The 2011-12 Western Hockey League season was a virtual nightmare for the Red Deer Rebels, who are hoping the upcoming campaign will be one long, sweet dream in comparison.
The Rebels lost an unimaginable 300-plus games to injury last winter, enduring a nasty and extended run of horrible luck that turned at least an outside contender into a non-playoff team.
But that was then, this is now, and the club is looking ahead to brighter days with training camp set to open Saturday at the Centrium.
“Last season is over and done with,” Rebels head coach Jesse Wallin said Thursday. “It was a disappointing season. We just seemed to go through so much adversity and the injuries really took a toll — mentally as much as anything — on the players, coaching staff and fans.
“But it’s behind us now and now it’s about moving forward. What really excites me is just the opportunity to get going again. It’s been a long off-season and everybody is just excited about getting back and moving forward.”
The Rebels officially open camp Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with the first of five rookie sessions preceding the initial main-camp scrimmage set for 5 p.m. Monday. The Black and White intrasquad game is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Few, if any, of the rookie-camp participants will play for the Rebels full-time in 2012-13. That list includes this year’s first pick (fifth overall) in the bantam draft — power forward Adam Musil of Burnaby, B.C., who isn’t eligible for regular employment until the 2013-14 season.
The son of former NHL defenceman and Czech native Frank Musil attended the Rebels prospects camp in June but was nursing an injury and did not engage in contact.
“But he’s fine now. He has been visiting (relatives) in the Czech Republic and arrived here yesterday with Patty (Patrik Bartosak) and Jan (Bittner),” said Wallin. “Adam will go through rookie camp and the plan is to play him in our first two exhibition games before sending him back to B.C. for tryouts with his midget team.”
The focus will shift to main camp on Monday and the spotlight will shine at least partially on seven players attending on a tryout basis.
“Hopefully they can come in and make an impression in training camp. It’s going to be a short camp so the message they got was that they have to come in and make a bang right off the hop and show what they’ve got,” said Wallin.
The list of free agent hopefuls includes 20-year-old defenceman Tyler Hart, who has played in the WHL with Vancouver and Prince Albert. The Spruce Grove native has been hampered by injuries but is healthy coming into camp.
The others are 18-year-old forwards Brett Njaa and Jesse Miller, 17-year-old defencemen Jeremy Leclerc, Riley Boomgarden and Quinlan Moore, and forward Owen LeClaire, 17.
Njaa finished third in Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League scoring last season with 26 goals and 65 points in 44 games with the Prince Albert Mintos. He also led the team in playoff scoring with six goals and 10 assists in 10 games.
Leclerc and the six-foot-one LeClaire also played in the Saskatchewan midget loop, with the Saskatoon Contacts and Beardy’s Blackhawks, respectively. The six-foot-three, 200-pound Boomgarden toiled with Grande Prairie of the Alberta Midget League, while the six-five Moore was with North Island of the B.C. Major Midget League.
Miller, meanwhile, fired 20 goals and collected 50 points in 41 games with the Manitoba Midget AAA League champion Winnipeg Wild.
The bigger spotlight will shine on Bartosak, who excelled as the Rebels starting goaltender last winter before going down with a season-ending injury in December. The Czech native has recovered from shoulder surgery last spring and will head into camp as the Rebels No. 1 stopper.
“Goaltending is a huge part of your team and obviously Patty is an impact guy,” said Wallin. “He proved the first half of last season what he’s capable of and we expect him to continue to improve and being healthy is the first step to that. He’s been skating all summer and he’s feeling good.”
Bolton Pouliot is the front-runner to assume the back-up position in his second full season with the club.
“With Bolton, we have a guy with experience who struggled through the early part of last season,” said Wallin. “But once he got his first win under his belt he made some big strides and played some good games for us. Hopefully he can build off that and come into camp with some confidence.”
Grant Naherniak, 16, is the club’s brightest and most WHL-ready goaltending prospect and is expected to push both Bartosak and Pouliot in camp.
The Rebels netminder will play in front of a defensive crops headlined by Mathew Dumba, selected by the Minnesota Wild seventh overall in June’s NHL entry draft. Kayle Doetzel, 17, will also play a prominent role in his second WHL season and Wallin is hoping 19-year-old Bittner — picked in this year’s CHL import draft — will be a top-four rearguard.
Also returning and hoping to retain their jobs on the back end are Stephen Hak, Cody Thiel and Devan Faford, with Kevin Pochuk and Haydn Fleury being the top two rookie hopefuls.
With the loss of veteran blueliners Alex Petrovic, Justin Weller and Aaron Borejko to pro hockey and graduation, the Rebels will need bigger contributions from the returnees.
“It’s an opportunity for guys to play bigger roles, an opportunity for guys to step up and carry the torch,” said Wallin.
Offensively, the likes of Colten Mayor, Tyson Ness and 20-year-olds Adam Kambeitz, Charles Inglis and Turner Elson — provided the Calgary Flames signed prospect doesn’t play in the American League — will be counted on to carry a large share of the load.
The Rebels could return as many as 10 forwards, including the likes of Joel Hamilton, Chad Robinson, Cory Millette and Brooks Maxwell. Toss in prize rookies Scott Feser and Conner Bleackley and the competition for full-time employment should be fierce.
Hamilton missed the last six weeks of his rookie season with a severe back injury but is ready to roll, said Wallin.
“With all the injuries we had Hamilton was the player we were most concerned about, given the nature of the injury,” said the Rebels bench boss. “But he’s been skating and he’s feeling good.”
• The Rebels did not renew the contract of assistant coach Chris Neiszner, who has since accepted a position with Hockey Alberta.
“With (owner Brent Sutter) being here now and taking some of the managerial load off my shoulders, I can concentrate more on the coaching side of it,” said Wallin. “Myself and Bryce (Thoma) will handle the coaching duties, at least for now.”