The Red Deer U18AAA Optimist Chiefs did something in September they weren’t sure would be a possibility six months ago– hit the ice.
With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the 2019-20 Alberta Midget Hockey League to a screeching halt, there were plenty of questions about what the 2020-21 campaign would look like.
Over the last few weeks of tryouts, Optimist Chiefs new bench boss Cody Reynolds and his staff assembled a group that they think will have them among the league’s best in the newly named Alberta Elite Hockey League.
Reynolds said tryouts were extremely competitive and at the end of the day just getting the players on the ice and returning to some sense of normalcy– hockey in September was a bright spot for most.
“We didn’t know if we were even going to be able to be at the rink or what everything was going to look like. Just to be at the rink was kinda special for everybody,” said the former RDC Kings hockey assistant coach, who is from Sylvan Lake.
“Maybe some people took that for granted in the past and everybody just appreciates being at the arena and on the ice.”
Up front, the Optimist Chiefs have three forwards returning, with Jayden Henderson, Andrew Wallace and Ty Daneault. Henderson was one of the top scorers in the Alberta Midget AAA loop last season, with 18 goals and 26 assists for 44 points in 32 games. He also suited up for two WHL games with the Oil Kings last year.
“He’s a heck of a player. Very talented, very skilled and he’s been great so far… an older guy who has had some success, we’ll be relying on him to pass on some of that knowledge to the younger guys,” Reynolds said.
On defence, Kaiden Ellertson, Grady Mofford and Avery Trotter are also back.
Colby Knight returns in goal for the Optimist Chiefs. Last year, in 16 games, the netminder posted a 2.33 goals against average and a 0.914 save percentage. Knight was also picked by the Edmonton Oil Kings in the fifth round of the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. He also signed a standard player agreement with the club last September.
“He’s one of those goalies that is a leader on the team. He’s got the respect of his teammates and the respect of our staff, just based on the character kid that he is and his work ethic he puts in. Everything Colby has got, he’s earned it,” Reynolds said.
The Optimist Chiefs also added a talented forward in Nate Danielson. Danielson, 16, played last season with the Northern Alberta X-Treme in the Canadian School Sports League. The dynamic, six-foot, 160-pound Red Deer product posted 26 goals and 34 assists 27 games last year.
“He’s the whole package and his skill set is through the roof as well,” Reynolds added.
“He’s an even better person than he is a hockey player. He’s great, he’s a leader on and off the ice.”
One new addition to the team that Red Deer Rebels’ fans might want to keep an eye on is Talon Brigley. The 15-year-old posted 26 points in 23 games in the Alberta Bantam Hockey League last year. He was a second-round pick of the Rebels in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft.
Nolan Larson, Justin Gyori and goalie Kaden Toussaint were all affiliates last year and made the team out of camp. Josh Perreault, Maguire Smyth, Harrison Lodewyk, Jake Smith, Reed Sparrow, Bret Gerrits, Riggs Ringdahl, Ephram McNutt, Tyson Tisdale and Kyle Venneman are all new additions this season.
Reynolds said they still aren’t sure what the regular season will look like or if they’ll be able to play games. He noted they’ve drawn up a five-week plan for the team in hopes of having them ready to play when they get word from the league.
“We’ve broken down every practice into themes each week and in those themes, we have new things we’re throwing at them and new competitions,” he said.
“Coming in as a new staff, we’re trying to turn (the delayed season) into a blessing in disguise. We’re able to lay the groundwork and pick apart everything.”