By Dale Cory
It wasn’t that long ago the Ponoka Stampeders junior hockey club was in total disarray.
There were few potential players from which to build the team that would compete every year in the Heritage Junior Hockey League (HJHL).
There were few fans in the stands at the Ponoka Culture and Recreation Centre watching the team play.
And there were few people willing to put their name forward to handle the off-ice duties so vital to the success of a junior B hockey team.
Then, along came Randy Rook in the role of head coach and general manager, and change began to occur.
“If you look at the first year I took over this team, there really was no direction. The board was trying its hardest but it is ultimately the coach that steers the ship. I’d like to say we were adrift. We only have three players left from that first year,” said Rook, who is heading into his third season as head coach. “It has been a very big shift in the philosophy of this team — from one that just hoped to ice a team, to one that has a very competitive team that players want to be a part of.”
Before the change in coaching staff, Ponoka went 3-21 in the 2008-09 season. In his first season, Rook took over a team that barely had enough bodies in training camp to ice a full squad in exhibition games. The Stamps improved slightly, winning six of 35 games.
In his second season, Rook had more than 50 players at training camp, and the Stamps went 11-22-3 to qualify for the playoffs.
“Last season, we raised our expectations and the way we wanted to build this team. We are building a feeder system, so to speak, and that is why we have a young team. We have skilled players who will develop and possibly get the opportunity to play at a higher level of hockey, whether it be junior A or college,” said Rook. “That’s why we should be a very solid team this year. So not only has there been a big change in players, but also a big change in team dynamics. It’s all about the climb.”
That climb begins Sept. 28 when the Stampeders take on the Stettler Lightning at 7:45 p.m. at the Ponoka Culture and Recreation Centre.
Rook believes his team has advanced itself sufficiently through exhibition games to prepare itself for the start of the regular season.
“I think the guys are pretty pumped to get the season under way. I know I am,” said Rook, with a touch of excitement. “It will be a good test on Wednesday to see where we are at. But we had a good practice on Sunday and worked on some things that needed fixing. With no more reason for nerves due to tryouts, the players seem to be more relaxed and are coming together nicely. This is the best group of players I have coached in a long time, taking into account attitude, character, and skill. We will be ready to go.”
Following is a breakdown of the Stampeders heading into their season opener, including Rook’s rating of the position.
In goal, the Stamps will rely on a little yin and yang — in the form of a highly touted veteran and a promising rookie — to stop the pucks.
“Up until last Thursday, I was kind of concerned as our goaltending in the preseason was definitely below average, and I believe, the reason for some of the lopsided scores. But now I am as pleased and comfortable as any coach in this league can be. We now have two very competent goaltenders signed and should be very solid in net. Aaron Swier from Red Deer was a last cut from midget AAA’s and a battler who is very solid in net. This will be a big learning year for him as he will backup up Logan Stebner, who we just signed from Fort McMurray.”
“Logan was the last cut from the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the AJHL and is a really nice surprise addition to this team. He is a very solid and technical goalie that will also help with Aaron’s development. It will be a comfort on the bench knowing no matter who I put in, we will be solid back there.”
Rook gives his goaltending a rating of 8.5 out of 10.
On defence, the Stampeders will begin the season without hulking blueliner Bryce Hunker of Millet, who is out because of an ankle injury. However, Rook believes the team still has six solid defencemen, albeit a group lacking in experience, that can get the job done.
“Captain Kenton Siegle will be relied on heavily to anchor a young defensive core of five rookies. Even though they may be rookies, they have shown quite well that they are capable of handling the traffic and pressure that goes with the territory,” said Rook. “We are much bigger, more skilled, and faster overall on defence than we were last year. It would be nice to get another veteran on the point but overall I think we are going to be okay.”
Rook gives his defensive corps a rating of 7.5 out of 10.
Up front, the team intends to rely heavily on training camp standout Eric Paterson of Winfield, expected the lead the team in scoring despite the fact he will play as a 16-year-old.
“Finding the right players to go with Paterson is a big factor for me right now. We have much more speed than last year up front that I believe will give the opposition challenges at times. As a young group I am still trying to find some line combos that work. League veteran players Ryan Blades, Cody Hagg, Klais deWaal and B.C. product Kevin Anderson will be relied on to help bring this group along.” said Rook. “I am still looking to add a few players yet and shore up the roster, but I am waiting for the right player to come back from cuts somewhere. With solid affiliates that could have made this team this year, but chose to go back and finish their last year of midget hockey, I just don’t feel a panic for players at this point.”
Rook rates his offence a 7 out of 10.
Blackfalds is out to defend its HJHL and Alberta titles of a year ago. The Wranglers will again be tough, and with the Rimbey Rock now out of the league, are Ponoka’s closest rival.
The Ponoka Stampeders are hopeful they will take another huge step forward in the 2011-12 season, and close the gap between themselves are powerhouse teams in Blackfalds and Red Deer.
“From what I have seen so far, the league has a lot of parity this year. You will always have a few powerhouses, but I think that on most nights, the games will be very competitive and close scoring affair,” said Rook. “Junior B hockey is fast paced, skilled hockey. It’s not like the old ‘goon and gun’ fight-filled games. People would be very surprised watching a junior B game if they haven’t witnessed one in a few years. A lot of very good players are using this league as a stepping stone to higher hockey and that bodes well for the league and junior B hockey.”
“I’d like to urge people to come out and cheer on the Stamps on Wednesday as we kick off this season.”
The league has switched to two divisions, with Ponoka up against Blackfalds, Red Deer, Stettler, Airdrie, Three Hills and Mountainview in the North Division.
Early in the HJHL regular season…Cochrane has two wins, while Medicine Hat has two wins and a tie. At the other end of the scale, Banff has four losses to open the season.