Even three-and-a-half-years later, Josh Tarzwell still remembers the nervousness he felt when he came back to play for his hometown team.
The then 17-year-old Red Deer product was acquired from the Lethbridge Hurricanes by the Red Deer Rebels in December of 2017, about a month before the trade deadline.
“You hear so many stories of guys being in their hometown and the pressure is too much. They tend to crumble and I didn’t want that,” recalled the 21-year-old on Wednesday.
“Every night you’ve got people in the stands, whether they want to see you succeed or not, you know them. I learned after my first year, that it really does not matter. If I’m doing well people are going to be cheering and if I’m doing bad, people are still going to be cheering. I was really fortunate.”
That trade altered the trajectory of his junior hockey career, which culminated in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Calgary Hitmen Tuesday.
As the players gathered on the ice – it finally hit Tarzwell that the ride was over. But what a ride it was.
“Being on the ice for the last time with a group of guys that you’ve been living in the rink with for the last three months and playing with for the last four years, it’s not exactly easy on any terms,” said Tarzwell, who played 187 games for the Rebels, racking up 57 goals and 34 assists over that span.
“Just a lot of memories and I can honestly say I will never forget what happened this year. In the rink and on the ice and everything.”
Tarzwell and his Rebels’ teammates spent 95 days confined to the Westerner Park Centrium over the last two months, playing a whirlwind 23-game WHL season, all within the Central division.
He said undoubtedly this year will carry with it some of the most unique memories of his hockey career.
“Everything that happened was kind of mindblowing. The original plan was for us to be going until the end of May or whatever it was, switching to three-in-threes, realizing that was way too hard on our bodies. So, switching to three (games) in four (days). Teams getting COVID, not being able to play,” he said.
“Three weeks ago, we’re sitting in the dressing room, we’re not even sure if Calgary is going to play. It was a rollercoaster.”
Tarzwell was honoured alongside graduating players Ethan Anders and Chris Douglas postgame Tuesday. Douglas, who played in 250 WHL games, all in a Red Deer Rebels uniform, said the emotions got pretty raw when his teammates started saying goodbye.
“I felt a little bit of the feelings hit me right as the game ended and when all the guys started giving me hugs on the ice. It was kinda tough,” said Douglas, as he was driving back to his hometown of Richmond, B.C.
“It even hit me more this morning, just leaving the rink that the year is over and my career is over. I’ve been here for five years. It’s a really big part of my life. Maybe some of the best years of my life so I’ll never forget it.”
Douglas was never the flashiest player during his tenure, but he continued to develop and turned into a strong leader for the group in his final season. He said that was a credit to the Rebels organization giving him an opportunity to pursue a WHL career.
“It’s just been a big learning process. Throughout it, Red Deer has become a second home. Five years here, Brent said it a lot of times, it’s kind of the most important years of your life, from 16 to 20-21. It has really shaped me – obviously on the ice but shaped who I am and who I will be moving forward,” said Douglas, who recorded 43 goals and 55 assists over five seasons in Red Deer.
“I couldn’t be more thankful for all the people I’ve met and the organization.”
Both players are hoping to chase pro hockey dreams this summer, but have already prepared fallback options.
Douglas will return to B.C. and get ready to suit up for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in USports Canada West men’s hockey.
He said that’s been something he’s been thinking about most of the year.
“I do want to play pro hockey, but as of now, I’ve committed to the University of British Columbia. That’s my plan for next year and I’ll be preparing for it all summer, I’m excited to go to school there,” said Douglas, who plans to study business administration.
Tarzwell may very well be on the other side of the rink from Douglas in the fall. He’s verbally committed to Mount Royal University to play hockey next season if no pro opportunities come up.
Either way, the 21-year-old, who was back at his parent’s house in Red Deer Wednesday, knows what’s immediately next.
“I’ve got to start finding a summer job here,” Tarzwell said with a laugh.