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Busy December underway for Airdrie Bisons, as Mac's tournament looms

As of the start of December, the Airdrie Bisons are in third place in the South Division of the AEHL’s U18 AAA league, with an 8-4-5 record. Airdrie is two points behind the Lethbridge Hurricanes in second place, and three points behind the division-leading Calgary Flames.
Members of the Airdrie Bisons U18 hockey team are preparing themselves for a busy December schedule.

The Airdrie CFR Chemicals Bisons have a busy month in front of them.

Not only will the U18 AAA hockey team line up for six games in the Alberta Elite Hockey League (AEHL) in December, they’ll also take to the ice in the prestigious Mac’s U18 AAA International Showcase tournament over the holiday break.

As of the start of December, the Bisons are in third place in the South Division of the AEHL’s U18 AAA league, with an 8-4-5 record. Airdrie is two points behind the Lethbridge Hurricanes in second place, and three points behind the division-leading Calgary Flames.

“We’re pretty happy as far as our resiliency,” said Brad Bourke, the Bisons' head coach. “I think we have a really good group of character kids who find a way to rebound if we do have a loss.

“We haven’t lost two games back to back all year, which I’d say is the sign of a good team, when you do have a letdown like we did against the Northstars a few weeks ago and then rebound.”

The Bisons’ most recent outing was a 2-2 tie with the Hurricanes on Nov. 28, in a battle to see which side would end November as the second-place team in the South Division. According to Bourke, the trip south marked Airdrie’s third game – and third tie – against the Hurricanes this season.

“It was a good game, kind of back and forth,” he said. “[Lethbridge] have a mature team with quite a few 17-year-olds, and good goaltending. I think they have the lowest goals-against average in the league.”

While Lethbridge has become a formidable foe, Bourke noted this year’s AEHL U18 league has plenty of parity this season; six points separate the top five teams.

According to the Bisons' bench boss, the competitive nature has made for some close battles.

“We’ve played every team, and even Red Deer and Okotoks, who are toward the bottom [of the standings], could very much beat you on any given night,” he said.

“For the most part, you look through and there are a lot of teams that are two or three games below or above .500. It’s very tight and that makes it fun, because every game, you could win or lose. It’s the little things that end up mattering.”

Dynamic Duo

Among the headline-makers for Airdrie this season have been forwards Cooper Brown and Matthias Bessey, two line-mates who have struck up a solid partnership.

Brown – who was named the AEHL’s U18 player of the month in October – currently leads the league in scoring, with 17 goals and 10 assists after 17 games.

Bessey, meanwhile, has been Brown’s main provider this season, recording 18 assists and chipping in with three goals in the AEHL.

“They’ve definitely found ways, even when not playing that well, to find the score sheet, which is the sign of a good player,” Bourke said. “We’re pretty happy with those boys, particularly with their leadership and what they do in the room. We’re more proud of them as coaches [for that] than for their point production.”

Bourke called both players late bloomers, adding Bessey did not even make the Bisons’ roster last year, but worked hard in the off-season to become the team’s key offensive driver this year.

“It just shows that over COVID, there were certain kids who really took their off-ice conditioning seriously,” he said.

“Matthias Bessey has been more of a distributor and Cooper Brown probably has the best net-front skills in the league,” he added. “He’s had about six or seven deflection goals…so really good hand-eye [coordination] and he’s a pretty creative player inside the crease area.”

The Bisons will head north up the Queen Elizabeth II Highway this weekend for a three-game skid in Edmonton, playing the Sherwood Park Ennis Kings on Dec. 3, the St. Albert Nektar Raiders on Dec. 4 and the Grande Peace Ernie’s Sports Storm on Dec. 5.

Following that, the Bisons will return to the Ron Ebbesen Arena Dec. 11 and 12 for home games against the Calgary Northstars and the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The team’s December calendar will wrap up with a road game against the Calgary Buffaloes on Dec. 19, after which the team will shift focus toward the Mac’s tournament.

The Mac’s is back

An annual tradition in Calgary, the Mac’s is one of Canada’s most famous showcase tournaments for U18 AAA hockey teams. The tournament typically runs from Boxing Day until early January, with the gold-medal game contested at the Scotiabank Saddledome.

Last year’s tournament was cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Bourke said the Mac’s will be scaled down to 30 Canadian and American teams, without the usual international representation from Europe.

Even so, due to the competitive nature and the prestige of the tournament – as well as the plethora of scouts in the stands – Bourke said the Bisons players are eager to compete at the Mac’s. He added the team is still waiting to find out who their opponents will be, but that the Bisons’ first game will fall on Dec. 27.

“It’s definitely renowned, in North America but definitely in Canada, as the biggest Christmas tournament for the U18 AAA level,” Bourke said. “We’re extremely excited for the opportunity for the boys to get that opportunity to play those four or five guaranteed games.

“There are a lot of scouts around from the Western [Hockey League], the NCAA or junior A leagues, so it will no doubt open up some doors for kids because they’ll be there all week.”

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