2022 couldn’t have started any worse for the Red Deer Rebels.
It wasn’t a bad losing streak or unfortunate losses for the Rebels on the ice, but a string of COVID-19-related illnesses that plagued the team when the calendar turned last January.
The Rebels lost on New Year’s Eve in Moose Jaw and weren’t able to hit the ice until Jan 14, after eight players and staff tested positive for the virus, forcing the team to shut down activities for 10 days.
“While we’re disappointed for all involved, yesterday’s developments were not surprising given the external environment,” said Rebels owner/president/general manager Brent Sutter at the time.
“Those who have tested positive are experiencing only minor symptoms, with players and hockey staff currently in isolation. We’ll work with the WHL and AHS on what the next steps look like.”
The illnesses postponed a pair of Rebels home games that were made up later in the season. Red Deer returned to the Peavey Mart Centrium on Jan. 14, with a 4-1 loss to the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The effects didn’t linger all that long and the Rebels got back to their winning ways in the second half of the year. They finished the regular season with a 45-19-2-2 mark, good for third in the Eastern Conference and second in the division.
Not only that, but the Rebels had the top point producer in the WHL in Arshdeep Bains and the top goal scorer, Ben King. Bains posted 112 points (43 goals and 69 assists), while King had 52 goals and 53 assist in 68 games.
It was a fruitful season for both, as Bains signed with his hometown Vancouver Canucks in March, just ahead of the WHL playoffs.
“Ever since I started playing my dad loved hockey,” said Bains.
“I really play this game for my family, my dad especially. (Vancouver) is his favourite team. It’s a real special moment that I get to live his dream … to play in the NHL. Hopefully, I can make it happen.”
King got his moment a few months later when he was drafted in the fourth round, 107th overall by the Anaheim Ducks.
Riding the wave of that dynamic duo, the Rebels played an intense first-round playoff series with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Red Deer rocked the Wheat Kings 5-0 in Game 1 at home in front of a raucous crowd, before an OT loss in Game 2.
The series would end in epic fashion, with the Rebels capturing a 5-4 triple overtime game, the longest in franchise history. Captain Jayden Grubbe had the historic tally.
“When you need your big guys to step up, they did. Your best guys have to be your best players and they certainly were,” said Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk.
That win marked the first time the Rebels had advanced beyond the first round of the WHL playoffs since they hosted the Memorial Cup in 2015-16.
Unfortunately, Red Deer ran into one of the best teams in the WHL and were dispatched by the Edmonton Oil Kings in four straight games. Edmonton won the Ed Chenoyth trophy, knocking off the Seattle Thunderbirds in six games.
For the Rebels, the playoff run and regular season finish was a positive sign in the first full season with Konowalchuk behind the bench.
But the prospect of losing Bains and King suggested the team was headed for a retool in the 2022-23 WHL season.
It was anything but, as it turns out.
The Rebels came out of the gate like absolute gangbusters, winning 15 straight games to start the season, despite having two goalies making their WHL debuts. Over the past 44 years, no WHL team has started a season with 13 consecutive wins.
“The quality character of the players we have and the way they reset themselves and get ready for the next game,” Konowalchuk said after a Rebels win on Nov 5, when the Rebels tied the franchise record for consecutive wins and added to the modern WHL record for wins to start a season.
“Even through a stretch when you’re not perfect, and you’re going to have that, they seem to reset themselves fairly quickly. If there’s an individual who doesn’t have his best game going it doesn’t carry through the whole game, and that’s important.
Unfortunately, King was injured on Oct. 25 and was slated to miss six to eight weeks, putting him on track to rejoin the club in the new year.
Heading into the Christmas break, the Rebels sat second in the Eastern Conference with a 22-6-1-3 mark, along with 121 goals for and 81 against.