Playoff hockey in October?
Not exactly, but when the Red Deer Vipers and Sylvan Lake Wranglers hit the ice Friday to kick off the 2020-21 Heritage Junior B Hockey League season– it might just feel like it.
The two teams played last March in the HJHL North Division semi-final, an epic seven games series in which the Wranglers moved on. Last weekend, they played in a pair of exhibition contests and will now square off in a four-game mini-series to start the year, due to COVID-19 regulations.
It won’t be a typical regular season by any means, but Wranglers coach Pat Garrity said the players and coaching staff are just happy to have hockey back in some way.
“It was just great to be back at the rink, in that environment with some normalcy. You can truly see how much these guys love to play. It was just good to be back,” he said.
The Wranglers, who had their pursuit of an HJHL title cut short last season, have some unfinished business according to the head coach.
The 2019-20 playoff run ended when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, after Game 3 of the North Division Final against the Mountainview Colts. Even with that long in the rearview mirror, getting back to games over the last two weeks has been good for the group.
“There’s no replacement for games. You can practice all you want, but until you play it’s a different pace. We’ve got a keen group, a committed group and they didn’t like the way it ended last year,” Garrity said.
“They just feel there’s some unfinished business and they’re excited to get back to work.”
They will mostly ice the same roster as last season, with 15 returning players and 23 on the roster total. One of last year’s leading point producer Braidon Westin is back and expected to lead the way for the Wranglers.
Garrity said they will also carry three goalies this year, with no affiliates available.
For the Vipers, new bench boss Kyle Scott takes over for JD Morrical. Scott said his group had a late start with training camp and were still finding their footing a bit through the pair of exhibition games.
They’ll have 11 players returning, including Rylan Burns, Jace Parrup, Tanner Scott, Jacksyn Goodall and goalie Cannon Whitbread.
“We have a good mix of young and older guys. With the kids coming up from midget, some really good kids there that can definitely play at this level and contribute,” said Scott, who also coached a number of players from the team at the U15 level.
“Really solid on the back end, in net, in my opinion, one of the strongest tandems in the league. It’s good to have that.”
Scott added that his team is looking forward to another shot at the Wranglers especially after losing both exhibition games.
“It was a good test for us, especially with Sylvan (Lake), our rival, got guys into the game real quick and now we get to play them four more times,” he said.
“As a new coach, it’s good to see guys getting into it early and doesn’t take long for them to build a hate on I guess.”
He also felt the same as Garrity, the majority of his group was just happy to be playing hockey again.
“Just nice to get everybody back in the rink and start playing, there were a lot of happy faces out there, so it was good,” he said.
When the puck drops Friday in Sylvan Lake, there will be no love lost between the two long-time rivals. Game 2 of the mini-series is Saturday in Red Deer. Tickets are sold out for the opener in Sylvan Lake.