Last season the Red Deer Rebels were a part of history.
They broke a Western Hockey League record for most consecutive wins to begin a season in the modern era with 15 victories.
They were also on the wrong side of history after the Saskatoon Blades came back from down 3-0 in the 2022 WHL Eastern Conference semi-finals to beat Red Deer.
The Blades became just the third team in WHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit joining the 1996 Spokane Chiefs and the 2013 Kelowna Rockets.
To say the returning Rebels players are motivated would be an understatement.
To go out the way they did would keep even the most casual hockey fanatic awake at night but they lived it.
The Rebels lost multiple key members from that playoff run including forwards Jace Isley, Ben King, and possibly Jayden Grubbe. They also lost defenceman Christoffer Sedoff and have a new head coach in Derrick Walser.
Despite the personnel changes, Red Deer should continue to take lessons away from that series.
The Rebels struggled to score on key powerplays and took too many penalties which were at times undisciplined. And perhaps the biggest of all was to keep their foot on the gas pedal.
In junior hockey a game, play, and even a series can be flipped upside down in a blink of an eye. It’s mostly due to the tremendous skill within the WHL but also a reminder that no lead is safe even when it historically says otherwise.
The WHL Championship will be wide open for the taking this season with no super teams in sight, at least for now.
Last year for most of the season the clear team to beat was the Seattle Thunderbirds, even more so when they acquired the likes of Dylan Guenther.
The Winnipeg Ice, now the Wenatchee Wild, were also loaded with talent leaving the rest of the league with slim hopes for an upset in the playoffs.
This year the Thunderbirds are expected to take a step back after trading a ton of assets in order to load up for a championship run in 2022.
That leaves the door open for anyone in the league. Maybe even the Red Deer Rebels.
They certainly have the depth on defence and even the elite goaltending needed to contend. The return of captain Jayden Grubbe would also be a big boost if the Edmonton Oilers decide another year of junior would do him some good.
The Rebels also went out and acquired Carson Latimer who has playoff experience and 20-year-old rearguard Elias Carmichael, both of whom bring valuable skills to the team.
Returning is 20-year-old forward Kai Uchacz who is fresh off a 50-goal season, Kalan Lind who was just drafted by the Nashville Predators, and the dynamic duo of Kyle Kelsey and Rhett Stoesser in net.
Depending on how the Rebels begin the season, they may consider loading up for a championship run.
Owner and general manager Brent Sutter said following the end of last season that they could potentially be in the market prior to the trade deadline but wouldn’t mortgage their future to do so.
Sutter explained when they hosted the 2016 Memorial Cup they beefed up the roster to make a run at the title but it took them years to recover.
This time around he has no interest in doing that, especially with the young group of players they have coming up the ranks.
The Rebels may not even need to load up with the roster they have. If everyone stays healthy and they get plenty of depth scoring they could be among the top teams in the league.
There will be multiple great teams this season but there’s room for optimism among all teams knowing they have a shot if everything comes together.
Junior hockey is tough to predict. Did anyone guess the Rebels would win 15 straight to begin the season last year? I assume not.
But each year new players step up and fill roles leaving the possibility of any team to leave their mark.
It’s up to the players and the effort they put in every night on the ice. That’s the beauty of this game and at the end of the season, the team who did it best will stand alone.
Could it be Red Deer? We’ll have to wait and see but the Rebels are motivated.