Finally, the Kitchener Rangers can park their bus overnight.
After eight games on the road to start the season as a result of major renovations at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium, the Rangers, one of the Ontario Hockey League’s marquee organizations, will have their first game at home on Friday night (7:30 p.m. ET) against Eastern Conference powerhouse Oshawa Generals.
For his part, head coach and general manager Steve Spott can’t wait to play in the modernized arena.
“Since February it has been challenging for our hockey club,” he said to the Toronto Observer concerning the organization’s inability to use their home arena since being bounced from the Western Conference final last season.
“But seeing the first-class facility we’re going to come into, I think it’s not only exciting for the players, but also the managers, our business department, and most importantly our great fans.”
The $9.6-million facelift includes the addition of nearly 1,000 more seats (bringing arena capacity up to approximately 7,500), as well as a state-of-the-art locker room, and a brand new heating and cooling system.
Spott’s group will test the new digs Thursday with their first home practice in seven months before Friday evening’s clash with the Generals.
“There is going to be a lot of wide eyes when [the players] walk into that dressing room tomorrow,” he said.
“There is going to be a lot of excitement, so I don’t think motivation will be an issue on Friday night; it will just be about harnessing the energy the right way.”
The Rangers have struggled so far this campaign, currently sitting eighth in the conference with a record of 3-4-0-1.
Although the season is still young, Spott understands that the expectations placed on an organization like Kitchener are high, regardless of the team’s early road grind.
With the likes of NHL first-rounders Ryan Murphy (Carolina), Radek Faksa (Dallas), and Matt Puempel (Ottawa), as well as U.S. world junior goaltender John Gibson (Anaheim second rounder) and Oilers fourth-round pick Tobias Rieder, the Rangers have been projected to battle with London and Plymouth for the conference crown.
As a result, Spott made no excuses for the mediocrity of his star-studded cast.
“The real issue that we have had is that our best players have not been our best players,” said the fifth-year coach, who replaced current New Jersey Devils bench boss Peter de Boer.
“When you go on the road you need your veteran players to be the difference. We have enough guys on this team who know they have to be better, and to this point, although we’re still in the hunt, I don’t think you can call this a successful start to the year.”
He specifically pointed to two players that were expected to be leaders and offensive producers this season yet have underachieved.
One is captain Murphy, the gifted offensive defenceman that many believe to be a lock for either a Canadian world junior spot or a strong chance at making the NHL, who has only one assist through eight games.
The other is the Edmonton prospect Rieder, a German national junior member who led the team in scoring by 15 points a season ago but only has two goals to date.
Despite the frustrating start, there is plenty to be optimistic about for the franchise that dates its foundation back to 1947.
“They have been great,” Spott said regarding how the team has handled the long road trip.
“Our veteran players knew the challenges that we were going to have starting last February, and they have handled it with complete professionalism. They have never used the facility issue as an excuse so I have to give our older guys a lot of credit.”
On the ice Puempel and Faksa have formed an elite combination, making up for the lack scoring by netting 10 of Kitchener’s 17 goals.
Gibson and his partner Franky Palazzese have also delivered on their promise of being the best goaltending tandem in the OHL, both posting save percentages over .922 and goals-against-averages under 2.39.
As for the slow start Spott sees no benefit in complaining.
“We’ll just have to move forward,” he said.
“Coming into the new facility here and playing our home building for the first time this year, I think it’s going to create a lot of positive energy.
“[The Aud] looks fantastic, and we’re excited to get into it tomorrow.”