As the man in charge of putting together a championship-calibre team, Jeff McInnis worked overtime last summer.
“I spent more time on it than I should have and my career suffered. I have to get to work after this,” said the Bentley Generals general manager, as he celebrated the club’s Allan Cup championship on the Red Deer Arena ice surface Saturday.
McInnis not only changed the Generals roster, he raised eyebrows everywhere by replacing Brian Sutter as head coach with Brandin Cote. Sutter then took over behind the bench of the Innisfail Eagles, bringing former Generals assistant coaches Jason Lenz and Brian Stephenson with him.
“There were a lot of hard decisions last summer,” said McInnis. “Good men were exchanged for other good men. But we had to refresh, the refresh button had to be hit. And man oh man, it’s been wonderful.”
Indeed. McInnis was fully vindicated at the final buzzer Saturday, with the Generals posting a 3-0 win over the Clarenville Caribous. The GM who had the stones to make major changes last year felt a rather large jolt of relief.
“Absolutely, how can there not be (relief),” said McInnis. “ Not everybody, but darn near everybody questioned what I was doing, but I had to do what I did. Am I the first GM in the world to ever change coaches. At that time you’d think I was, but of course it happens all the time. It wasn’t his (Sutter’s) fault and it wasn’t hockey’s fault, it’s just the way it is.”
When the Generals started to come together for the just-completed season last September in Lacombe, there were a few new faces on hand. Forwards Dustin Sproat, Dustin Moore, Eric Schneider (who left in January to play in Germany), Matt Stefanishion and Chris Neiszner added instant offence, and Randall Gelech, Jeremy Colliton and former NHL winger Trent Hunter, who joined the team in November and January, further boosted the club’s scoring power.
Former Calgary Hitmen star Matt Kinch came on board in November to help stabilize the blueline and goaltender Dan Bakala, an all-star in this year’s Allan Cup tournament, was added to the roster in January.
With an enviable mix of talent and size, the host Generals were favoured to win their second Allan Cup — following the club’s initial Canadian senior men’s hockey championship in 2009 at Steinbach — in franchise history. Yet, the squad didn’t necessarily play up to expectations despite posting a 2-0 record in pool play, then advancing to Saturday’s final with a narrow 3-2 win over the Kenora Thistles Friday night.
The speedy Caribous, meanwhile, were coming off a 6-2 semifinal thrashing of the Rosetown Redwings and looked like a team capable of spoiling Bentley’s party. McInnis certainly took notice of the Newfoundland team.
“I’ve never come into an Allan Cup final thinking we’re such an underdog because of their (Caribous’) offence,” he said. “But this was much like the (tournament-opening) game against Rosetown (a 2-0 Bentley win) where we gave them very little, and the coaching staff should get credit for that. We were stifling and stingy and all those defence words. That’s how we had to play to shut down that offensive juggernaut.”
In the end, the cream rose to the top. Bentley was clearly the better team and the best team in the tournament.
The current edition, in fact, is the best in club history, said McInnis.
“Absolutely, we are very deep in forwards and we were healthy coming into the tournament,” he said. “Our conditioning was also a lot better than it’s been in the past, which is something we stressed when we picked up players this season. This tournament exposes conditioning, it really does. It’s a short tournament with older men playing.”
Generals captain Sean Robertson was a member of Allan Cup final losing teams in 2008 at Brantford, Ont., 2010 at Fort St. John, B.C., and a year later at Kenora, where Bentley fell to Clarenville in the championship tilt.
“We’ve had a lot of disappointment, three years of it,” said Robertson. “You’d almost rather lose in a semifinal than in the final, but this is everything I hoped and dreamed it would be.
“To win here is special . . . in our back yard, with our fans puling for us and getting to see it. That’s the biggest travesty — we go to Ontario or wherever and people don’t get to do this with us. It’s awesome.”
Just as the Generals were awesome when they absolutely needed to be.
“For sure, we saved our best for last. We were airtight tonight, as stingy as we’ve ever been,” said the Generals’ on-ice leader. “This was our best game of the year. It’s character, man and that speaks to Jeff McInnis and Brandin Cote for putting this team together. Character came first and we have a lot of guys who went to the wall and sacrificed themselves for the betterment of the team. That doesn’t happen very often in senior hockey.”
Scott Doucet just completed his third season with the Generals and was in the lineup the night they lost the 2011 Allan Cup final to Clarenville.
“But we definitely showed we were the better team today,” he said.
The Vancouver native and former (2006-08) Red Deer Rebels forward moved full time to Central Alberta in 2010 and has no plans to leave.
“I’ve put down roots down here and I’m calling it home,” said Doucet, who scored the second goal in Saturday’s final. “I’ve built some really good friendships, mainly with guys on this team. This is a really good team to be a part of and they really take care of you as an organization.”
Sproat, who along with Kinch, Hunter and Dustin Moore, hails from Red Deer, was all smiles while celebrating the national championship triumph in front of friends and family members.
“This is unreal, fantastic . . . we have such a great group of guys,” said the former AJHL (Drayton Valley Thunder) player, who attended Princeton University for three years and then played four years in the ECHL and one in England. “I grew up in Red Deer and to have the opportunity to come back and do this in front of so many of my old friends is amazing.”
“It’s really special when the players can celebrate with their wives and their kids,” added McInnis. “That’s what senior hockey is, a real family game. All of these people are somehow connected. There’s about an eighth of a degree of separation between the fans and the players.”