Despite getting swept in the Chinook Hockey League final by the arch-rival Bentley Generals last season, the Innisfail Eagles believe they were a goal or two away from advancing in their quest for the Allan Cup.
Two of their final two losses came in overtime, as their all-star goalie Jonathan Larose was out-played by Generals starter Travis Yonkman.
“That series could have gone either way, but their goalie stood on his head and that was the difference in that round,” said Eagles head coach Brian Sutter, following his team’s 3-1 loss to the Bentley Generals on Sunday in Innisfail.
Their biggest move this offseason was to bolster the crease.
They brought in Steven Stanford who is transferring from the University of British Columbia to the University of Calgary and due to Canadian Interuniversity Sport rules had to take a year off from playing at the level.
The Calgary native played in 168 games with the Prince Albert Raiders and the Saskatoon Blades from 2007-2011. But it was his final two seasons with the Blades where he found his comfort level, posting a 2.64 goals against average in 2009-10, and a 2.78 G.A.A. the following season, leading the club to the second round of the playoffs in both seasons.
He split games in his first year at UBC, but took over as starter in his third year — in the process he helped make Thunderbirds hockey matter again in a CanadaWest conference dominated by the likes of the University of Alberta Golden Bears, the U of C Dinos and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
But with his fiancée back home, he felt the tug to return to Cowtown.
“I came here to get better and be ready next season for the Dinos,” said Stanford. “This is really good, I was impressed, I’ve heard a lot about Bentley and how good they are, they’re a good team. It was fun to play.”
UBC’s loss is Innisfail’s gain for at least one season.
“He was one of the top goalies in junior hockey for three or four years prior to playing out (at UBC), he may have been the best,” said Sutter of Stanford, who made 46 saves in his Innisfail debut on Sunday. “He was awesome tonight, and that’s what we need.”
One of their biggest weaknesses last year was their offence. They were led in scoring by veteran defenceman and captain Joe Vandermeer with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 23 games. Christopher Neurater was their leading forward with 17 points (8-9-17) in 21 games.
Both are back, as is Chad Ziegler (12-3-15 in 14 games) with high expectations for his second year on the team.
“We’ve lost a few guys, but that’s OK, we’ve got enough character guys with guys like Zeigler who are leaders,” said Sutter.
Another addition that could prove interesting is 32-year-old Regina native Mike Wirll, who spent the last three seasons playing in the Elite Ice Hockey League — the United Kingdom’s top level of hockey. He topped out with 78 points (35-43-78) in 57 games in 2012-13 while playing for the Dundee Stars.
Meanwhile, Mike Bomersback is already proving effective, scoring a hat-trick in his first game with the Eagles, a 6-3 loss to the Okotoks Drillers on Friday. The 32-year-old forward has spent the last several years bouncing around Europe.
The roster is filled out with several more young players with like Ty Clay, Travis Dunstall, Ashton Reinboldt, Vince Connon, Matt Hunter, Brendan Baumgartner and Aaron Elaschuk.
All are looking to prove themselves at this level.
“They’re obviously playing here because they haven’t made it at a different level, but this is good minor league hockey, it’s a test of courage and an understanding of what it takes to win,” said Sutter.
Vandermeer says he sees potential in the group of new players, but there is still some adjusting that needs to take place.
“They’ve got a lot to learn here, they have to realize it’s a man’s league here, and I think it’s a lot quicker game than a lot of them thought it would be,” he said. “It’s good to get them in with exhibition and get a taste of it to start with here.”
One thing is for sure, the Eagles are not looking at this season as a rebuilding campaign, but more as a reloading season.
“We want to be at the final game at the end of the year.” said Vandermeer.
“It’s the same as anybody’s expectations at the start of the year in the league, that’s where we want to be.”