Editor's note: Since the writing of this story, the Alberta government has announced a two-week suspension of recreational team and club sports in the province, meaning games alluded to in the article will be postponed or cancelled.
With new head coaches at the helm, Airdrie Lightning U18 AA hockey teams are ready to kick off a new season.
The Lightning AA girls – the highest level of female minor hockey available to high school-aged players in Airdrie – will begin their campaign in the Alberta Female Hockey League’s (AFHL) U18 AA south division Nov. 14.
“I’ve seen a team that’s coming together and has the desire to learn and be successful,” said Barry McElligott, the team’s new head coach. “They’re hard-working and open to learning. I see a fast-paced team that I think is going to be successful.”
With a young roster in 2019-20, the Lightning struggled to string together victories, ending the regular season at the bottom of the south division with a 6-19-1 record. The team’s post-season came to an early end in March, after a pair of defeats against the Southern Express in the first round of the AFHL playoffs.
McElligott is replacing Shayla Katrick as head coach this season. He said this year's roster has a strong mix of first-year, second-year and third-year players hailing from Airdrie and nearby communities.
The Lightning’s preseason was positive, McElligott said, despite a pair of losses in exhibition games against the Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs.
“I don’t think the score necessarily dictated how the game went,” he said after the first defeat. “The coaching staff was quite happy with how the girls performed in the game and I think the girls were happy with how they executed. That’s a big thing we’re trying to focus on. As much as we want to have wins this year, we’re going to develop and be successful. We’ll try not to gauge it as much on wins. If we do that, I think we’ll have more wins.”
Prior to taking over as the Lightning’s bench boss, McElligott said his previous coaching experience was with younger age groups and lower levels of hockey. He said he’s eager to take the reins of an elite-level team.
“The thing I’m most looking forward to is watching these kids come together and working with my coaching staff to develop a structure and environment where they want to learn and get better,” he said.
The Lightning will begin their regular season with a four-game series against the Sutter Fund Chiefs. The series starts in Red Deer and Airdrie’s home opener takes place Nov. 15 at Genesis Place Recreation Centre at 3:15 p.m.
On the boys’ side, the Lightning have already begun their season in the South Central Alberta Hockey League (SCAHL) with a pair of victories against the Bow Valley Timberwolves. The Lightning overcame the Cochrane team 4-1 in the season opener Nov. 7, and repeated the feat the following evening in Airdrie with a 5-1 victory – Noah Edstrom scored a third-period hat trick.
Shaun Guest, who formerly coached the Airdrie Thunder junior B team in the early 2000s, is the Lightning’s new head coach. He said he’s excited to work with the U18 age group.
“We have so much character on this team,” he said. “The [unity] they have is something I haven’t seen for many years. On and off the ice, these kids are an incredible group of young men and they’re really buying into the process we’re offering.”
After finishing fifth in the 2019-20 regular season with a 10-26-2 record, the Lightning made it to the semi-finals of the SCAHL North Division playoffs before losing 2-1 to the Red Deer Elks.
This year’s roster has plenty of continuity from last season, according to Guest, with nine returning players.
“I think the team’s chances are really good, as long as we continue on with what we’re trying to teach within our systems and our process,” he said.
With two games already under their belt, the Lightning will finish their four-game series against Bow Valley with a home game at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 14 at the Ron Ebbesen Arena and a road game in Cochrane the following afternoon. After the series is over, the Lightning will take two weekends off before contesting the Red Deer Elks in a similar series.
“We’ll get five four-game mini-series, which I think is awesome,” Guest said. “We’ll have the opportunity to have a playoff-type atmosphere in every series. It’s a pretty unique system in this unique time.”