Excitement builds as Eagles return to AAA
The Innisfail Eagles have had their sights set on returning to senior AAA hockey for some time now.
When Brian Sutter moved from the Bentley Generals to take over as the Eagles head coach last season, that goal become even more realistic.
“At one time we were at the AAA level, but we tried to incorporate more local players, so we dropped to the A-AA level,” explained Eagles president Randy Graham. “But we also had the ambition to return to AAA and when Brian came on board that sped up the process.”
The Eagles, who have been around since 1947, officially made the move this season, and while they have the talent to compete, they also realize they need to continue to improve before they can challenge for a national title.
That was evident in a 7-0 loss to the Generals in Chinook Hockey League action during the weekend.
“It was an eye-opener and made us realize if we want to win a championship we need to step up a notch,” said Graham, who is also a forward with the team. “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go,.”
Still Graham feels any team in the CHL can win on any given day.
“The mental part of the game is huge,” he said. “I believe any team in our league can beat any other team on a given day and it comes down to who’s ready to play. For us to play the defending Allan Cup champions right off the bat was a good bench mark.”
The Eagles spent most of the summer adding talent to their roster. That was aided with the addition of several players moving over from the Generals and the Sylvan Lake Admirals, who folded just before the CHL season.
“The addition of the players from Bentley certainly adds to our depth and leadership in the room,” said Graham.
Jim Vandermeer, Tyler Haarstad and Travis Dunnstall all played with last year’s Allan Cup champions while Kevin Smyth played several years for the Generals prior to moving to Innisfail last season.
“They’ve been there and know what it takes to win, that’s invaluable,” added Graham. “As well Dunnstall is a great addition offensively.”
Dunnstall, who played in the Western Hockey League with Kamloops and Medicine Hat, had five goals and nine helpers in 16 games with the Generals last season.
The Eagles also added defencemen Luke Boyer and Chris Neurauter and forward Aaron Boyer from last year’s Sylvan Lake squad.
“Overall we had 30 to 32 guys out, which makes for a lot of competition . . . it’s healthy to have,” said Graham.
The team has three goaltenders on hand, including veteran Jason Kipling, who joins Bryce Luker and Jonathan Larose.
“Last year Brian kept three goaltenders, so we may do the same again this year, I’m not sure,” offered Graham.
Team captain Tylor Keller, who played in the Alberta Colleges Men’s Hockey League with Camrose and Mount Royal, was team captain last year and leads the team in scoring this season with two goals and two assists in two games. Darrin Robak, a 21-year-old from Red Deer, who played last season with SAIT, is also expected to be an offensive force with the team.
“We have a lot of younger players this year, which makes for a good mix with the veterans,” said Graham, who is in his second year as president. However, he was with the team for years and a main cog in putting together the board of directors “four or five years ago.”
“I was chairman when they started the process,” he said.
Graham wasn’t playing at the time after suffering a bad injury when he was 26.
“I took nine years off but when Brian came here I got the itch to play again, so I went out just to see what would happen, and it’s been good.”
What Graham does is make sure he divides the player from the president.
“I try to separate the two. I don’t want my teammates to look at me as the president, but rather Randy the right winger. When it comes to the management of the team the on-ice side is run by Brian and Jason (general manager Lenz).”
The excitement around the team this season is at an all-time high.
“There’s a definite excitement in the room” said Graham. “The fans are talking about the team and we’ve received a lot of support from the Innisfail town council.”
The Eagles return to CHL play tonight when they host the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs at 8:30 p.m.