It was a big year for the Red Deer Rebels organization.
Over the past 365 days, the team has made a deep push into the WHL post-season, hosted a Memorial Cup tournament, gone through some major roster changes and launched celebrations for their 25th anniversary season.
The year 2016 flew by quickly. It’s hard to believe that it has been seven months since Red Deer hosted Canadian Hockey League fans from all over the country for the MasterCard Memorial Cup. Seven months since Conner Bleackley and Evan Polei ended the Brandon Wheat Kings’ Memorial Cup tournament and avenged the Rebels’ early exit from the WHL playoffs with a single, beautiful shot in overtime, much to the delight of more than 7,000 screaming fans.
Seven months since Matthew Tkachuk put a dramatic end to the tournament with his toe-drag overtime winner in the Memorial Cup Final, made more incredible by the fact that he scored the goal, and another earlier in the game, while playing on a sprained ankle.
“Leading up to that Memorial Cup, and then the Memorial Cup taking place turned out to be a pretty amazing event, both on and off the ice. You have to credit a lot of different people that were involved in helping us host it. The hockey was fantastic in it,” said Rebels owner, head coach and GM Brent Sutter of the tournament, adding that being able to host the CHL’s flagship event was “very special,” he said.
Sutter said he wanted to thank everyone who had a hand in making the event possible, from tournament co-chairs Merrick Sutter and Ron LaRiviere, all of the different committees and their chair people and all of the volunteers.
“I thought it went really, really over and beyond. When we were first awarded it we had a vision where we wanted it to be the best ever and I think that after it was all done I have to give credit to all the fans, all the sponsors, everybody that was involved in it. It was great for our City and great for Central Alberta in a tough time.”
The tournament, he said, gave Red Deerians something to celebrate despite the dire economic straights in Alberta.
“It was a 10 days where people could actually get out and enjoy themselves and celebrate and have a fun time.”
After wrapping up the tournament, which over 10 days brought thousands of people to the City, Brent and the rest of the Rebels’ coaching staff didn’t get much of a chance to rest.
You see, they had to think about filling some big shoes following the Memorial Cup season with veterans such as Jake DeBrusk, Haydn Fleury and Conner Bleackley moving on in their hockey careers.
Just four months later, it was time to hit the ice for training camp with a very different and much younger-looking team.
On top of that, the organization launched into their 25th anniversary season. Brent, who took over the team in 1999, said the past 17 years have been quite a ride.
“Purchasing the team in 1999, 17 years certainly flew by quick. There’s certainly been some good times and some times that haven’t been as good as you’d like. But that’s part of Junior hockey. You’re going to have peaks and valleys,” he said, adding that over the past 25 years the outpouring of support from the fans in Red Deer has been incredible.
“I think (Red Deer) Mayor Tara Veer said it correctly, she said, ‘The Red Deer Rebels are our team and it’s like having our own pro team in Red Deer’,” he said, quoting Mayor Veer’s speech at the opening ceremonies of the Memorial Cup.
“Even though it’s not professional hockey, it’s amateur hockey, these players mean a lot to this community.”
This season has been an up and down one for the Rebels. At the time of writing, they are in third place in the Central Division with a 16-14-6 record, three points behind the Lethbridge Hurricanes for the second place seed and two points ahead of the fourth-place Calgary Hitmen.
“Coming out of Mem Cup, we knew there was going to be a lot of changes. We certainly have had some ups and downs in the first half. But we’re an above .500 team and that’s what we we’re looking for in the first half of the season,” he said of the first half of the 2016-17 season.
He added that it’s been good to see a lot of the younger players grow and develop through the first 36 games. Now the trick will be to take the next step in the second half.
“We have some players that are trying to get their game to the level that we need them to be at and where they should be at and that includes veterans, too. All in all I think we’re seeing progress.”