INNISFAIL – Brian Sutter leans back on his chair inside his team office and smiles broadly.
It’s hockey time again at the Innisfail Arena.
“Our first practice was really exciting, and that first game,” said Sutter, a retired NHL hockey legend, and longtime head coach of the Innisfail Eagles. "We told the guys too, it was really exciting to have them together. It was just exciting to come back to the rink that night, and it’s been that way all the time.”
On Saturday, Dec. 4, the puck drop at 7:30 p.m. won’t just be for practise. For the first time in two years the Eagles will be hosting a regular season home opener. At 2:30 p.m. the following afternoon on Dec. 5, the AAA men's hockey team play again at the arena.
Both games will be against the visiting Fort Macleod Mustangs of the senior men's AA Ranchland Hockey League (RHL).
The Eagles officially joined the five-team RHL last year after the folding of the Allan Cup Hockey West League, and its longstanding predecessor Chinook Hockey League. However, the 2020-21 season was cancelled because of the COVID pandemic.
“One of the funny things I think of with our first home game coming up is how many guys on our team have kids, and how excited they are,” said team general manager Ryan Dodd. “For the Sunday afternoon game, the players are so excited because they can bring their wives and kids. They are going to stay and watch the game.
"They are so excited because they are going to be able to come, hang out with the fans, see the sponsors and get to meet everybody. There is a lot of excitement for the first home game for sure.”
The arena will be open under the province’s Restrictions Exemption Program, which allows the team to pack the rink but everyone entering the building must show proof of vaccination, or a negative test result or medical exemption, and be masked.
“We’re no different than anyone else,” said Sutter, who praised the NHL for its handling of the pandemic. “People come in and they’ve got to show proof of immunization. That’s the way it is.”
The Eagles, who will play a 16-game RHL regular season, have been on the road since there first game on Oct. 16, which they won handily 8 - 0 against Fort Macleod.
On Nov. 6 Innisfail won easily again, a 12 - 4 romp over the Lethbridge Lightning, and on Nov. 20 the Birds defeated Siksika Buffaloes 7-2. And then on Nov. 27 in the last game before the Eagles' home opener on Dec. 4 the Birds made it four in a row on the road with a close 4 - 3 win over the Nanton Palominos.
“They were unusual scores, and we talked to our team, and we got to respect who we are playing against. We are appreciative for a place to play because we didn’t have a league to play in,” said Sutter, adding the Eagles also looked at competing in the North Peace Hockey League, as well as the East Central Senior Hockey League.
“But hey, we’re playing in a league we’re playing in. It’s a different level than what we played before and we’ve got to respect who we are playing against. Are they good teams? Yeah, they are good teams."
The Eagles have not yet had full line-ups but are practising hard.
“It is a different situation for us this year. On the ice we want to enjoy being together. We are looking for good people all the time," he said.
“We’ve added some solid young guys and veterans and we’re going to add some more. Our goal is to go to the Allan Cup. We were going to the Allan Cup (in 2020) when this happened.”
The Eagles were just one win away from making the Allan Cup in 2020. After playing an exhibition season against the Stony Plain Eagles, the Birds of Innisfail played them again in a qualifying series to earn an Allan Cup spot in Hamilton-Dundas, Ontario.
Innisfail, the runner-up at the 2019 Allan Cup, led the series 3-0 before it was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Allan Cup wasn’t handed out for the first time since 1945.
If the pandemic continues to diminish without the worry of a fifth wave, Innisfail will certainly head to the Allan Cup in April of 2022, which is again scheduled for Hamilton-Dundas, Ontario.
As the Eagles are an AAA team, they’re not eligible to play in the RHL playoffs. It also does not look like the Birds will have any AAA competition in either Alberta or B.C. to fight their way to the national championship. Innisfail will then go on to the Allan Cup to represent Alberta and B.C.
For now, all eyes are on the home opener. COVID weary fans can finally cheer again, and the players are especially excited.
“It has been two seasons off without playing here, and to get the fans back here and excited will be good,” said team captain Joe Vandermeer, who has been an Eagle since the 2013/14 season. The veteran “D” will be 45 years old in January, and while the league may have changed the competitive fire inside him has not.
“We’re competing every shift out there and playing with just two or three lines. Every game is a challenge. Sports is a unique thing where you never know what is going to happen each game. You just got to show up and be ready to play," he said.