As the Alberta Junior Hockey League prepares for another season, it’s 47th of on-ice excitement, fans might wonder if this campaign might represent a bit of a changing of the guard as far as traditional powerhouses are concerned.
The Spruce Grove Saints are coming off three incredible seasons which saw the club register 132 outright wins. That success culminated last year with an Enerflex Cup championship in a tough seven game tussle with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons.
This season, the Saints could fall victim to their own success. Many key players – even those with remaining eligibility – are off to opportunities elsewhere. To top that off, coach and GM Steve Hamilton, who charted the course of the club’s recent successes, has left the club for an assistant’s position with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL.
While the Saints are in no danger of going first to worst, it is fair to say they will be hard pressed to repeat. And this is due in large part to improvements, building and re-tooling by other clubs in the AJHL – north and south.
The Oil Barons are deep in returnees which means they will certainly contend for a title.
Grande Prairie lost some key offensive players and goaltending from their second place in the north and overall performance from a year ago, but have returned some solid performers and made many acquisitions to bolster a solid and size-rich lineup.
The Bonnyville Pontiacs continue on a steady path to consistent excellence and should be tough again this year.
St. Albert’s Steel are optimistic with a nice injection of young players to push key returning vets.
Drayton Valley gets a second full campaign under Fran Gow, another team building with youth.
Lloydminster, with Brian Curran at the helm, showed a solid improvement at the end of last season and will be a tough customer each contest.
The Sherwood Park Crusaders, after shuffling their front office, are in a bit of a rebuilding mode, but will certainly be a tough test every night.
Cue the South and the Camrose Kodiaks who have been gearing to host the Royal Bank Cup at the end of the season. Given Boris Rybalka’s pedigree in Camrose, it would be hard to bet against the Kodiaks this AJHL season, but they know it will not be easy.
Okotoks has been a franchise steadily rising and they are coming off of a division crown.
Canmore is another team which has been building to a crescendo, coming off of a good stretch run last season.
The Brooks Bandits look to be a very strong challenger, with the front office solidified, a new rink and new uniforms too.
Don Phelps’ Calgary Canucks are always a solid bet and should be again this year, while the cross-city rival Royals are no more, instead the Calgary Mustangs are born in an effort to change the culture of a club that has struggled for several years.
Drumheller is taking the next step in a growth plan that saw the club struggle at times last year, but returns a solid vet group and youthful talent.
Olds looks to be in rebuilding mode, having made a change in their front office, but the club still has a stack of talent on the rosters and will pose a test each night.
So in other words, it’s night-in, night-out in the AJHL South once again.
Here is a team by team rundown with last year’s standings in brackets:
Brooks Bandits (28-27-1-4, 61 pts, 5th in South)
Ryan Papaioannou has had the interim tag removed from his title and now is firmly in charge of the Bandits bench and front office.
“I would expect our club to compete on the top half of the division,” says Papaioannou.
“That said, we will need strong goaltending from Jan Obernesser (8-10-4, 3.43 GAA, 91.12 S%) who picks up the chores from Rob Gunderson (Alaska Anchorage).
“That will translate out to our players. We have a group thus far that is very focused and is full of quality people.”
Papaioannou signed a three-year deal and in turn hired all new staff. Bryan Dube (Assistant Coach/Strength and Conditioning Coach), Arthur Murray (Head Trainer), Brett Goulet (Assistant Coach/Head Recruiter), and Nick Degaetano (Goaltending Consultant).
“We also are in the Centennial Regional Arena for our first full season starting with home opener on Sept. 17 vs. Calgary Mustangs. We have a new website going live the first week of September and also will be wearing a new-look uniform,” he said.
Key departures include Cullen Bradshaw (Trail), Brad Deagle (Lloydminster), Steve Dobbin (Lloydminster), Tyler Skauge (Camrose), RJ Reed (Vancouver Giants), Mike Zgraggen (Quesnel), Connor Bradshaw (Melfort), and Richard Hubscher (Estevan).
The team was busy in the offseason picking up Devin Mitzner (Estevan/Dauphin), Cory Kloss (Camrose), Lane Menage (Coquitlam), Jeremy Burns (Camrose), Matt Wilkins (Trail), and Mitch Kaufmann (Trail).
Papaioannou likes his youth with recruits Kirsten Odendaal (Red Deer Midget AAA), Matt Tyson (Spokane KIJHL), and Anthony Paskaruk (AC Avalanche Midget AAA Minor).
“Everyone’s work ethic will always play a major role in our success. We want to build a ‘team’ atmosphere with leadership and accountability as our values. If we do that we will be successful.”
Calgary Canucks (29-27-3-1, 62 pts, 4th in South)
“Guardedly optimistic,” is the winningest coach in AJHL history Don Phelps, who directs his storied Calgary Canucks into yet another AJHL campaign.
The Calgary club, boasting famous grads such as Dany Heatly, made big waves in the AJHL south last year down the stretch and should contend for a division title this campaign.
With key returnees such as J.R. Baird (40 pts) and Kevin Mills (30 pts) leading a veteran crew, the Canucks hope to build on a strong campaign from a year ago.
” We had a lot of success last season and, the nature of the business we’re in, that means we lose some key players (John Dunbar, 80 pts) early to scholarship (Quinnipac), but that’s our role and we understand that'” says Phelps.
The club made no significant off-season moves, says Phelps, they concentrate on local Calgary talent, but he says the club has enjoyed a strong camp and exhibition season.
If there is a question it will be in goal, with the team still carrying a bevy of tenders seeking to grab a spot.
“Solid goaltending is really the key down the line… and right now….we’re looking to find those guys, but we’re confident we will,” he said.
Calgary Mustangs (formerly Royals; 21-29-2 -8, 52 pts, 7th in South)
The biggest off-ice story in the AJHL this season was the renaissance of the Calgary Royals in the form of a new name, logo, jersey and organizational structure.
Born are the Mustangs, and returning coach/GM Jeff Peters hopes to maintain the positive strides accomplished last season and combine that with dispelling the stigma of a losing tradition, one suffered by the Royals over the past several years. How much impact has the changeover had in the area of hockey operations?
” It’s a work in progress,” says Peters who understand that simply changing a name and logo doesn’t get the job done. The club returns a very strong core unit in players such as forwards Alex Kromm (35 pts), John Lidgett (35 pts) and Simon Skrudland (26 pts). And while it will be tough to replace departing vets such as captain Brad Drobot, Jeff Collett, Cam Lamoreux and others, Peters is committed to making the franchise transition more than a fly-by -night gimmick.
“It will take some time, we know that, but our goal is to keep on improving year to year, make our mistakes and learn from those to sustain our success.”
Camrose Kodiaks (32 -17 -4-7, 75 pts, 2nd in South)
The Camrose Kodiaks could be coming into the AJHL campaign as AJHL south champs in a season they will host the Royal Bank Cup come April 2011.
They could have.
But a struggle in the stretch of 3-4-1-2 combined with a red-hot Okotoks club’s 7-1-1-1, left them second.
Nevertheless, Boris Rybalka’s team is gearing for not only an RBC host gig, but a run at a league championship as well.
New assistant GM Darcy Steen says the added dynamic of the RBC is a huge blip on the radar for Camrose; having said that, nobody wants to back into a national championship.
“What Boris has done here, is incredible, and really, the national championship the club did win, didn’t have any outstanding superstars… it was all the skaters, two goalies, good team defence, everyone working together … and that’s what makes that kind of success really special,” says Steen, who comes to his Camrose position via Hockey Canada.
In addition to a solid returning group, the club has added top young prospects such as Sam Jardine of the Red Deer AAA Midget Rebels.
Returning forwards include Clayton Jardine (43 pts), Kenny Bradley (37 pts), and Rylan Wiest (24 pts).
On defense, Nolan Kaiser (35 pts) and Ben Gallacher (22 pts) will be key.
Backstopping the unit, Dalyn Flette returns (3-2-2, 3.68 GAA, 88.98 S%) and will be challenged by newcomer Devon Dell.
“In an RBC season, the challenges are many, both on and off the ice,” says Steen.
” We, as an organization, have been aggressive right out of the gate, even now in the exhibition season, to be active and out there in the community, with our fans and our sponsors, because we know that partnership is important to grow,” he says.
The added spotlight of NHL draftees Joe Colborne (Boston) and Dylan Olsen (Chicago) doesn’t hurt either, and with more than it’s share of scholarships, Steen says playing junior A hockey in central Alberta seems to make all kinds of sense.
“Boris has the experience to continue to deliver the product on the ice, and at the end of the day, that is key… we don’t want to go into the championship (RBC) through the backdoor, we want an AJHL title, a Doyle Cup and be the last one standing,” says Steen.
Canmore Eagles (26-26-3-5, 60 pts, 6th in South)
Coach/GM Andrew Milne knows his Eagles are building to a crescendo, but like other clubs, sometimes a little success is a dangerous thing.
After a solid playoff run last season, the Eagles had to say goodbye to the league’s top south netminder, rookie and all-star Sam Brittain, drafted in the NHL by Florida 92nd overall, and who is off to a full scholarship at the University of Denver with the Pioneers. Nevertheless, the Canmore club does return a large group of vets.
They include Cody Cartier (55 pts), Tyler Horton (37 pts) to carry the mail up front. On the blueline, the club returns three 18 year-olds from last years club led by Chris Muscoby (17 pts). Brittain’s heir apparent is Steve Papciak who has two years experience with the club, little game experience, but this season he will be expected to lead.
The club also acquired some size and toughness in 20-year-old Ben Bitz from the Flin Flon Bombers of the SJHL.
“He’ll add some character and leadership to the group and help us continue to build a solid work ethic,” says Milne.
The team, says Milne, is built for speed, like many of the others in the south division, but quickness and execution become even more paramount.
” We’re not the biggest nor most physical club in the AJHL, but we hope our skill set and systems combined with effort will be key,” he says.
“For us in Canmore, we want to be a big part of the community, providing role models and inspiration to young hockey players who maybe, didn’t think they could compete at this level. Sam (Brittain) was a great ambassador for our club that way, he has an awesome opportunity in front of him, and we just work to create more of the same opportunities for other young hockey players.”
Drumheller Dragons (17-37-0-6), 40 pts, 8th in South)
Coach/GM Dan Price is happy with the look of his Dragons heading into the campaign.
Building on a model from a year ago, the affable head man likes what he sees coming out of camp.
“I have been really impressed with the returning crew because they have set a tone, a culture, a real strong competitive leadership group, and they’re really good people too,” he said. “That is filtering down to the younger players,” which is key he says.
The Dragons had their problems last year finishing last in the south and missing the playoffs, but the continuity and consistency of the message will certainly mean improvements for the club this campaign. For returning core groups in the south, it’s tough to match the Dragons up front. Their top scoring line of Robert Geddes (37 pts), Evan Warner (33 pts) and Mike Marianchuk (21 pts) all return with a little more experience under the collective belt.
On defence, the team also retains a solid group.
While the team did lose vets such as top scorer Colin Bergman (Queens), Pat Turville (Concordia) and Scott Kennedy (MRC), Price is confident the team will make great strides both on and off the ice.
“Consistency and paying attention to detail – on and off the ice – will be for key for us,” says Price, who also notes the team returns veteran goaltenders in Andy Williams (6-16-3, 4.15 GAA, 88.98 S%) and Dylan Tate (4-6-1, 5.28 GAA, 86.67 S%) as well as midget standout Cole Cheveldave.
Okotoks Oilers (38-18-1-3, 80 pts, 1st in South)
Listening to Oilers head coach and GM Garry VanHereweghe you just feel the infectious excitement about his club. After a slow start last year, he came in and guided the club to a south title, third in the league overall and a semi-final berth, losing to the Oil Barons.
But is it possible to be another year younger, but better?
VanHereweghe seems to think so.
“Camp has gone very well, even better than we’ve anticipated and we have a lot of good young talent here to add to a very good returning group,” he says.
He adds the team will be a little younger, a little smaller, and a little faster than last year, because “that’s the way the game is going these days.”
He also says, to take the next step, the team will have to instil that intangible attitude – to compete and want to win more than the other team.
“I thought on paper, last year, Fort McMurray wasn’t necessarily any more talented than we were, but it just seemed like they were more hungry… that they wanted it a little more than we did,” he said.
Among key returnees are forwards Ben Gamache (30 pts), Jeff Barrett (31 pts) and Chris Korpach (27 pts), as well as forward Nolan Huysmans who has been one of the team’s best players in the exhibition season, VanHereweghe says.
Goaltending is the long suit, it would seem, where the team returns vets Sean Cahill (22-8-3 , 2 SO, 2.66 GAA, 91.15 S%) and Michael Matyass (13-8-1, 1 SO, 3.51GAA, 88.78 S%), and also adds the national champion midget goalie Riley Parker from Notre Dame’s squad of last season.
Olds Grizzlys (30-23-2-5, 67 pts, 3rd in South)
The once-national champs had a decent campaign last year finishing third in the south, but they have revamped the organization and that means bringing in Kevin Willison to run the show. For the past several years, he has been working with the Edge School in Calgary, but he sports an impressive resume including being an NHL draftee of the St. Louis Blues in the fifth round (72nd overall) in 1978, and he put up an impressive minor league career with the Salt Lake City Golden Eagles, Muskegon Lumberjacks and Milwaukee Admirals in the Blues system, winning several honours along the way. He went on to coaching stints in Milwaukee and with the Virginia Lancers of the ECHL.
Willison knows he has a young team, eight returning skaters, one goalie and a crop of young, fast players who he is excited to coach. Up front Chad Berglund (21 pts), Nicholas Bourgeois (26 pts), Taylor Bourne (27 pts) will anchor the club up front. A key aspect will be returning netminder Brayden Hopfe (8-12-1, 1 SO, 3.37 GAA, 88.82 S%).
“We understand we are going to have to compete hard every night to make the playoffs,” says Willison.
“I really believe our goal needs to be hard work, solid work ethic and to strive to be the kind of club that nobody likes playing against… always tough to play against, that will be key for us.”
With four 93-borns, three 92 borns, and a 94-born filling out the roster, Willison knows the Grizzlys are a work in progress and success won’t come easy, but adds he welcomes the opportunity to be part of a proud franchise that has enjoyed national success. He hopes to get there again.
“Perhaps we can recreate a little of that magic… but it will take a little time and a lot of hard work,” he says.
Bonnyville Pontiacs (27-29-2-2, 58 pts, 5th in North)
The Pontiacs continue to build the franchise to an annual contender, having made the top four in the north two of the last three seasons. They’ve also progressed to the second round of the playoffs twice as well, something not accomplished in the team’s previous 17 years.
While the club will miss vet forwards Shaun Bates (Merrimac), and Lucas Isley (Regina), and defender Matthew Register (Alabama Huntsville) among others, Coach/GM Chad Mercier says it is time for up-and-comers to shine.
“We set out to build consistency, work hard and compete every year, and I think we have done that,” says Mercier.
“But it gets tougher every year because of our division and our league – all teams are doing the same thing,” he adds.
Mercier welcomes back five veteran defenders which should anchor his lineup. Also key in returning is between the pipes where Julien Laplante (51 GP, 24-23-2, 2.77 GAA, 91.11 S%) is back.
Other players Mercier has identified as key returnees include C Tyler Henry (48 pts), LW Marc-Andre Juneau (44 pts), and LW Devon Kalinski (42 pts).
Mercier likes his depth and looks forward to challenge of keeping that building to crescendo in play.
“Taking that next step is always the toughest,” he said.
Drayton Valley Thunder (12-42-3-3, 30 pts, 7th in North)
When Fran Gow and assistant Mike Mueller took over the Thunder going into last season, it was a pretty bleak assignment.
The once- proud Thunder, which captured an AJHL championship early in its existence, had fallen on hard times, a revolving door of coaches, and while the Thunder were unable to climb the stairs out of the basement last season, the team certainly took tangible strides to get back to contender status in the division.
The club returns key vets F Eric Sieben (21 pts), D Shane Oatway (26 pts), F Nathan Smith (36 pts), D Dalton Reum (8 pts) and F Shawn Proulx (13 pts) to anchor a solid, yet young, group.
“We’re still a young team, and it takes time to build success, but we have good core here and we’re building on our accomplishments from last season,” says Gow.
Helping that growth will be between the pipes where the team has acquired Joey Quattrocchi from Fort McMurray. Last year he posted impressive numbers, with 34 games played (18-10-2, 2 shutouts, 2.82 GAA and 90.56 S%) so the Thunder will be depending on solid play at the back.
The team has lost some key players such as Jordan Martinook to the Vancouver Giants, Benji Rubin (York), F Daniel Cobb (Plattsburgh), F Ben Lauder, and G Braely Torris (U Southern Maine).
While still in rebuilding mode, the Thunder could surprise opponents this AJHL campaign.
Fort McMurray Oil Barons (37-19-1-3, 78 pts, 3rd in North)
Gord Thibodeau parlayed a good young regular-season team into a great playoff team last year. Lurking in the upper-middle of the AJHL North, the team geared for playoffs and knocked off arch-rival Grande Prairie in the second round, beat Okotoks in the crossover round and took eventual champs Spruce Grove to a seventh game before falling to the Saints.
That’s a wakeup call for the rest of the league as the MOB return a high number of players from that club, including Thibodeau who was rumoured to be on the move to any number of vacant coaching positions.
“We have a veteran club and expect to compete for a top 4 position in the AJHL north,” says Thibodeau.
While the club will miss forwards Brooks Robinson (Quinnipiac) and Branden Gracel (UMass), along with top blueliner Brad Stebner (Michigan Tech), the Oil Barons return a solid nucleus.
Topping that list is goaltender Jesse Kallechy (18-6-2, 3 SO, 2.53 GAA, 91.97 S%) allowing the MOB to deal Quattrocchi. Add to that list D Brendan Wright (19 pts), forwards Ben Lake (51 pts) and Markus Gerbrandt (56 pts); and the addition of defenders Brock Maschmeyer (Bobcats, 18 pts) and Drew McLaughlin and forward Carson Cooper (Saints, 21 pts, part of the Quattrocchi deal also) and the MOB look solid as ever.
Add Tom Keca (Bobcats) as an assistant on the bench and as Assistant GM and the Barons look well poised.
“Our key to success will be the ability to build off the long playoff run of last season,” says Thibodeau.
Grande Prairie Storm (40-17-1-2, 83 pts, 2nd in North)
The Storm had a tremendous campaign last year coming in as defending league champs, and finished a strong year – second in the north and overall. But their season came to a crashing halt at the hands of the Oil Barons in the second round.
Gone are offensive weapons such as forwards Zahn Raubenheimer (Nebraska), Dennis Rix (Michigan Tech) and Travis Dunstall, defenders Matt Williams (Niagara) and Adam Young, and goaltender Chad Carder.
Having said that, the feisty GP crew returns forwards Tanner Fritz (54 pts), who has an Ohio State U scholarship in his pocket, along with Darren Kramer (30 pts, 311PIM), Daniel Correale (39 pts), defenders Caylen Walls (8 pts), Josh Phillips (7 pts), and Matt Cumming (10 pts), and were typically busy in the off season bringing in forwards Jordan Forfar, John Girman and Spencer Mault along with defenders Ben Woodley, Jeff Clark, Nick Yeatman.
As per the norm, Mike Vandekamp’s club will stake its hopes on tenacity, work ethic and physical play and they definitely got bigger on the blue line.
The one big question mark is in goal where the club returns no backstops and at press time continue to carry several in camp.
“We expect to be hard working and difficult to play against every night,” says Vandekamp who points to continuity on the coaching staff as well, unchanged from last year.
“We have identified character and work ethic as our number one priorities. We want to be better defensively this season than we were last season and a more difficult team to play against.”
It’s the team-first approach, says Vandekamp. “Any success that we will have this season will come from hard work and playing a strong team game.”
Lloydminster Bobcats (19-32-2-7, 47 pts, 7th in North)
When Brian Curran came to the Border City late in last year’s campaign, he wanted to change the face of the Bobcats and more importantly bring a winning attitude and culture for the community, the club and its fans.
So he has challenged a decent veteran presence to bring discipline and leadership to the room this season.
“We have to work hard on and off the ice to bring winning ways,” says Curran, who enjoyed great success when he was in charge of the Brooks Bandits.
Curran, a former NHLer, says the team will need to maintain solid structure , play strong defensively and have a good transitional game to be successful.
The Bobcats will depend on vets such as Steve Dobbin (46 pts in Brooks), Kevin Deagle (16 pts in Brooks), Guili Glasspoole, Michael Heffner (22 pts), Kory Chisholm (23 pts), Cooper Limb (33 pts), Kyle Bowen (17 pts), Jeremie Perron (17 pts), and Kyle Harris (27 pts as rookie).
Curran says an influx of strong young talent will augment a pretty good looking club.
They’ll have to, to replace the likes of Brody Foster (Manhatanville), Garrett Sheehan and Erik Toews though.
“The Lloydminster Bobcats will be a very competitive team and by the end of the season will shock some teams!,” says Curran.
“And who knows from there, maybe a championship!!”
St. Albert Steel ( 24 -29-2-5, 55 pts, 6th in North)
The Men of Steel are not long of tooth, says returning head coach/GM Greg Parks. With only two returning 20-year-olds, he says this season is the perfect opportunity for some young players to step up and push veterans. “We’re a very young team, no question, so we’ll have to work hard each night, grind it out, play hard and hope we peak come playoff time,” says Parks.
Gone from last year’s club are key vets Daniel Carr, Bryce Williamson (top scorer, Bowling Green) and Ryan Edens (Fredonia State).
The Steel do return key veteran talent in Reed Linaker (81 pts), Spencer Pommells (37 pts as a rookie), defender Ryan Wilkinson (23 pts), defender Jesse Altheim (145 PIM), and Derek Bacon, who they picked up in a deal from Victoria in the BCHL.
Also acquired via the trade route was goaltender Rhys Hadfield (former GP Storm property) from the Nanaimo Clippers, who has played well in exhibition and will push for the starting job against Chris Sharkey (6 -8 -1, 4.32 GAA, 87.65 S%) and Chad Ketting 7 -8-3, 3.93 GAA, 89.19 S%).
“I think if we play the way we can, we can legitimately battle for a home-ice playoff spot (Top 4), and as long as we continue to improve throughout the season, I believe we can do that.”
Sherwood Park Crusaders (33-18-2-7, 75 pts, 4th in North)
Another north division club with a new head coach/GM who has moved from the assistant’s ranks is the Cru who welcome Tim Fragle as their head man. He takes over for Ross Kenny. While the Crusaders will be a young team, they also return some veteran talent including 20-year-olds Josh Lee (35 pts), Bryan Frost and Adam Burns (13 pts apiece).
The team also returns goalie Pat Terriss after an exceptional rookie season (13-5 -1, 2 SO, 2.52 GAA, 92.55 GAA), who picks up from graduating Matt Esposito.
Up front, the team returns six forwards and should be lead offensively by returning center Chris Kallal (58 pts) and wingers Mike Small (51 pts) and Jessi Hilton (18 pts).
Fragle says his club expects to be battling for home ice advantage in the north division.
“The keys to this occurring would be strength of goaltending, experienced defenseman and secondary scoring by committee,” says Fragle.
“The Crusaders must play a complete team game to have any success this season.”
Spruce Grove Saints (52-4 -1 -3, 108 pts, 1st in North, AJHL, Enerflex Cup winners)
The Saints have posted heady numbers the past two seasons, setting record benchmarks and capturing the league title last season, before falling just short in the Doyle Cup against eventual RBC champs, the Vernon Vipers.
While graduating big-name talent – Kodie Curran (Western), Malcolm Tomlinson, Jordan Draper (York), Brett Cameron and Nate Fleming (York), Dillon Simpson (North Dakota), Adam Henderson (Alaska Fairbanks), Josh Lazowski ( Oil Kings camp) and Wes Mcleod (Anchorage-Alaska), the returning group does have championship experience.
That group is headed up by top goaltender Vince Marozzi (26-1-4, 7 SO, 1.67 GAA, 93.14 S%) who teamed with Travis Rolheiser (York) for two years of goaltending excellence.
In addition, the team picked up defender Nick Scott (26 pts) from the Drumheller Dragons to “help make up the fabric of our team this year,” says new bench boss and GM Jason Mckee, who is in his fifth year with the franchise, having moved up from assistant.
Former Sherwood Park standout Mike Ringrose, who previously coached the Leduc Midget AAA, joins the club as an assistant. Don’t expect Mckee to use all of the changes and graduation as an excuse anytime soon though. “New Year – New Team -New Challenges – Same Expectations,” he says.
FRED RINNE – SUN MEDIA