INNISFAIL – The battle of the Eagles returned to the Innisfail Twin Arena on Oct. 21.
The Innisfail Eagles’ 76th season began with the senior AAA men's hockey team looking for a season and home opening win against its long-time archrival namesake Stony Plain Eagles.
But the northern Eagles quickly showed they had other ideas.
Captain Jordan Cey scored in the opening minute of play to give Stony Plain a quick 1 – 0 lead.
Innisfail’s Dan Vandermeer tied it up 22 seconds later, setting the tone for a gritty, hard hitting tight game until the end, even if it took both teams two full periods to shake off early season rust.
However, Innisfail carried the play. The southern hometown Eagles outshot Stony Plain 63 to 38 over three regulation periods and a five-minute three-on-three overtime.
However, Stony goalie Colton Iwaschuk not only kept his team in the game but preserved leads his teammates continually gave him, including a two-goal margin up until there was just under four minutes left in regulation.
But that was when Innisfail – the reigning Chinook Hockey League (CHL) provincial champions - finally shed its own early season rust and put their game into high gear.
Innisfail forward Michael Marianchuk scored with 3:53 remaining – his second of the game, and Vince Connon tied it at 6 – 6 with just 1:27 left in regulation.
The game then went into five minutes of overtime. It was three-on-three, which meant short shifts and plenty of end-to-end rushes but with surprisingly few scoring chances.
However, with a minute and 23 seconds left in overtime Stony forward Jacob Hiemstra seized a glorious opportunity when he took a pass in front of Innisfail goalie Chance Clark.
There was furious action and a scramble but Hiemstra buried the puck past Chance on a rebound.
Stony claimed a 7-6 overtime win.
“For the first game of the season it felt really good; a little bit slow as all first games go but I think we all came together and played a pretty simple solid game,” said Hiemstra. “It's always a great time playing them; good battles, lots of high skill out there and its fast and hard hitting. It’s a great way to start off the season.”
As for Innisfail head coach Ryan Dodd, he never likes to lose but nevertheless saw plenty of positives from his team.
“We’re down two goals late and the guys battled back. You got a lot of guys that faced adversity in that game, and they never ever quit; battled and competed right to the end to force three-on-three overtime. It was fun to watch,” said Dodd, adding there were also a few things his team could “pick up and work on.
“You got to learn from your mistakes. They're (Stony Plain) opportunistic on the rushes and we didn't have enough back pressure picking up the high guy and they scored a few goals,” added Dodd. “You have to play these games to know what you got to be better at.”
Team captain Chad Robinson admitted his team had some rust in the season opener but nevertheless battled hard to stay in the game.
“That's kind of what we're taking from this game. We didn't quit even when we were down, so we'll take that and we’re looking towards next weekend,” said Robinson.
Meanwhile, the CHL is a different looking senior men's circuit for the 2023/24 season.
Last season, the two Eagles teams were joined by the new Cremona Coyotes squad. However, on Sept. 23 the CHL announced on its website Cremona would not be returning for the 2023-24 season.
“The Cremona Coyotes have informed the league executive that they would not be returning to the CHL for the following year due to “unforeseen circumstances,'' said a statement on the CHL website, adding no additional information would be released.
The current CHL season is essentially a two-team league for 2023-24, with eight regular games between the Eagles teams, with both playing up to four exhibitions against B.C.’s Powell River Regals, a past three-time winning Allan Cup team.
Innisfail and Stony Plain will next face off against each other in Stony Plain on Oct. 28. The next Innisfail Eagles home game is at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4.