Rode

Rode: Inexperienced Optimist Chiefs coming together

It comes as no surprise to see the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs getting off to a slow start to the Alberta Elite Hockey League U18AAA Division regular season.

The Chiefs have only four players back from last season. Even though they played only five games last year the Chiefs had a 4-1 record.

“We had a strong team, a lot to do with the fact the Western Hockey League wasn’t playing,” explained Chiefs head coach Tyler Lightbown. “This year we lost a lot of guys to junior and the academies.

“As well we have only four players from Red Deer so most of them are from our zone and haven’t played together so it takes time.”

But Lightbown isn’t about to jump off a bridge.

“We got off to a rough start, but we’re starting to come together as a team … things are starting to look up.”

The Chiefs lost their first four games, scoring only three times — all in a 5-3 loss to the Buffaloes. However, this past weekend they defeated the Calgary Flames 3-2 and lost 3-2 in overtime to the Calgary Royals.

The disappointing thing is the league doesn’t award a point when losing in OT.

“It’s new this year and I expect a few things will change, but it’s this way now,” said Lightbown, who knows how the team needs to play to be successful.

“We need to be responsible defensively as we don’t have a lot of offensive superstars. We’re a balanced team, will roll four lines and grind out some wins and skate teams into the ground. We’ll need to win low-scoring games and win by committee … no one player can take a night off. We’ll need to fight and battle every step of the way and earn every point.”

The one area teams can always use experience is on the defence, but only Avery Trotter returns and he’ll miss six-to-eight weeks with a broken wrist. Earlier Trotter missed training camp as he attended the Spokane Chiefs WHL camp and played two preseason games with the Drumheller Miners.

The injury means Lightbown needs to bring in an affiliated player.

“In our situation, we’re affiliated with all the teams below us in our zone,” he explained.

Those are the Red Deer U16AAA Chiefs as well as the U18AA teams in Red Deer, Lacombe, Sylvan Lake and Olds.

“It would be best for us to add one player and keep him, but that’s not fair to the other teams,” Tyler said. “So we’ll bring in some kids who deserve a chance to show themselves plus there were several others who were late cuts and were close anyway.”

Despite the lack of experience on the back end, there’s no lack of skill. Keegan Beagle of Rimbey showed so well early in camp the Prince Alberta Raiders invited him to their camp. As well Brody Pearson of Lacombe attended the Drumheller camp.

“We’re real happy with those two, they came back after the experience of playing against older and higher-end players and it shows,” said Lightbown, who doesn’t have much size on defence behind the six-foot-two, 192-pound Trotter.

“When we put the team together we said we needed guys to could move the puck and outside of the first weekend, they’ve done a good job. We’re not a bruising defence, but smaller guys who are smart, skate well, move the puck up to the forwards and can join in the play.”

The other two rearguards are Cole Fox of Innisfail and Harley Smith of Sundre.

Strong goaltending will be a must and will be led by returnee Kaden Toussaint of Rimbey.

“He had a real good camp In Drumheller and I was preparing for him not to be back, so it’s been great for us. He’s not only played well, but is a mentor for Mavry (Fluet of Sundre).”

Up front, Riggs Ringdahl of Delburne and Nolan Larson of Red Deer return.

“And really Ringdahl missed most of training camp because of a broken leg and getting the rod out,” said Lightbown. “Plus Larson was at the Olds (Junior A) camp, so it took time for everyone to fit together.”

At forward, Aiden Knutson and Carter Stone are the others from Red Deer with Chase Christensen from Delburne, Riley Teulon from Norglenwold, Tyler Gyori from Bentley, Ethan Wyzykoski, the only 15-year-old on the roster, from Sylvan Lake, Hayden Motowylo from Bluffton, Garrett Odgers from Rocky Mountain House, Ethan Bloomquist from Ponoka, Owen Callow from Olds and Riley Yzerman of Lacombe.

Like every team, the Chiefs are returning after a year off.

“Once we got into game play that’s when we noticed the time off,” said Lightbown. “It took time to get back into game mode.”

As for Covid protocols, the Chiefs follow rules in place.

“We follow the guidelines of the rinks. In Red Deer the staff, parents and volunteers need to be double vaccinated or have a negative test. If the player is under 18 they don’t have to be but playing in Edmonton or Calgary anyone over 12 has to be. As well we’re playing in a tournament in Kelowna in December and there you need to be double vaccinated or have a negative test.

“We just let the players know the rules and if they want to join us here they are.”

Tyler is joined on his coaching staff by assistants Ryker Leer, Stephen Pattison and Jeff Wallace, goalie coach Mike Salmon, manager Glenda Hall, trainer Brynna Maloughney and mental fitness coach Blake Machan.

“All back from last year except Ryker, who is an alumni” said Tyler. “It’s good to have him involved, in fact we want to have as many alumni involved as we can.”

Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at danrode@shaw.ca