It was old home week for the 2001 Memorial Cup champion Red Deer Rebels, and yet it was a new experience for the 18 players who attended the 10th anniversary celebration of the national championship.
“It was awesome getting back with the guys. We’ve had a great two days together, catching up and telling old stories,” said Toronto Maple Leafs winger Colby Armstrong, following Saturday’s Rebels alumni game at the Sylvan Lake Arena.
“I’m sure we could sit here a long time telling more stories about the years we spent here together. It was nice of the Sutters (former Rebels coach Brent and team senior vice-president Merrick) to put this together for us.”
With the recent formation of a Rebels alumni, plans are in motion to make the weekend get-together an annual affair.
“We’re going to see what we can do with it. I know it’s something we’d like to do (every year),” said Armstrong. “Any time you get chance to win a championship it’s special, but I think it’s important to have the overall alumni program going. It’s important for the younger guys too.”
Armstrong and his Team White teammates appreciated the fan ovation they received prior to and during the alumni contest.
“I thought this (Red Deer) was the best place to play ever. We had great fans,” said Armstrong. “And the people who came out today enjoyed themselves.
“I remember sitting there when Andrew Bergen was introduced today. He spent five years here and it had to be cool for the fans to see Andrew skating out there. He was a big part of this town for a lot of years.”
Armstrong hopes to be a big part of Toronto for numerous years, although his first season with the Leafs didn’t go exactly as planned. He encountered injury problems and appeared in only 50 games, with eight goals, 23 points and 38 minutes in penalties.
“It’s not the way I wanted my first year to go,” he said. “But I’m really looking forward to the coming season because I think our team got a lot better this summer.”
Indeed, the Leafs improved themselves both up front and on the blueline with the additions of defencemen Cody Franson and John-Michael Liles and forwards Tim Connolly and Matthew Lombardi.
“We picked up some guys who aren’t old by any means and should fit into the team’s plans,” said Armstrong. “We got a lot deeper and a lot better. We improved our front and back ends and we have ‘Reims’ (former Rebel James Reimer), another Red Deer guy, in net.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction and obviously Toronto is the best place to play in the league. It’s a great spot and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to help us become a very good team.”
At the age of 28, Armstrong is still looking at a long and productive playing career. And when it does end, the jovial and quick-witted forward might be a perfect fit as a television hockey analyst, a role he’s already filled on a part-time basis with both Sportsnet and TSN.
“That’s something I’d be interested in, absolutely,” he said. “I got to do a Sportsnet thing a few years ago and also with TSN just recently. Doing live TV was a cool experience, to say the least.
“I know it’s easy to just talk about hockey, but when you’re on live TV in front of a camera it changes the game a bit. I was pretty nervous but I had a great time. Both networks were really good to me and I got my feet wet a bit. But hopefully that won’t a (full-time) consideration for at least a few years down the road.”
• Brad Leeb potted the tying goal in the final minute of regulation time and then sniped the overtime winner as Team Black prevailed over Team White — consisting of the 2001 Memorial Cup champs — 11-10 in the alumni contest.
Caroline Hurricanes forward Brandon Sutter also suited up with Team Black, as did Rebels assistant coach Chris Neiszner and two members of last season’s Rebels team — Colin Archer and Brett Ferguson.