Saints unveil banners; pick up AJHL play right where they left off
By Gord Montgomery
Skill. Speed. Success.
Over the years those identifiers have been hallmarks of the Spruce Grove Saints and it ap-pears the 2018-19 season will be no different in any of those aspects. The Saints started defence of their 2017-18 AJHL championship season with a come-from-behind 5-2 win over the Lloydminster Bobcats on Sept. 14 at the Grant Fuhr Arena. They then duplicated the feat the next night, skating to a 4-1 win in Lloydminster.
In the opener, after an emotion-packed opening ceremony where a tribute was paid to two past members of the Saints, Conner Lukan and Parker Tobin and their families, and the unveiling of the North Division and AJHL title banners, the Saints came out showing their patent speed. But despite out-shooting the ‘Cats in the early going they fell behind 1-0 before tying things up 43 seconds later on a goal by rookie Alex Dalton. The Bobcats again took a one goal lead before newcomer Cory Babichuk evened the score just before the end of the opening period.
Looking back at that frame, Saints bench boss Bram Stephen said he didn’t think that the pre-game hoopla had too much of a negative impact on his skaters in taking away their focus.
“I think the mistakes on the first two goals were just not real intelligent as far as position-ing on the ice,” he began, before adding, “but with that said, it’s a combination of things. Certainly our first 20 wasn’t the best. It was definitely the worst of the three periods of the game. I think a couple of early power plays, I think sometimes it’s a maturity thing, groups have a bit of a habit of being too lackadaisical. It took our group until midway through last year to understand, when you get early power plays you need to have a shark-like mentality to take advantage of that and we certainly didn’t have that.”
What the Saints did have though, like always, was solid veteran leadership from the 10 returning skaters, all of whom received championship rings in the pre-gamer. After the Saints had knotted the score in the first, the vets took over as Tanner Hickey and Jordan Biro tallied once each in the second and Dylan Bourlai cleaned things up with an empty-netter in the final minute of the game. Newly appointed team captain, TJ Lloyd had three helpers in the opener, including the first and last goals and played a key role in setting up that final marker.
Of his veterans, Stephen agreed they play a key role in bringing the newbies up to speed.
“Our veteran players have done a real good job helping teach what we’re about both on and off the ice. Obviously there’s still a long way to go, lots of room for improvement.”
As for Lloyd and the leadership he displayed in Game 1, Stephen noted the d-man who is already NCAA-committed, blocked a shot that led to the Bourlai goal, emphasizing that stepping in front of a fast moving puck isn’t a natural thing to do.
“That block with about a minute and half left says it all. That’s something that doesn’t come easy for him but over time he’s gotten a lot better.”
Speaking to his role this year, and that of the other vets, Lloyd said later he’s thrilled to wear the ‘C’ in his third year on the squad and how he’d learned to be a leader through past captains Dexter McLeod and Josh Harris. And, the fact his team won after the banner and ring ceremony, was a good thing.
“Obviously the banner ceremony and the rings were something the returning players were looking forward to,” he began. “Even before the game the coaches said look at the big pic-ture,” and that this was only the first game in a long, long season. “The start was maybe a bit slow, but then we began to find our game.”
As for the win and its importance because of the target that’s on their back as defending champs, Stephen agreed it was a good way to start, with a caveat. “It helps but it’s not the biggest thing in the world. There are 60 (games) left and they’re all just as important as the next.”
Speaking to leading the charge this year with the 12 rookies on the bench for their first game, including goaltenders Matthew Davis who recored the win and back-up Liam McCloskey, Lloyd pointed out how good these players are coming into the fold.
“Our scouting staff and coaching staff have done a phenomenal job of finding players that are going to come in and be able to perform like the Saints want. Those guys have adapted so well, so it’s pretty easy for the veterans. We’re trying to be teachers on the ice always, but the rookies are doing an unbelievable job of catching onto things.”
And like always, the rookies as well as the veterans bring with them speed and skill which in the end results in success.
In Lloydminster, the Saints again fell behind but rebounded with four straight for the win. Scoring goals on the night were Bourlai, Cam Mitchell with two, and Parker Saretsky.
The next game goes Wednesday, at the Grant Fuhr against the Camrose Kodiaks, starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or online at sprucegrovesaints.ca./tickets.
* Photos courtesy of Dave Ross