INNISFAIL – The hockey birds of Innisfail are doing everything right both on and off the ice as they dust off the blues from last season’s AA experience in the Ranchland Hockey League to resume the real deal in the AAA Chinook Hockey League (CHL).
Sure, there are just two other teams – Stony Plain Eagles and the Cremona Coyotes – in the CHL, which was brought back to life after folding in 2016 and continuing on for a few years as Allan Cup Hockey West.
But AAA hockey in the CHL is where the real chance is to claim the Allan Cup; the ultimate prize since 1909 for the country’s very best men's senior hockey team.
The closest the local Eagles came to claiming it came in 2019 when the squad lost the Allan Cup final against the Lacombe Generals.
But four years later, with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic subsiding and the team celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Eagles’ road to hockey glory this year is to win the provincial championship and head to Hamilton, Ont. for the first Allan Cup championship since 2019.
“We're just very happy and excited to be back competing at a AAA level. Obviously, this time we're still taking it day by day and one step at a time,” said Kent Wing, the Eagles’ vice-president and director of operations, and an assistant coach.
“We want to try and keep everyone as healthy as possible,” said Wing, adding the team is still waiting for an official announcement on the details for the upcoming Allan Cup tournament in April.
“So currently, our goals right now are (league) first place for home ice advantage, and then obviously trying to win the provincial championship, and that hopefully takes us into the national championship.”
The Innisfail hockey team is the clear favourite to win the provincial championship. After eight games in the 12-game CHL season the team is solidly in first place with a record of sevens wins and just one loss. Forward Pierre-Luc Mercier leads the league in scoring with 10 goals and 13 assists in seven games.
Stony Plain, a longstanding Innisfail arch-rival, is in second with a record of five wins and two losses.
The Coyotes are playing in an AAA league for the first time. After eight games the team is last with zero wins but nevertheless showing loads of heart, especially after starting the season with no home until Cremona welcomed them.
“They started out kind of floating around, not sure what was going to happen ice-wise,” said Wing of the Coyotes, whose ice home is now the Cremona Agricultural Society Community Arena. “I'm not 100 per cent sure of the agreements that they have with the ag society, but they're doing really good down there. They're prospering.
“You need a town that is willing to step up and make you feel at home,” he added. “Now that they have a home, they can attract more players for next year. The ag society can maybe help them out a little bit next year financially, and ensure they can put a product on the ice and we keep them in the league.
“And then all of a sudden it's so much easier to add a fourth and fifth and sixth team next year.”
As for Innisfail, it’s a much different hockey team this year, in large part due to the departing Brian Sutter who resigned as head coach after serving since 2012.
This season the team is led by new head coach Kevin Smyth, who is supported by Wing, Ryan Dodd, Dave Anderson, and Reid Solodan.
There are also plenty of new faces on the ice, and like Cremona, the team makes a big effort effort to welcome each and every player.
“Guys come back, and that's been our number one thing is that we want to ensure all of our players in our dressing room feel at home. We try and take care of them,” said Wing. “We've had nights where board directors and members are babysitting kids in the dressing room because they had no childcare and they say, ‘hey, I can't play because I need childcare.
“Well, let's step up and welcome you and take care of you the best we can.”
The Eagles next game is Feb. 4 in Stony Plain, while the next home game is Feb. 25, also against Stony Plain.
Before the Eagles take to the ice at 8 p.m. on Feb. 25 there will be an alumni fundraiser game at 6:30 p.m. for the late Tyler Haarstad, a former Eagle for six seasons who passed away on June 9, 2022.
“We want to try and get as many people into the rink that night as possible,” said Wing. “We want to try and raise some money for his kids. He has three kids that don’t have dad anymore and we want to try and help them out as best we can.”