The rumours of their demise, as it appears, were greatly exaggerated.
Mildly popular off-season scuttlebutt amongst both senior hockey followers and casual observers revolved around the possibility and even likelihood that the Bentley Generals would take a step back in 2013-14.
After all, the Generals accomplished everything they possibly could last spring while hosting and winning the Allan Cup as the top senior AAA team in the country. Maybe, just maybe, several of the older players would retire or hook up with former coach Brian Sutter and the Innisfail Eagles, the management people would be OK with resting on their laurels and the Generals would be a good, but not great, team this season.
Those suggestions were off-base if the Generals’ regular-season opening games against the Fort Saskatchewwan Chiefs and Innisfail Eagles are accurate indicators. The Gens downed the Chiefs 4-3 at Fort Saskatchewan Saturday night and rolled over the visiting Eagles 7-0 Sunday afternoon.
To borrow a line from little Carol Anne in the fright film Poltergeist . . . They’re back.
“I heard that talk during the summer and it frustrated me,” Generals GM Jeff McInnis said in reference to the unfounded rumours that the club would be satisfied with gradually rebuilding instead of reloading. “Yes, we have seen umpteen Allan Cup hosts fall off the next season, but I had two goals last year — one was to prove my critics wrong and the other was to do it again this season.
“We feel we’re an organization that doesn’t have to fall off. We didn’t win last year because we were the host team and I’m trying to prove that again. We’re off to a good start and while I’m not saying we’re going to roll this season, we hope to find a way to be better than last year. That’s been our goal every year.”
To that end, McInnis successfully recruited the likes of forwards Connor Shields and Kyle Bailey, players he chased for two years. Also new to the team are goalie Dennis Bassett and forwards Cody Esposito, Logan Sceviour and Greg Hennessey.
Shields, a holder of two degrees from Ivy League school Dartmouth, is currently the club’s leading scorer after notching three goals and adding an assist during the weekend. The 29-year-old had seasons of 62 (28g,34a) and 47 (16-31) points in the ECHL in 2009-10 and ‘10-11.
“He had two knee blowouts and wasn’t able to play last year,” said McInnis, “so he came out and watched a game or two with me and got to know the level of hockey. He stayed in touch, tried out and made our team this fall and after our first two games he’s certainly enjoying being a hockey player again while still building his career and his life.”
Bailey, a Ponoka native and former WHL captain with the Portland Winterhawks, played five years at the University of New Brunswick and last season scored eight goals and collected 19 points with a team in Austria.
“He reminds me a lot of (Gens veteran) Curtis Austring, just a very straight shooter . . . very honest and upbeat,” McInnis said of Bailey. “He’s a very good leader, to add him to the crew of leaders we already have, like (returning captain) Sean Robertson, is a big plus.”
Esposito came over from the Sylvan Lake Admirals, who ceased operations during the summer. The former Red Deer Rebel was a physical force and top scorer with the Admirals the past two seasons and sniped a pair of goals during the weekend.
“I wondered if his scoring touch in Sylvan was a product of him maybe being the guy and getting all sorts of ice time and opportunity,” said McInnis. “But his production hasn’t dropped off with us. I’m impressed with his release and he scored a goal the other day that not all guys could score. We’ve had 30- and 40-goal scorers from leagues he didn’t play in that couldn’t do that any better than Cody. So credit to him. He’s been a later bloomer as far as his offence is concerned.”
Sceviour played five seasons of junior A hockey in Alberta and Saskatchewan and joined the Generals after a failed tryout with an ECHL team, while Bassett, 37 years of age and a friend of Generals new head coach Ryan Tobler, last played pro in 2001-02 but has maintained his physical conditioning over the years.
“He hasn’t missed a practice,” said McInnis, who admitted that Bassett has already surpassed his expectations of the goaltender. “I’m impressed with his personality and his commitment.”
Hennessey, a former junior A player at Bonnyville who last season was at Concordia College in Edmonton, has yet to make his Generals regular-season debut due to injury. Defenceman Matt Kinch didn’t play on the weekend, either, but has committed to returning to the Gens, while forwards Dustin Moore and Eric Schneider are affiliated players.
Moore, who lives in Lethbridge, will play senior hockey with the Big Valley Oil Kings this season and Schneider will skate with the Drayton Valley Wildcats. Both will be available to Bentley for senior AAA provincial and inter-provincial play.
“Last year was quite an enjoyable season from all perspectives,” said McInnis. “It was quite re-invigorating, in fact, and I think this year we’re bigger, stronger, faster and younger.”
The Generals lost goaltender Dan Bakala and forward Jeremy Colliton to pro teams in the United Kingdom and Sweden, while forward Travis Brigley retired and defenceman Joe Vandermeer and forwards Travis Dunstall and Tyler Haarstad left for the Innisfail Eagles.
“But we have 10 forwards, five defencemen and a goaltender (Travis Yonkman) back from last year,” said McInnis. “We didn’t have a lot of holes to fill and the players we did lose we were able to replace with quality guys.
“We’re very proud with the people we’ve added and feel very good about the players who are returning. There’s a good energy and we’re very excited and looking forward to the season.”
The Generals will host the expansion Okotoks Drillers Friday at 8:30 p.m. and will entertain the Stony Plain Eagles Saturday at 7 p.m.