If not for the hiring of a new coaching staff in Lethbridge during the off season, Joel Topping’s career with the Hurricanes might have been over after one year.
Instead, his time in Lethbridge ended earlier this week when the Red Deer native left the club and returned home with the intention of attending Red Deer College and pursuing a degree in education.
“It’s been kind of a tough last couple of weeks, but I’m happy to be home now and we’ll see how everything goes,” Topping said Thursday.
The former midget AAA Red Deer Optimist Chiefs standout defenceman was ready to pack it in as a WHL player following his rookie season in which the ‘Canes posted just 28 wins and missed the playoffs. Then the club hired a new bench staff headed by former NHL rearguard Drake Berehowsky.
“I had nothing against the other coaches, but I was ready for a fresh start,” said Topping. “If there weren’t new coaches there I don’t think I would have gone back to Lethbridge. I think I would have started school in September.
“So this is something that’s been on my mind for four months or so.”
If last season was disappointing for Topping and the ‘Canes, this season has been a travesty. Lethbridge sits dead last in the 22-team league with a ghastly 3-23-2-2 slate, a statistic that perhaps made it a little easier for Topping to walk away.
“It was definitely hard but I don’t want to say that it made my decision. But at the same time I’d be lying to myself if I said that it wasn’t a bit of a factor,” he stated. “It wasn’t really fun. When you lose pretty much every night it’s hard.”
And if you can’t have fun playing hockey . . .
“Then what are you doing? For most guys in the league, that’s the highest level of hockey they’ll ever play,” said Topping. “I just kind of had to look in the mirror and kind of tell myself, ‘you know what, you’re not really good enough to make a career out of this. I can go home and get my school underway, so why not?’”
Topping’s plan is to begin his RDC studies in January and perhaps, just perhaps, suit up with the hockey Kings in the event that the Hurricanes release his rights.
“I do want to play hockey again, but I haven’t made any commitments in that regard,” he said. “Lethbridge is going to cooperate as far as I know. Really, if they want to hold me on a list, they can, but the understanding that I got was they were going to cooperate if I did want to play back here.
“I’ve had a few people come calling. I’m just going to give it a while and let everything settle down and focus on getting admitted into RDC and getting my classes, and then we’ll see. If I do play, I’m leaning towards playing for the Kings. I can tell you that much. They’re kind of the front-runners right now, but nothing has been decided.”
A number of AJHL clubs would undoubtedly be interested in adding a puck-moving defenceman with WHL experience. The Olds Grizzlys, with a roster including seven Red Deer players— most of them friends of Topping — would likely be one such team.
“I know a bunch of Red Deer players on that team and they’ve texted me saying their coach wants me there,” said Topping. “Even the (junior B) Red Deer Vipers have called and want me to come out to practice. I’ve had a lot of buddies telling me to come wherever they’re playing. It’s kind of funny.”
But the RDC Kings, as he noted, are his preference.
“At the end of day I didn’t quit junior hockey to go somewhere else and play junior hockey,” said Topping. “If I wanted to continue playing in the league I would have walked into the office and demanded a trade. I wouldn’t have just said I want to go to school. If I was to go play junior somewhere else that would kind of defeat the purpose of my whole decision. That wouldn’t look too good on my part.”
Topping is the fourth player to leave the ‘Canes this season. The others — forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie and defenceman Ryan Pilon— demanded a trade.
“I didn’t want to be another one of them,” said Topping.