A positive for college and university teams missing a complete year of competition because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it gave coaches an opportunity to spend more time on the phone recruiting.
That proved to be a benefit for Red Deer Polytechnic Queens hockey head coach Kelly Coulter.
The Queens are in a transition period that has them with only one returning rearguard, five forwards and a goalie.
Coulter was able to add four defencemen, five forwards and a pair of goalies last season, to go with three new faces on the blueline and five forwards this season.
“Brooke (Skrypichayko) is the only defenceman back with ACAC experience, but from what we see we’ll be strong back there as we should keep them for a period of time,” said Coulter. “They’ve already shown in practice that they’re smart with a lot of skill.”
Of the four newcomers who committed last season, Julie Wagner of Clive and Kyla Hansel of Stettler played with the Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs. The other two are Alesha Santos of Airdrie and Alex Black of St. Albert.
Two of this year’s recruits — Kiera Mulder and Carli Howe are from Terrace and Abbotsford, B.C., respectively. The third — Jordyn McLaughlin of Rocky Mountain House — played with the Chiefs.
Of the eight on defence, four shoot right and four left.
“Great job of recruiting,” said Coulter with a laugh. “Really we look for that, but if someone has the talent it’s not a deal-breaker if they’re not (what we’re looking for).”
“We’re pretty green back there, although last year’s group did get to practice some, just no gameplay,” said Coulter, who has a solid group of veterans up front with three of his top four scorers returning from the 2019-20 season.
Avery Lajuenesse was second in team scoring with eight goals and seven assists for 15 points while Camryn Wallan had 14 points (5g, 9a), and Mary Hirsch tied for fourth with 12 points (4g, 8a). Braxtyn Shawara and Madison Samson also return.
Dylan Norrie of Olds, Bryn Pollard of Lloydminster, Natalie Buttle of Spruce Grove, Monica Bowtell of Wainwright and Alli Soyko of Prince Albert were part of last year’s recruiting class. This year’s new faces include Camryn Wallan’s sister Jensyn of Beaverlodge, who was going to play last season with the Chiefs.
Two other newcomers — Arilyn Toews of Wembly and Jailyn Bablitz of Valleyview — played with the Elite midget program in Grande Prairie.
“Both could have played at a higher level but wanted to stay close to home and it worked out for them. They definitely will be a good fit,” said Coulter.
In fact, Bablitz has already impressed with her offensive skills.
Breanna Reid of Edmonton and Haley Kicia of Saskatoon round out the 15 forwards.
“The good thing is we have a good group of veterans and we can rely on them to teach the first-year players how to prepare for the season and playing at this level. In fact I couldn’t ask for a better group of veteran leaders.”
Madison Fox, who developed into one of the top goalies in the league as a rookie two years ago, returns along with Izzy Palumbo of Golden, B.C., and Tanya Disotell of Cornwall, Ont., both of whom had committed last season.
Fox posted an 8-6-0 record with one shutout, a 2.19 goals-against-average and a .919 save percentage during the regular season two years ago and was in net for two of the three playoff games with a 1-1 record and a 2.44 GAA.
“Madison had a good mentor in Karlee (Fetch) and we were very pleased with her rookie year,” said Coulter. “The other two work extremely hard and we’re excited to see them in game action.”
Kelly doesn’t see a big difference between the two recruiting groups except last year’s players got a chance to practice against the older players and they’ve been in school for a year.
“Last year was a lot online, but a lot of them had to learn to juggle work with schooling while this year it’s schooling with hockey. So they’ve been through that.”
After missing last season Coulter sees a bit of a change.
“Conditioning is not the same,” he said. “You can run as much as you want, but it’s not the same as skating. It will take a bit of time to get back up to speed.”
But just returning to being somewhat normal is a benefit.
“You can see the motivation as the kids are back together … with teammates and getting back to a routine.”
Still, teams have the threat of Covid hanging over their heads.
It’s something Coulter has to think about.
“We do, but we’re not sure what the league has in place if games have to be postponed,” he said. “We can’t force players to get vaccinated as our league is within the province. For national championships, players have to be double vaccinated. Or even if we had to travel to other provinces outside of Alberta like U-Sport we’d have to be.”
The ACAC league lost Grant MacEwan this season leaving RDP, NAIT, SAIT and Olds.
“We play a 15-game schedule,” explained Coulter.
Keyano was to join the league, but due to problems with their facility, it’s delayed a year. There was also talk Lakeland is interested.
“It would be perfect with six teams,” Coulter concluded.
The Queens’ first action is Sept. 10 against their Alumni while they face the Edmonton Wolves senior team Sept. 24 in Edmonton and 25th at Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre.
They play six exhibition games in October, including two with the University of Alberta. They open the regular season Nov. 12 at NAIT. They play Olds at home Nov. 18.
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org