Tri-City Herald: Toyota Center not kind to visitors

By Annie Fowler | Tri-City Herald

The Tri-City Americans proclaim to have “the desert’s coolest game.”

For the five teams in the Western Conference’s B.C. Division, playing at Toyota Center is like a trip to Death Valley. All that’s missing is the buzzards flying overhead.

Collectively, the B.C. Division is 9-40 over the last five years at Toyota Center.

“I don’t think it’s about the place, but the team they have had, said Kelowna coach Ryan Huska, whose team is 1-9 against the Americans during the stretch. “Over the last five years, they haven’t been a mediocre team — they are hard to play against. The credit goes to the team (Ams general manager Bob) Tory has put together.”

The Rockets are the first B.C. Division team this season to try and change its luck at Toyota Center, playing tonight at Tri-City.

Kelowna has not won a regular-season game at Toyota Center since Feb. 25, 2006, a span of eight games.

“That’s just a statistic,” Tory said of the B.C. Division’s record. “We don’t focus on one division versus another. The focus is on getting better each week and preparing for the next game. With that said, this building is tough to play in with the crowd. It’s loud and creates an environment that is difficult for other teams.”

The Toyota Center doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of some WHL arenas. Instead, there is a decade-old layer of dust on the rafters and the cooling system for the ice is on life support, but for the players it’s their security blanket.

With that comfort zone has come three consecutive U.S. Division titles, a Scotty Munro trophy and a Western Conference banner.

“This is one of the smallest buildings in the Western Conference, but we are the loudest,” Tory said. “The atmosphere creates excitement. There is not a better atmosphere in the league than right here.”

And the attendance numbers reflect that. Last year, the Americans drew 161,284 fans, the team’s best numbers since the 1991-92 season.

And when the B.C. Division teams roll into town, the crowds come out to watch. Each team makes just two trips to Kennewick each season.

“I’ve been in the league 14-15 years and I love playing in Tri-City,” Prince George coach Dean Clark said. “The fans are so into it. The games are competitive and the atmosphere is great.”

While the B.C. Division has had its share of problems the last five years, so have a lot of other teams. During that span, the Americans were 132-41-2-5 on home ice — a winning percentage of 73.3.

“There aren’t a lot of other teams in the league that have that kind of home record,” Tory said.

Last year, the Americans swept Kamloops, Kelowna, Prince George and Vancouver, while splitting with Chilliwack.

Vancouver has had the best luck the last five years at 4-6. Kamloops is 2-8, Chilliwack 2-7 and Prince George 0-10.

Kamloops last won at Tri-City on Dec. 9, 2008, while Vancouver beat the Americans on Dec. 13, 2008.

Prince George has gone through a few coaches since the Cougars last won at Toyota Center on Nov. 2, 2003. The span reaches 13 games, which includes a 3-3 tie on Feb. 6, 2004. PG will make its first trip to Kennewick this season Oct. 30.

“In junior hockey, everything cyclical,” said Clark, who also lost his share of games at Toyota Center as coach of the Kamloops Blazers (2003-07). “At one time, Tri-City was tough, then they weren’t and now they are again. Bob has done a really good job retooling his team. They always seem to have a premier goaltender and they play well at home. You add all that up and it equals 9-40.”

Tri-City coach Jim Hiller, who spent three years behind the Chilliwack bench before taking over the Americans last year, said there are two things that play into the B.C. Division’s record.

“The fans are tremendous and the teams have been good,” said Hiller, whose Tri-City team was 27-9-0-0 on home ice last season. “The numbers don’t lie. As a visiting team, you want to establish yourself in the first period. They can score goals quickly and the fans really get into it. Once that happens, its hard to get back in the game.”

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