The Red Deer Rebels have high hopes heading into this Friday’s home opener at the Enmax Centrium against the Medicine Hat Tigers.
After winning the 2001 Memorial Cup in Regina, the Rebels were disappointed to lose to the eventual Canadian Hockey League champion Kootenay Ice last season.
The Rebels compiled a 46-18-7-1 record last season and then went on another playoff run all the way to the Western Hockey League championship series where they eventually lost in six games to the Ice.
“We’re a little disappointed last year on how our season ended, but give regards to Kootenay,” said last year’s team captain Doug Lynch, who is one of 18 eligible players to return this season. “It kind of left a bitter taste in a lot of guy’s mouths over the summer.”
Although he’s currently attending the Edmonton Oilers training camp this month, Lynch expects to be back in the Rebels lineup for a fourth consecutive year.
“Obviously being a veteran here, I know what the coaching staff wants and what the city here expects and what we expect of ourselves,” said the 19-year-old defenseman. “I’ve been with Brent (Sutter) for four years now so I understand the program inside and out. If I can help some of the young guys come in and feel more comfortable on the ice and off the ice, I’d like to do that along with the other veterans we’ve got here.”
Provided that both Lynch and Philadelphia Flyer prospect Jeff Woywitka return to their Major Junior squad after attending their respective NHL camps, the Rebels are in the enviable position of having all six of their top defensemen on the ice for another season.
Lynch, Woywitka and 20-year-old Bryce Thoma are eligible to return for their fourth seasons in Red Deer.
“Any time you return your top six guys, you should be an improved unit,” said assistant coach Dallas Guame. “We’ve got some quality players back there. We’ve got some size. We’ve got some defensemen that can put quite a few points on the board and give us some offence. To a man all six of them have played solid defense.”
Derek Meech will be back for his third campaign, while Dion Phaneuf and Cody Holzapfel are entering their second seasons in the WHL.
On his way to training camp Aug. 28, Holzapfel was involved in a car accident in which his vehicle rolled up to six times.
“We have no idea how long he’s going to miss,” Guame said. “He’s broken both his arms. We don’t anticipate Cody playing any time in the near future. We’re thankful that he’s still with us No. 1 and No. 2 let’s hope for a quick recovery and a full recovery.”
Rookies looking to make an impact on the blueline are Jesse Zetariuk and Ryan Blatchford.
Although both of Red Deer’s top scorers from last season – Mikhail Yakubov (32g, 57a) and Colby Armstrong (27g, 41a) – have graduated to the professional level, the Rebels have a host of young forwards eligible to return.
Included in that group are NHL draft picks Boyd Gordon (2002, 1st round, Washington Capitals), Joel Stepp (2001, 3rd round, Anaheim Mighty Ducks), Ladislav Kouba (2002, 7th round, Phoenix Coyotes) and Shay Stephenson (2001, 9th round, Edmonton Oilers).
Earlier this month, Stepp underwent wrist surgery and won’t return to the Red Deer lineup until at least November.
Second-year forwards Colin Fraser, Derek Endicott, Chris Neiszner and Jason Ertl are hoping to improve upon their rookie campaigns, while veteran 20-year-olds Carsen Germyn and Diarmuid Kelly are also in the mix.
Add to that a pair of talented prospects in Matt Ellison, who tied for the scoring lead last season in the British Columbia Hockey League with 117 points, and Finnish import Masi Marjamaki and Sutter is optimistic about the upcoming season.
“We’re going to be fine,” said the Rebels head coach and general manager, noting that the returning forwards had to battle for spots during the pre-season with a host of rookies looking to secure a roster spot.
One of those rookies is 16-year-old forward Kyle Ross out of Regina, who scored a goal and added an assist in Red Deer’s 6-2 pre-season loss to the Calgary Hitmen on Sept. 4 in Airdrie.
“He’s going to be a really good player in this league,” said Sutter of Ross. “He’s got to continue to show that through our next three exhibition games for us.”
Ellison is in the enviable position of being a WHL rookie with a host of junior experience having had such a productive year with the Capitals last season.
“I feel I can adapt pretty well,” said Ellison, who scored the tying goal in the third and then set up the winner in overtime during Red Deer’s 5-4 victory over the Calgary Hitmen on Sept. 14. “I’m just looking forward to starting. Last year, I benefited because I had Greg Adams and Doug Bodger (as coaches with the Cowichan Valley Capitals). They played 27 years combined in the NHL, so I had good coaches there.”
He’s now looking forward to showing what he can do to his new coach, one who can also draw from his lengthy NHL career.
“I’ll just go out and give it my all and hopefully they’ll go in,” said Ellison, who drew praise from Sutter for his effort in the pre-season.
Other rookie forwards on the roster heading into the season are Jared Walker and Curtis Billsten.
While the Carolina Hurricanes have high hopes for draft pick Cam Ward (2002, 1st round), the NHL squad recently returned the 18-year-old netminder is to the Rebels.
Ward now hopes to build upon his impressive rookie season in which he compiled an impressive record of 30-11-4 to go with a goals against average of 2.12 and a save percentage of .911.
“Chances are I’m going to be playing in Red Deer and that’s going to be my main goal,” said Ward, before heading into his first professional training camp with the ’Canes. “I’m going to see what Carolina has in mind for me. I’m just going to look forward to it and soak it in.”
Jason Stone is one of four 20-year-olds currently on the Rebels roster. He played the first half of Red Deer’s exhibition loss against the Hitmen, while rookie hopeful Adam Jennings, 17, of Victoria, played the second half.
“We’re in a situation where we have to make a decision on 20-year-olds at some point,” said Sutter, who has to trim his roster to three over-agers by mid-October. “Whether we want to go with a 20-year-old as a backup or exactly what we want to do, that decision will be made later on here as we go along. We’ll see what happens.”