An unusual season is officially underway for Airdrie’s AAA minor boys’ hockey teams.
Playing in Red Deer Oct. 16, the Airdrie CFR Chemical Bisons U18 squad overcame the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs 4-3 in the team’s season opener in the newly branded Alberta Elite Hockey League (AEHL). Bisons newcomer Josh Davies scored twice for Airdrie, while Owen Jones and Colton Koran also chipped in with a goal each.
“Everyone was pulling the rope in the same direction and you could see how mature we approached the game,” said head coach Dustin Taylor. “Every type of adversity we faced didn’t matter. We just kept at the process and kept working. That’s the most exciting part for me – the maturity these kids are going to approach this season with.”
The strong start was not replicated in the Bisons’ home opener two nights later. Playing the Optimist Chiefs at the Ron Ebbesen Arena Oct. 18, Airdrie allowed 10 goals, dropping the contest 10-4.
“For whatever reason, 95 per cent of our players had a bad game [in Game 2] and that’s just a bad combo,” Taylor said. “It was almost night and day in terms of Friday and Sunday. It wasn’t by any means the same type of team we saw in the first game. Overall though, it’s very exciting to see what we’re capable of when we show up.”
Airdrie lost again to Red Deer Oct. 20, falling 6-4, putting the team in sixth place of the eight-team south division.
Taylor, who is entering his third season as the Bisons’ bench boss, said he is excited about the “experience and tribal knowledge” of this year’s Bisons squad. With more than a dozen returning players, the roster has plenty of carryover from last year, when the team finished at the bottom of the Alberta AAA Midget Hockey League.
“It’s just nice to have that veteran presence and that knowledge, and [having them] pass that on to the guys who are new to the organization,” he said. “It bodes well for the type of continuity we want. We’ve spent so much time over the last three years building this program up, and you’re starting to see the fruits of it.”
Meanwhile, the city’s other AAA hockey team, the Airdrie Xtreme, kicked off their U15 AEHL campaign Oct. 17 and 18 with a 2-2 tie and a 5-4 win against the Okotoks Oilers.
“We came out and played really well for the first two games, which was nice to see,” said head coach Tyson Soloski.
“I thought they handled the speed and the pace of the games really well, considering we hadn’t played any preseason games, whatsoever, against actual competition.”
Unlike the Bisons, this year’s Xtreme squad features a predominately new roster. According to Soloski, the team has 15 newcomers and only four returning players.
Two games into the season, he said he’s excited about the squad’s depth.
“We don’t have any players whatsoever who look lost out there or who aren’t at this level,” he said. “We can put any player out in any situation and they’ll get the job done, which is always nice to have – the ability to roll your lines and work an entire team throughout an entire game.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 hockey season will have a modified schedule and format. To comply with Alberta Health Services' 50-person cohort rule, teams will play each other three or four times in a row, then have a two-week break from games before taking on another opponent in a similar series.
Taylor said the format provides the opportunity to comprehensively prepare for each opponent.
“You prep all week for one team and play them back-to-back,” he said. “You get very detailed in terms of your approach, and it allows you to have a bit more longevity to your game plan versus preparing game-to-game.”
After a long preseason and plenty of uncertainty about whether or not they’d even get to play competitive games this winter, Soloski said the Xtreme’s players are just thankful for the opportunity to take on other teams.
“It’s been a long month and a half of practices, so they were just happy to have some actual competition and play a real game,” he said.
Attendance at the Ron Ebbesen Arena for both teams' home games is currently capped at 45 people. For more information and team schedules, visit aehl.ca.