host its 14th annual Sports Celebrity Dinner. Former Hurricanes forward and NHLer Wes Walz will attend and current Winnipeg Jets broadcaster Dennis Beyak has been penciled in as the master of ceremonies.
“I’ve known Dennis forever, we worked together in Seattle and he used to be my assistant general manager there,” Anholt said. “I think he’s, in my mind, the best MC there is. He’s quick-witted, he’s got so many great stories and he’s an old western league guy and he’s been in the NHL now for a long, long time.
“And we’ve got Wes Walz coming back, a wall-of-honor inductee here, one of the great, great Hurricanes of all time.
“It’s been a real good event for us over the last number of years, kind of the event of the year here in Lethbridge.”