For an intrasquad game, there was nothing black and white about Sunday’s Red Deer Rebels Black and White game at the Enmax Centrium.
The contest had a little of everything, with strong goaltending, a spirited scrap and a third-period bushel of goals. All in all, the participants provided the roughly 1,500 fans with a decent late afternoon/early evening dose of entertainment.
“It kind of opened up in the third period and I don’t think I’ve seen a fight in the Black and White,” said Rebels captain and Colorado Avalanche first-round NHL draft pick Conner Bleackley, whose Team Black fell 5-1 to Team White.
“For a lot of these guys, this was their first time playing in a rink like this in front of that many people. It was good for them.”
Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter was entertained and encouraged at the same time.
“There was a lot of encouraging signs out there, no question,” he said. “It was good to see the young kids go out and battle and compete against the veteran guys, and at the same time it was good to see all of the veterans play hard.”
Most, if not all of the 15- and 16-year-olds looked right at home, including the likes of ‘98-born goalie Colby Entz, 16-year-old forwards Bronson Littlechilds, Reese Johnson, fight combatants Zachary Gladu and Josh Logel, ‘98-born rearguard Luke Mahura and 15-year-old forwards Jake Leschyshyn and Austin Pratt.
The likes of returning forwards Adam Musil and Grayson Pawlenchuk were in the same boat a year ago and this year will be expected to play bigger roles.
“You put your 16-year-olds from last year into veterans status now and they’re key players on our team,” said Sutter. “But the key part here is we’re a team and that’s the way we want to play. The kids have been great with that since they’ve come back and there’s been a lot of emotion and intensity in our practices.
“I like what I see with our prospects and our current team. We’re bigger with more speed and our defence moves the puck. That’s what you want to see.”
Veteran forward Presten Kopeck swept in alone and slipped the puck past netminder Rylan Toth late in the first period to give Team White a 1-0 lead that held up until Team Black defenceman and fourth-year player Kayle Doetzel beat Entz on a penalty shot 24 seconds in the third period.
From there, Team White pulled away. Meyer Nell beat Dawson Weatherill with a rising bullet at 5:02, 20-year rearguard Brett Cote connected with a similar shot 86 seconds later, second-year forward Cole Chorney went upstairs at 9:21 and defenceman Austin Strand, a rookie hopeful, scored from the top of the faceoff circle with less than three minutes remaining.
“I switched curves over the summer, I used to use a really flat stick,” said Chorney of his top-shelf marker.
“That (switch) seemed to make a big impact.”
Taz Burman started in the Team Black goal and pitched a shutout before being replaced by Entz near the half way point of the contest.
Rookie import defencemen Mario Grman of Slovakia and Hugo Jansons of Latvia were both impressive Sunday and have all but sealed berths on the Red Deer blueline.
“They’re young, but they fit in great with that ‘97 (born) age group,” said Sutter. “Both guys have been fine. There’s going to be an adjustment time for them too, not just on the ice but off the ice with the language barrier and stuff like that. But they’re settling in and the returning guys have done an outstanding job of helping them through it.”
Grman and Jansons are both mobile, promising puck-movers, as are Mahura and Cote, who was acquired from the Victoria Royals during the off-season.
“With the guys we brought in like Cote and the two Europeans, we look better defensively,” said Bleackley. “For the Europeans, getting as much experience as possible is going to be huge for us.
“You can see they have some hockey sense and hopefully they can be good players for us this year. That’s something Brent looked at in the off-season, improving our defence, and I think he’s done that.”
All in all, Bleackley sees plenty of reason for optimism with the start of the Western Hockey League regular season less than a month away.
“Coming off a disappointing season everybody kind of went into the summer with bad tastes in their mouths,” said the 18-year-old centre, who leaves for Denver Sept. 13 for the Avalanche rookie and main camps.
“We were a young team last year and I think the benefits of that is coming into this season with a lot of returning guys and a lot of young guys looking to step up. Guys like Muse (Musil) and Pawly (Pawlenchuk) are going into their draft year and you can see already that they’ve made huge strides this summer and are going to be huge players for us this season.”
Just notes: Kopeck left the game after crashing into the end boards in the third period, and didn’t return. His suspected hand/arm injury turned out to be a groin injury that doesn’t appear to be serious . . . All four goaltenders made excellent saves, with Burman making a sliding stop on Musil and robbing Brayden Burke, Weatherill stopping Kopek (twice) and defenceman Alex Pernitsky on penalty shots, Entz getting a blocker on a drive by veteran Brooks Maxwell, and Toth taking a goal away from Kirk Bear.