The Bentley Generals will begin their march to the 2015 Allan Cup in unfamiliar surroundings.
Due to poor ice conditions, the Generals have relocated to the Eckville Arena for the Chinook Hockey League playoffs, which begin there tonight at 8:30 p.m. with a best-of-seven semifinal against the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs.
“Last year we struggled (with ice) but this year’s been really bad and it got to the point where we had a near-miss in practice,” said Bentley general manager Jeff McInnis.
“We’ve gone to Eckville, they’ve been real accommodating and it’s been great fun, that old barn is in great shape.”
The ice in Bentley is pebbled, uneven and rough and became a safety issue, deteriorating further as the season has gone on.
McInnis is not ready to say this is a permanent move, but is an issue they will look at in the off-season, requiring renovations done to the Bentley Arena for them to stay.
“We are the Bentley Generals and that’s where we’ve become strong,” he said. “Yeah we’ve thought about moving, but we don’t have an answer to it. It’s all about survival … This isn’t an ideal ending to our season.”
One positive out of the move is this is an opportunity for them to grow their brand to other parts of Central Alberta, with McInnis expecting just as big if not bigger crowds in Eckville to what they normally see in Bentley.
“You go to another town and you expose yourself to a different audience, we’ve had some good crowds there so far and I expect them to be even better because these are playoff games now,” he said, adding they have already played one regular season game there.
The Generals will be facing a team that had a tough finish to the season, losing 14 of their last 15 games of the regular season. The Chiefs (5-18-0-1) won just once after Christmas — a 4-2 win over the Innisfail Eagles on Jan. 10.
They were supposed to be an easy target for the Stony Plain Eagles (9-13-0-2) in the best-of-three survivor series, but it didn’t turn out that way.
After the Eagles won the first game 7-2, the Chiefs came back to win 9-3 to force a deciding game on Wednesday, which they won 2-0 with David Tetrault making 36 saves for the shutout.
McInnis couldn’t have been happier with the upset, without even considering the Eagles were the only team to beat the Generals (23-1-0-0) this season.
“I’m excited to hear that they have rallied because I was quite concerned for that team’s future,” he said. “They don’t draw well and we need that team to be a strong part of our league.”
But McInnis does not expect an easy ride against the Chiefs. Fort Saskatchewan did add some players for the playoffs, like Scott Drewicki and Joel Andresen, and the Generals have not played a game since Feb. 6 when they beat the Stony Plain 6-0. Conditioning is not an issue, but more the rust and game execution.
However, they too have added to their ranks, bringing in a pair of top-six skilled wingers in A.J. Gale and Kevin Ulanski. Both players have bounced around the minor leagues, Gale most recently playing with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL in 2013-14 and Ulanski with the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL in 2013-14.
The key for the Generals will be to step on the Chiefs early and not let them continue with their positive momentum.
“You never want to give your opposition life, to give them confidence against you,” said McInnis. “We certainly have had our fair share of success against them this regular season, so you want to reinforce that the results are going to be the same in the post-season.”
Game 2 of the series goes on Saturday in Fort Saskatchewan at 7:30 p.m., Game 3 is Feb. 27 in Eckville at 8:30 p.m., Game 4 on Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. in Fort Saskatchewan. If needed, Game 5 is March 6 in Eckville at 8:30 p.m., Game 6 is March 7 in Fort Saskatchewan at 8 p.m. and Game 7 will go March 11 in Eckville.
• The Innisfail Eagles take on the Okotoks Drillers in the other semifinal, playing the first two games in Okotoks on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5:30 p.m.