Despite being eliminated in the second round of the WHL Playoffs, the Red Deer Rebels have plenty to be proud of this season, says head coach Steve Konowalchuk.
The Rebels had a remarkable turnaround during Konowalchuk’s first year behind the bench. Red Deer finished third in the Eastern Conference with a record of 45-19-2-2. In last year’s shortened season, the Rebels had the worst record in the east: 4-15-14.
“This season to me was a success in a lot of ways,” Konowalchuk said at the team’s year-end press conference Friday.
“Coming into the year no one knew what to expect or where the Rebels would be with such a weird season last year. We got out of the gates good and I believe we surprised a lot of teams.”
In the second half of the season, many teams were measuring themselves against the Rebels’ “high compete level,” Konowalchuk noted.
“We have individual guys going to training camps who have earned it, we have guys who are going to get drafted and that’s a big part of it,” he said.
“In junior hockey, it’s not all about winning the championship. It’s about developing hockey players and I believe our young guys got better and our guys looking to get drafted got better. There are a lot of good success stories from the season.”
Konowalchuk said his team’s work ethic was on display all season.
“I didn’t have to come to the rink and push them too hard to get working,” he said.
“They embraced it, they wanted to get better. That made my job easy. It was nice to be part of. I thought our guys worked hard every day. Even when they hit adversity throughout the season, they straightened it up pretty quick, which kept for a pretty consistent season. If you lose one or two, they were right back at it.
“I knew the culture here would be good. It’s part of the reason I wanted to come to a place like this. It’s fun to coach that. You have a chance to succeed when you’re coaching that.”
A few key players won’t be returning to the Rebels next season due to graduating from the WHL: forwards Liam Keeler and Arshdeep Bains, as well as defenceman Jackson van de Leest.
“Every year, every team is like, ‘Oh geez, we’re losing our top guys.’ Every team is in the same boat,” Konowalchuk said.
“There’s a lot of young talent in there that can step up. It’s always interesting and that’s why junior hockey is exciting because you don’t always know who’s going to come to camp and be the next Bains or the next King. It’s fun that way.”
Konowalchuk specifically noted Kalan Lind, Talon Brigley and Hunter Mayo as players who could take another step in their development next season.
Red Deer was swept by the Oil Kings in Round 2 after beating the Brandon Wheat Kings in six games in Round 1. Konowalchuk said the Oil Kings are a “very good team” that added big pieces to their lineup this year, including defenceman Kaiden Guhle. But the Rebels could’ve made it a tougher series on Edmonton.
“As a team, some guys went as hard as they could. I think some guys were mentally fatigued and didn’t compete as hard as we needed to give a better chance,” he said.
“That’s a learning experience that we have to take away if we want to be a top team. You’ve got to keep pushing. It doesn’t matter if you think the mountain is too hard to climb. You’ve got to keep pushing.”
The playoffs have provided good experience for his players, he added.
“To go through a very hard-fought first series (against the Brandon Wheat Kings), it took a lot out of us, no doubt about it. Emotional rollercoaster, that series. Then to go into another where we can learn what it takes to be a good team and also compete against a good team.”