By Dale Cory
If adversity builds toughness, the Ponoka Stampeders came through their Heritage Junior Hockey League season opener against the Stettler Lightning feeling like Charles Atlas.
The Stamps, who debuted their new black uniforms, complete with red, white and tan trim, killed off two minor penalties in the first three minutes, and six minors in the opening period, and still came away with a 1-0 advantage.
When Gage Rosie, all 5-10, 175-pounds of him, pushed hulking Stettler defenceman Todd Potempa, who comes in a 6-9, 235-pounds, down to the ice late in the second period, the Stamps appeared to have an air of invincibility surrounding them.
Ponoka, which won only six games last season, went on to score a 4-3 victory over the Lightning in a thrilling opener that gave fans end to end action, plenty of man advantage opportunities, and a wild finish that saw Stettler buzzing around Ponoka’s goal in the final two minutes looking for the equalizer.
“This is our first game and we’ve still got a little bit more to improve on,” said second-year Stamps head coach Randy Rook, who watched his team play more than half the first period short-handed. “I thought our penalty kill was really good, and after the first period, our discipline was really good. We just have to contain our composure.”
Stamps goaltender Garret Montour appeared to quickly alleviate any concerns Rook may have had regarding his netminding situation, blanking the Lightning through the first 36 minutes, and robbing Stettler’s Mitch Finkbiner on a first period breakaway after a defensive miscue gave the Stettler forward a clear lane to the net.
“That was a huge save. Credit our goalie. He was fantastic that first-period and kept us in the game,” said Rook, who watched Montour stop all 18 shots he faced through the opening 20 minutes. “We’ve got to have the goalie step up and make that big save. That’s what I’ve been talking about all camp. Making the big save gives everyone on the bench a boost.”
Hulking Ponoka defenceman Bryce Hunker gave Ponoka a 1-0 advantage when his point shot was redirected past Stettler goaltender Simon Thieleman 4:14 into the opening period.
Ponoka carried its momentum through most of the second period. When Gage Rosie and Cody Hagg scored within a 33-second span in the first two minutes of the middle frame, the Stamps had control of the game, consistently beating Lightning players to the puck, and taking the play to Stettler physically.
The visitors cut the deficit to 3-1 after two periods, and got to within a goal four minutes into the third. Caycee Littlechild regained Ponoka’s two-goal advantage at 15:20, only to have the Lightning close the gap 1:12 later.
From there, Montour stood on his head, making 13 third-period saves to gain the victory.
What impressed Rook more than anything was Rosie standing up to Potempa.
“I think that’s the first hit I’ve seen from Gage in two years. He came over to the bench, and I said, ‘Was that you Gage?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that was me,’” said a beaming Rook. “They’ve got a big player in Potempa, and some big players on that team. To have your little guys, who is known for as a goal scorer than a hitter, stand up for himself is a big boost to the team.”
Next up for the Stampeders… The Stamps have a pair of home games coming up this week. Ponoka will host defending league champion Blackfalds Wednesday, Oct. 6 at 7:45 p.m., and Banff Sunday, Oct. 10 at 2:30 p.m. The Stamps will also travel to Strathmore Saturday, Oct. 9.