Something to cheer about

Central Alberta hockey fans have had plenty of championship teams to cheer for over the years. This year offers a pair of nationally-ranked programs.

Bentley General coach Bryan Sutter directs practice at the Sylvan Lake Arena on Wednesday. The Generals are preparing for another run at the Allan Cup

Bentley General coach Bryan Sutter directs practice at the Sylvan Lake Arena on Wednesday. The Generals are preparing for another run at the Allan Cup

Central Alberta hockey fans have had plenty of championship teams to cheer for over the years.

This year offers a pair of nationally-ranked programs.

The Red Deer Optimist Rebels and the Bentley Generals begin national final play on Monday.

The Rebels are heading to the Telus Cup midget AAA finals in Levis, Que., which is located across the river from Quebec City.

The defending champion Generals are in Fort St. John, B.C., for the Allan Cup senior AAA championships.

The Rebels are making their seventh appearance in the nationals. In 2007, they lost the final to the Prince Albert Mintos in overtime at the Centrium.

“The Rebels are the elite program of Red Deer minor hockey and attending the national championship is something that ups your program,” said Red Deer Minor Hockey Commission general manager Marv Seibel. “And with the Generals falling in, it shows that the surrounding area is very strong as well when it comes to the senior level.”

National championship appearances are a boost to local minor hockey programs.

“With the success of the midgets over the years, kids want to come to this program because we do win and get to a national championship,” said Seibel. “Plus, we can throw in the success of the midget AA Elks this season (provincial and league champions) and it says a lot about the way our program is designed.

“We have a pyramid system that works its way up through the bantam AAA to the 15-year-olds to midget AA and eventually midget AAA. It’s designed to be successful.”

The Generals are also designed for success: they’re making their fourth straight trip to the nationals and fifth in the last seven years.

“Our history of being to the Allan Cup five of the last seven years really helps with recruiting players,” said team general manager Jeff McInnis. “These players have all heard of our team. They know who we are, that we’re a contending team every year.”

The Generals have become one of the most popular teams in the area, according to Hockey Alberta general manager Rob Litwinski.

“We tell a story where we’re at a golf tournament and there’s a silent auction, which includes a signed Generals jersey and it was going for more than the pro jerseys. It just shows how they’re truly embraced by Central Alberta. That’s great to hear.

“I see the Red Deer midgets have a long tradition of success and the Generals have built that same tradition,” Litwinski added. “So as a hockey fan in Central Alberta, it’s exciting to see.”

But building a successful program is not easy, says McInnis.

“I’ve never been so devoted to anything in my life. If I’m 45 hours a week at work, I’m 70 hours a week with the Generals included. But it’s satisfying to see what we’ve built with our own hands.

“The big thing about that is we run it like a pro team and all the things that go with it. We try to cut every corner but then we spoil the players. It’s a matter of balance.”

The Generals open defence of their national championship on Monday at 8 p.m. against the host Fort St. John Flyers. They meet Clarenville Caribous of Newfoundland on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

The Powell River Regals, South East Prairie Thunder of Manitoba and the Dundas, Ont., Real McCoys are in the other pool.

The top team following round-robin play receives a bye into the Friday’s semifinals while the second-place teams meet the third-place squads in a cross-over in quarter-final action on Thursday.

The final is set for 2 p.m. on Saturday on TSN 2.

The Rebels open on Monday at 11 a.m. (EDT) against the Notre Dame Hounds of Wilcox, Sask.

They face Mississauga, Ont., on Tuesday at 11 a.m. and the host Levis Commandeurs on Wednesday at 7:45 p.m. They take on Quebec champion College Antonine-Girouard Gaulois of St-Hyacinthe at 11 a.m. on Thursday and conclude round-robin play on Friday at 4 p.m. against St. John’s, Nfld., Fog Devils.

The semifinals go on Saturday with the final on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on TSN.

drode@bprda.wpengine.com