The arrival of September not only brings colder fall temperatures and crisp yellow leaves, but also preparations for the upcoming hockey season.
Airdrie’s top minor boys’ hockey teams – the Xtreme U15 AAA and the CFR Chemicals Bisons U18 AAA squads – are already into the full swing of preseason preparations as they get set to kick off their 2022-23 campaigns in the Alberta Elite Hockey League (AEHL).
Brad Bourke, the head coach of the Bisons, said the team’s training camp was already well underway as of Sept. 9, with the annual Red-White intersquad game held the weekend before.
“The Red-White game was competitive,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement heading into the season.”
Last year’s Bisons enjoyed a great season, qualifying for the AEHL playoffs for the first time since relocating the AAA team to Airdrie from Strathmore in 2017.
Not only did Airdrie qualify for the post-season, but they ended up making it to the second round before going out against the south division-leading Calgary Flames in a best-of-three series.
Bourke, who is entering his second season behind the Bisons’ bench, said he expects this year’s roster to be similarly strong. The head coach added he’s particularly excited about the quality of the team’s defensive corps.
“It’s just a really competitive group of defensemen,” he said, adding the team should also have one returning goalie and four or five forwards coming back.
Complementing the strong corps of returning players, Bourke noted many of the graduating members of Airdrie’s successful U15 boys' hockey teams last season are knocking at the door, hoping to crack the Bisons line-up in their first year of U18 eligibility.
Then, there are the graduates from last season’s Airdrie-Cochrane Avalanche, (the Bisons’ U16 AAA affiliate team) who are trying out as well.
“There are some younger players who are going to push for spots. I believe we’ll be very competitive,” Bourke said.
“A lot of those [Xtreme and Lightning] kids took a big step confidence-wise and some added another 10 to 15 pounds this summer in their strength training programs, so they look pretty good.”
Airdrie’s hockey fans have already had the opportunity to see the team in action, as the Bisons played a preseason exhibition in Cochrane on Sept. 9. The team will hit the ice at the Ron Ebbesen Arena for the first time this preseason on Sept. 12, when they host the Calgary Northstars. Puck-drop is at 7 p.m.
Following those two exhibition games, Bourke said the Bisons will compete at the Okotoks Oilers’ annual preseason tournament from Sept. 15 to 18, before playing another tentative home fixture on Sept. 22.
After that, the AEHL regular season will get underway on Oct. 1.
“We’ll have three games against the league champs – the Calgary Buffaloes – in exhibitions, so we’ll see where the boys are at in a very short time,” Bourke said.
“The Bisons are very excited to put up a good product and represent the community well. We’ll be ready to get going in the next couple of weeks.”
At the U15 AAA boys’ level, the Airdrie Xtreme are also gearing up for their 2022-23 AEHL regular season-opener on Oct. 1.
“I definitely think the players are excited to get going into actual competition,” said Xtreme head coach Tyson Soloski. “Camp has been at a very high level this year – probably the highest level of play I’ve seen at a selection camp in my four or five years of doing this.
“That is really exciting and it will be exciting to see how the players match up against some competition coming up [in the next few weeks].”
Last year marked the Xtreme’s best season since winning the then-named Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League in 2018. Airdrie boasted the best AAA squad in the AEHL’s south division last year, producing a 30-4-0 regular-season record.
While the Xtreme only managed a fourth-place finish at the season-ending provincial championships, Soloski said it was still a memorable campaign. In addition to the group's impressive results, major junior teams in the Western Hockey League selected five Xtreme players during the league’s bantam draft.
Though it may be difficult to replicate last season’s results, Soloski said at the U15 age group, the priority is more about player development than finding a winning formula.
“We’re going to have a good team again. Who knows about the wins/losses per se, but hopefully more wins than losses,” he said.
“The biggest thing is development – hopefully we can get our kids up to speed for midget (U18) AAA the following year and try to get some kids drafted again.”
For team schedules, visit aehl.ca