AJHL Weekend Preview: Opening Night 2015-2016

With the leaves changing colours and teams finalizing their rosters down to the smallest detail, the 2015-16 Alberta Junior Hockey League season will officially kick-off Friday with seven games on tap and 14 total for the weekend.

While the year won’t be won or lost on the first weekend of the season, each team will be looking to make a good impression to get the ball rolling as the season gains steam.

Fresh off their second straight Gas Drive Cup championship, the Spruce Grove Saints will begin their season for a third straight year when they travel to Fort McMurray to battle the Oil Barons for a pair of games, hoping consistency serves them well again. Quite interestingly, the Saints have lost their last two season openers before going on to win the AJHL title that same year.

Under the leadership of newly-minted captain Tyler Busch, the Saints will look to pick up where they left off in the AJHL regular season series against the MOB, where they went 5-0-1 last season.

At the MOB’s end of the rink, an era of change will begin for the team Friday night. Welcoming Tom Keca as their third head coach and general manager in three years, the team will be vastly different than the one iced at the end of last season, losing large chunks of their forward and defensive cores while also losing both Zach Fortin and backup Brett Lewchuk.

While the MOB ended up on the losing side of the season series more often than not, they did have the last laugh against the Saints last year, defeating their rivals in a crazy come-from-behind 5-4 victory at the 2015 Western Canada Cup in the last all-AJHL matchup of the 2014-15 CJHL season.

After winning two straight league titles of their own, the Viterra South Division champion Brooks Bandits had their title hopes crushed for a second straight season. With their sights set on success once again, the Bandits will begin their season with a home-and-home against the Canmore Eagles beginning Friday in Canmore.

Following three years of Michael Fredrick holding the duties in the Bandits’ net, Josh Davies will take control between the pipes this year. Backing him up with be Toronto, Ont. native Andrew Tucci, who is coming to the Bandits after a stellar prep school career in New England with Choate Rosemary Hall.

Speaking of good impressions, perhaps no North Division team faces the pressure to perform this year more than the Lloydminster Bobcats due to their Royal Bank Cup hosting duties in 2016. They’ll start their campaign with a benchmark test against the Bonnyville Pontiacs in a home-and-home series starting at the RJ Lalonde Arena Friday night.The Pontiacs knocked the Bobcats out of the AJHL playoffs in the second round last year and will be looking to continue their wave of momentum as they rode a strong second-half of the 2014-15 season into an appearance in the AJHL North Division Final. Returning a cast of talented players including Bobby McMann, Kyler Hehn as well Steenn and Brinson Pasichnuk, the Pontiacs will be looking to take a step forward.

The Bobcats have handied the head coaching duties to Gord Thibodeau for the RBC Cup year during the offseason. With a number of new recruits and returning players looking to make one lasting impression in a special year, the Bobcats would like to begin the season off on the right foot (or paw).

Entering year two of a rebuild under head coach Kevin Higo, the Grande Prairie Storm will welcome the Sherwood Park Crusaders to Revolution Arena for a pair of games to open the AJHL season for both clubs.

The Storm will return largely the same roster from last season, minus graduating player Stefen Seel while adding players like Brett McNeil and Luke Mahura among others. In a turbulent four years for the Storm, they’ve finished second in the division, seventh once and eighth twice. Higo took over the team last year and guided them to a 15-41-4 record. With his team now a year older and improved up front, the playoffs appear to be firmly in the sights of the Storm for the coming season.

For the Cru, the team will hand their leadership duties off to the next generation of players and hope they can carry the torch just as high as their predecessors. With the departure of forward Arthur Gordon, captain and defenceman Dane Phaneuf and goaltender Tommy Nixon, the core of Ryan Kruper, Brett Magee and Zac Klassen will represent the Cru this year with hopes of advancing past the second round, falling to the Saints in the second round each of the past three seasons.

As the top South Division team from the regular season, the Camrose Kodiaks will kick-off their season on the road, in Olds Friday against the Grizzlys before continuing to Drumheller Saturday to face the Dragons.

Friday’s matchup in Olds will be the first of two meetings within seven days between the Kodiaks and Grizzlys while the Kodiaks and Dragons won’t meet until Dec. 18 after their contest Saturday. For what it’s worth, the Kodiaks started the 2014-15 season with a victory against the Grizzlys so doing the same thing would keep optimism high heading into a long year.

For the Grizzlys, their lone battle for the opening weekend will come in Friday’s contest. Home openers for the Grizzlys have followed a funny pattern over the past four years. In those four years, the Grizzlys have opened the season at home, winning one game against a North Division opponent and one game against a South Division opponent while also losing a game to each division. All four of the games have also been decided by one goal, including Olds’ 4-3 loss to the Kodiaks to begin the 2014-15 season.

Drumheller will be looking for some redemption Saturday night against the Kodiaks following their second round playoff exit from last season at the hands of Camrose. Jacob Schofield is the Dragons’ leading points scorer left over from last year’s exodus of graduating players. After performing well between the pipes last season, Jonny Hogue will look to take over the starting duties for the Dragons this year with the graduation of Curtis Skip.

Before the Dragons host the Kodiaks, the Calgary Canucks will make their way north to the Drumheller Memorial Arena Friday night. The Canucks have missed the playoffs for three straight years — and four of the past five. Last year, the club lost their last four games and a tie-breaker to the Mustangs.

The Battle of Calgary will be renewed Saturday night when the Canucks serve as the home team to the Mustangs. As the first of two matches this month, bragging rights within the city and four important South Division points will be on the line. Last year, each team took three wins away from the season series.

For the Mustangs, they’ll be looking to extend their playoff streak last year, having gone 12-7-1 in January and February to earn their spot in the post-season. Goaltending will be a make-or-break for the Mustangs as they turn to a trio of 1997-born goalies after trading away Ravi Dattani to the MOB for defenceman Oliver Lester and future considerations during the offseason.

The remaining two teams in action over the weekend — the Whitecourt Wolverines and Drayton Valley Thunder — will open up their season series with a home-and-home beginning at the Scott Safety Centre Friday.

Both teams played their season series in the 2014-15 season incredibly close. Six of the seven games between the two clubs were decided by a single goal, including a wild 8-7 overtime victory for the Thunder in their last meeting Feb. 16. Three of the games went to overtime or a shootout with Whitecourt winning four of the games throughout the season.


Robert Murray