It may have only been game two in the Lacombe era, but the buzz around the Gary Moe Auto Sportsplex was as if the team had existed there for decades.
The new-look Lacombe Generals of the senior AAA Chinook Hockey League, formally the Bentley Generals, made the move full-time to Lacombe this season and according to GM Jeff McInnis, the community has welcomed the club with open arms.
“They opened up doors like crazy for us. They sincerely wanted us. So that feels good. We’re supported well with the fans. We’ve got a great dressing room facility. Top notch,” he said.
“It’s much better than what we would get in Bentley because of the size of the facility, the size of the town. I think the fans will grow, because come January, ticket holders and joe fan, they attend more. It seems like the senior hockey season ramps up. I think it will be good.”
The team spent the first three months of the season on the road, before finally making its first appearance in Lacombe on Dec. 7 against the Fort Saskatchewan Chiefs. Game two was Dec. 14, when it squeaked out a 4-3 win over rival Innisfail Eagles. McInnis said the win, which was a dominant first 40 minutes followed by a sketchy third period where they allowed three unanswered goals, is a sign there is still lots of work left to do.
“It’s a process. People expect good things from us because we’ve had a good run,” he said. “We’re not as good as we should be. Bad third period there, a great first two periods. So we fell asleep a litte. We’re not really where we want to be, but we’re getting there. Every week, we’re getting better. Our record is good, so that’s good.”
In their recent history, winning at the senior hockey level has become synonymous with the Generals. The franchise has won the senior AAA national title three times since 2009. And yet, the fans in Bentley weren’t able to do enough to keep the team there.
“Last couple (of years) were tough to take because financially people wouldn’t come to watch us anymore,” McInnis said.
“The romance of driving out to Bentley maybe wore off. I don’t know. The crowds were so small, every other team gets big crowds when we come, and we were looking at making a move. We were stretched thin with the dollar, our team has had a good run of winning a lot, and so when you travel to the Allan Cup every spring … we had to (make the move).”
In their short time in Lacombe, which included a few playoff games last year, McInnis has noticed the following already beginning to grow.
“It’s a very blue-collar crowd. They follow it. It’s kind of that cult following,” he said. “Fans get attached, they watch little Brandon Magee or Riley Sheen, those skill guys. They like the big, physical guys too. The Brennan Evans’. Everybody has their own thing, we’ve got hard-working players and blue-collar types. The fans will attach themselves as we play more games here. Because we haven’t, for three months we’ve been on the road.”
Evans is a bruising defenceman, who has played parts of 13 seasons with eight different teams in the American Hockey League, most recently with the Texas Stars. Since 2001 while playing with the Kootenay Ice of the WHL, he’s recorded 100 penalty minutes 13 of 17 seasons. He makes the trip to Lacombe with four or five of his teammates, and is loving the transition to senior hockey.
“I’m loving it,” he said. “The hockey is deceivingly good. It really surprised me how good the hockey was. Everyone has major junior or junior A experience. It’s a lot of fun and a great group of guys.”
As for the atmosphere in Lacombe, the veteran defender, who’s played in some packed arenas across North America said he’s been impressed so far.
“It’s awesome. We’ve been craving it. We’ve been on the road,” he said. “The support has been great. You can tell it’s a real hockey atmosphere. The rink is good, we’ve got an awesome room now.”