Rode

Red Deer Polytechnic Kings hockey loaded with new faces, but Keeper confident

You could say there’s some unfinished business for the Red Deer Polytechnic Kings hockey team.

Two years ago the Kings were one of the premier teams in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference, finishing second to NAIT in the regular season.

The NAIT Ooks had a 24-4-0-0 record with the Kings at 20-6-2-0. However, Covid ruined their shot at a league title when the playoffs were cancelled following the quarter-finals.

“It was disappointing as we’ve only played one playoff game in this building since it opened and we won that,” said Kings head coach Trevor Keeper. “Last season we had a team where if everything went right we could have won, but …”

Eight players return from that team.

“We have a lot of first-year players, so we’re young and you could say rebuilding but really we’re not. We have guys back who are leaders and the guys we recruited last year didn’t play but were here and a bit older.”

The biggest concern could be on the back end where only Ty Podgorenko returns.

Keeper added three players – Ty Ettinger, Konrad Belcourt and Layne Todler — with Western Hockey League experience and Brennan Davis, who was captain of the Camrose Kodiaks.

The sixth D-man is converted forward Cruz Cote of Falher, who comes in from Cowichan Valley. As well veteran forward Ryley Smith is working on the blueline while Podgorenko recovers from a slight injury.

“Ryley and Cruz are two offensive guys willing to help out anywhere they can,” said Keeper. “It’s a completely different position for them, but they want to win and will do what’s best for the team.”

Keeper indicated he’ll keep his eyes open to add to the defence at Christmas. He found himself short when three veterans — Donovan Lumb, Boedy Donald and Ty Mappin decided in August not to return.

Ettinger played four teams in the WHL in Brandon, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Victoria while Belcourt spent time with the Kelowna Rocket and Prince Albert Raiders. Todler was with the Calgary Hitmen for close to three seasons.

“They bring a lot of experience so it’s not like they’re really young,” added Keeper, who added former rearguard, Trevor Costello, to his coaching staff.

“Trevor was a leader for us and will add a lot to the defence. I can see there will be a significant improvement as the year goes on.”

Keeper has always like defencemen who could jump into the play, and this year is no different.

“Obviously all the guys are not the same, but we’re looking for guys who are mobile, can move the puck out of their zone and jump into the play.”

The Kings should be strong in goal with veterans Arik Weersink and Nathan Alalouf and adding Kristian Lyon from Langley and the Battleford North Stars.

Weersink posted a 12-5-0 record two years ago with a 2.95 goals-against-average and a .899 save percentage. Alalouf was 4-3-0 with two shutouts, a 2.63 gaa and a .906 save percentage.

“They give us a lot of experience plus Kristian was one of the top goalies in the Saskatchewan League the second half two years ago,” said Keeper. “All three are mobile, quick and have size, a combination we like.”

Up front the Kings have Chance Longjohn. Regan Doig, Kyle Salaway and Mathieu Lapointe joining Smith. As well Tucker Scantlebury played briefly with Lakehead University in the 2019-20 season before switching to RDC, where he played three games with the Red Deer Senior Rustlers, scoring two goals and two assists.

“He’s like a veteran in that he practised with us for a year and a half,” said Keeper.

Keeper likes what he sees from his recruits.

Jaxon Steele of Calgary has experience with the Medicine Hat Tigers while Hayden Clayton of Sylvan Lake played briefly with the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

“We have those two plus we added several top players out of junior A … guys who were leaders for their teams.”

The Hargarth twins — Chase and Easton — of Lloydminster bring a fiery style of play with them, that made them fan favourites in both Whitecourt and Flin Flon.

“They’re guys who add character and are annoying to play against,” said Keeper. “Both had 125 to 150 minutes in penalties and while that’s not important it shows they’re involved and won’t back down.”

Both are listed at five-foot-11 and 175-pounds.

Clayton, Jacob Kendall of Camrose, Chase Stephenson of Lloydminster and Sean Michalevich of Stettler add size as all four are listed over six-feet and 200-pounds.

Both Clayton and Michalevich played midget with the Red Deer Chiefs. Michalevich also spent time at the lower minor hockey levels in Denmark.

“We have a nice mix,” said Keeper. “I can see a lot of teams being in a similar situation to us. Right now it’s just a matter of getting on the same page.”

The Kings opened practice 11 days ago and the veteran coach could see some rust.

“When we started it was a slow process as it’s tough when you haven’t played in some time and not even skated for the past six to eight months. But the last couple of practices the guys are getting back to normal.”

Keeper, who has coached for 27 years, felt the timing was something that needed to come back.

“Once the guys were back they realized how much they missed it. These guys play for the love of the game.

“That’s one of the first questions I ask a recruit because if you don’t love it you won’t at the university level because you are so busy with school and hockey six days a week.”

Keeper can’t talk about vaccinations to his players, but says it sounds like the majority have been.

“I think our guys don’t want a repeat of two years ago … they want to go full speed ahead without any speed bumps.”

The Kings open preseason play tonight at the U of A against the Bears. The two return to the Gary w Harris Center Saturday at 7 p.m. although, as of yet, fans aren’t allowed to attend.

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

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