This WHL season has been all about hockey and at times, hasn’t exactly been about hockey at all.
It has been a crash course in adversity, resiliency and taking care of yourself in ways that weren’t always realized, all through the span of 90 days.
It was also about simply getting back on the ice to play.
That makes it as much about hockey, as it isn’t.
Red Deer Rebels defenceman Joel Sexsmith perhaps understands that challenge better than most and the defenceman is still trying to put the uniqueness of it all in perspective.
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t really tough. It hasn’t been easy here. It certainly hasn’t been easy when you’re losing, too. I think the dynamic would shift if we’d been winning all the time and we haven’t been, that’s just the reality,” said the 19-year-old.
“We live here, we look at the rink every day and it kind of serves as a reminder that we are where we are in the standings. I think that’s really tough mentally. I would say I’m really grateful that I’m able to go through this with this group of guys. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. I love this group of guys on this team.”
“I think because of the adversity we’ve been through, we’re only going to be more resilient in the future, moving forward. There’s been lots of up and downs here and there’s been some really hard days. I think that’s just a part of life. I think at the end of the day, whether you’re 18, 28 or 38 or you’re 60, you’re going to have days that aren’t going to be that great.”
The Rebels are 2-15-2, in the midst of an 11-game losing streak, with four games left to close out a chapter of their hockey-playing lives that’s sure to be an unforgettable one.
Sexsmith, who missed five games with an upper-body injury, still believes the group has something to prove as the year winds down.
“I think just generally, it’s no fun losing and I don’t think of us as a team that wants to lose nor plays to lose,” he said.
“Realistically I live with these guys 24 hours a day and I see the way we approach things and I think at this point, we’ve earned our fair share of losses. Just our fair share of adversity. I think it’s now our time to flip our luck around and hopefully get a few wins this week.”
And while the team has struggled, Sexsmith has faced his own battle in the bubble. A few years ago, his hockey future was in doubt. He was diagnosed with blood clots in 2018 and didn’t know how he would handle the grind of this year.
“Things have improved drastically. Obviously, there are times where I have to be conscientious of what’s going on. I think for me it’s been kinda weird not going to a pharmacy to get blood thinners in the last little bit,” he joked.
“It’s been much better than I anticipated.”
He’s been tested on the ice this season, too. The teen had himself penciled into a second-pair role on the Rebels’ blueline before the injuries piled up.
It quickly went from visions of 20 minutes a night, to the reality of more like 25-30, with only three or four other healthy blueliners available most nights.
“Last year, I remember I was playing second line at one point and worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up,” he recalled.
“You look at this year, you play 30 minutes in a game, you kinda look at it and laugh about it, regardless of if you played well or not. Holy, I just did this. Last year I would have never thought of playing a really solid 23 minutes, whereas now I’m playing a solid 30 and my body is able to take that.”
The Rebels drop the puck on the first of four games in six days Thursday at home against the Calgary Hitmen, before hosting the Edmonton Oil Kings Saturday night.
Sunday, the Rebels are in Calgary, before wrapping up the year at home on May 4 against the Hitmen.
Whatever the future holds for this group and Sexsmith as an individual, he can’t help but believe this experience over the last several months brought them closer than they ever expected.
“It’s bittersweet for sure,” Sexsmith says about the season winding down.
“It’s kinda the end of something really special… just the chemistry now of the team since we first got here. You can really see how much some relationships have really developed. It’s really enlightening for me as a player and a person, to have built some of these relationships that are now going to last a lifetime.”