5 Things to Watch in the 2019-20 Western Hockey League Season

There was plenty of change across the Western Hockey League in the summer, whether it was a coach returning to where he had the most success, or an entire organization switching cities.

WHL Logo
WHL Logo

Here are five storylines to keep an eye on in the 2019-20 WHL season, which begins Friday with seven games:

Willie Desjardins’ Return to Medicine Hat

A decade after leaving the Medicine Hat Tigers for an NHL career, the 62-year-old returns to the organization as both general manager and head coach.

The success Desjardins had with the Tigers between 2002 and 2010 —  including two WHL titles —  led to a job with the Dallas Stars in 2010. After stops with the Vancouver Canucks, L.A. Kings and the Canadian Olympic team, the Climax, Sask., native is back in a place he feels is “home.”

With Desjardins, the Tigers won championships in 2004 and 2007, while he also earned a coach of the year award in 2006. He replaces Shaun Clouston, who had a nine-year run as head coach with the Tigers after serving under Desjardins as an assistant in the latter man’s first tenure.

Clouston is now with the Kamloops Blazers as head coach.

Junior Hockey Returns to Winnipeg

The Kootenay Ice moved from Cranbrook, B.C., to Winnipeg for the 2019-20 season under the ownership of 50 Below Sports and Entertainment— returning major junior hockey to the Manitoba capital for the first time since 1984.

Peyton Krebs Kootenay Ice
The Kootenay Ice will relocate to Winnipeg for 2019-20 (Robert Murray/WHL)

The WHL announced the move in January and ownership said at the time they believed the team could work, despite the fact the city has the NHL Jets and American Hockey League Moose.

The last WHL team to play in Winnipeg was the Warriors between 1980 and 1984, after which they relocated to Moose Jaw, Sask., largely due to attendance woes and poor on-ice performance.

The Brandon Wheat Kings were the the only major junior team in Manitoba before the Ice relocated. The two will be paired in the East Division, opening up a chance for a provincial rivalry.

Colton Dach Follows Big Brother to Saskatoon

Forward Colton Dach enters his WHL rookie season with the same team that older brother Kirby Dach broke out with before getting drafted third overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019.

Kirby Dach Saskatoon Blades
Colton Dach will follow older brother Kirby to the Saskatoon Blades (Steve Hiscock/Saskatoon Blades)

Colton, six-foot-two and 183 pounds, isn’t the same offensive threat Kirby is, with Blades coach Mitch Love saying the 16-year-old younger brother is a more of a bumper and grinder. But he still will have an important role with the team. Colton produced four goals and six points in five pre-season games.

The brothers have never played together in organized hockey, but it could happen if the 18-year-old Kirby is sent back to junior by the Blackhawks.

Kelowna Rockets Gearing Up for Memorial Cup Run

The Rockets missed the playoffs last season after losing a tiebreaker to the Blazers. But those kind of results won’t be accepted this year with Kelowna being named as 2020 Memorial Cup hosts.

The Rockets last hosted the Memorial Cup in 2004 and went on to win it for the first time in team history despite bowing out of the WHL playoffs. Kelowna has been to the Memorial Cup four other times, all as WHL champion, most recently in 2015 when the Rockets lost in the final against the Oshawa Generals.

Head coach Adam Foote enters the season with three NHL prospects that will play a major role in the team’s success — forward Nolan Foote (Tampa Bay Lightning), forward Dillon Hamaliuk (San Jose Sharks) and defenceman Kaedan Korczak (Vegas Golden Knights).

Adam Foote Kelowna Rockets
Adam Foote (Marissa Baecker/Kelowna Rockets)

Like any other host team, the Blazers could be busy making moves after the Christmas break.

Waiting on the Unknown

One problem every Canadian Hockey League coach faces to begin a season is not knowing who they will and won’t have on their roster because of NHL training camps.

While Love and the Blades wait to find out if Kirby Dach returns from the Blackhawks, other coaches are also planning to open the season without their stars.

No. 4 pick Bowen Byram isn’t expected to be in the Vancouver Giants lineup this weekend, with the defenceman still at camp with the Colorado Avalanche. And the Lethbridge Hurricanes approach the year without No. 7 pick Dylan Cozens, as the forward remains a part of the Buffalo Sabres pre-season roster.

An NHL team can hold onto a junior-eligible player for up to nine games of the regular season before the player’s contract kicks in, forcing a key decision.

Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press