It’s been nearly 345 days since the Red Deer Rebels last played hockey.
That difficult and strange time hit a brief pause Friday night as the WHL dropped the puck on the 24-game 2020-21 WHL Central division season.
Everything may have looked foreign, from the empty, albeit slick new-look black seats and upgraded jumbotron– to the piped-in crowd noise and linesmen wearing masks, but a hockey game was finally played at the Westerner Park Centrium.
The last game at that ice was 349 days ago– a world away from where life is today. But it was real, live WHL hockey.
“Of course it felt amazing to be back on the ice with our teammates. Being able to just be competitive out there, get back to doing the thing that I love is a great feeling,” said Rebels veteran forward Chris Douglas.
Red Deer looked in control for 50 minutes, but let a win slip away in the home opener against the Medicine Hat Tigers, blowing a 4-1 lead in the third period before the visitors snatched the 5-4 win in overtime.
“The last 10 minutes, we stopped moving our feet and started getting sloppy,” Rebels GM and head coach Brent Sutter said.
“Getting away from the things we’ve been working on the last two weeks – play the right way. Started having turnovers. The game got sloppy for us the last 10 minutes. We just lost our focus. I don’t know if the kids thought it would be easy because we were up 4-1.”
Corson Hopwo scored twice in the third for the Tigers, including a tip-in on the power play with 1:58 to play in the game to get Medicine Hat within a goal. Lukas Svejkovsky notched the game-tying tally with 41 seconds left.
Hopwo ended the night with his hat trick, on a partial breakaway that slid past Rebels goalie Ethan Anders.
“It wasn’t a good last 10 minutes of the third and we paid for it, in overtime we had three turnovers when we had the puck on our stick and they ended up going down and getting quality scoring chances,” Sutter said.
Tigers’ forward Nick McCarry opened the scoring 4:20 into the game but the Rebels took over from there, scoring four straight.
Red Deer tied the game on the power play just three minutes after the opening goal. Ben King hit Jayden Grubbe and the side of the Tigers goal and the 18-year-old NHL Draft eligible centre stuffed in his first tally of the year.
The Rebels grabbed a 2-1 lead just 82 seconds into the second period. Red Deer native Keaton Sorensen drove wide and slipped a pass out to a wide-open Ethan Rowland. The winger only found the net three times in 57 games last year.
Kyle Masters extended the advantage just past the halfway point of the second, blasting a wrist shot over the glove of Tigers’ netminder Garin Bjorklund.
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Douglas opened up a three-goal a nifty steal at the Tigers blueline. He went in alone and beat Bjorklund five-hole to open up a 4-1 lead before it all fell apart for the home side.
“You get four straight goals scored against you, we did not play the right way in our own zone defensively in the third period. There’s always going to be ups and downs throughout games, but you can’t have that happen, especially in the third period when you’re pushing to take the win,” he said.
Bjorklund made 29 saves in the victory, while Anders turned aside 26 shots in the loss.
The Rebels and Tigers will play the second half of the home-and-home Saturday in Medicine Hat.