There continues to be a lot of uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 Alberta Junior Hockey League season but even without an official start date in place, teams have begun preparing for when they get the green light to begin playing.
Here in Fort McMurray, the Oil Barons have been holding their training camp for the past three weeks as Head Coach/General Manager Gord Thibodeau evaluates his returning and new players that have arrived.
“It’s been good but a little tough being in a bubble,” said Thibodeau who brought 42 players to camp and now has that number down to 27. “You’re trying to keep them safe but it’s been really good from a team building stand point. The guys have been doing their off-ice workouts and we’ve done a lot of video work and the practices have been real good.”
The Oil Barons have 15 returning players currently on their roster, highlighted by captain and third year defenceman Konrad Belcourt, leading scorers from a season ago Michael Hodge (30 goals & 57 points in 58 games) and Hunter Lamb (14 goals & 48 points in 58 games) and rookie standout and hulking blueliner Taige Harding.
“I didn’t know it was possible for him to get bigger but I think he did,” said Thibodeau with a laugh as Harding is listed at 6’7″ and 235lbs. “He looks real good and I think there’s definitely some pro potential for him and I expect him to prove that if he gets to play this year.”
The biggest thing continues to be the safety of all the players, staff and personnel. The newly named CenterFire Place (formerly Casman Centre) requires anyone in the building to be wearing a face mask and to follow all signage. It’s been an adjustment for everyone involved but despite the new regulations, everyone is just happy to be back at the rink.
“Just to get back to some sort of normalcy for these players I think is refreshing for them. We still don’t know a whole bunch moving forward but we’re trying to keep them as safe as we can, keep the community as safe as we can but it sure is nice to get back on the ice,” said Thibodeau who is eager to get approval from Alberta Health Services to start the season.
“Like everyone else we wake up every morning and you wonder whether you’re going to play and I know the kids are anxious to know whether there is going to be a start date but we can’t control that so what we’re going to do is control what we can and that’s going to be work hard everyday and try to make ourselves better everyday.”
The Oil Barons finished last season in 6th place in the North Division and lost a hard fought first round series to the Whitecourt Wolverines in six games before Covid-19 shutdown the rest of the AJHL season. Thibodeau expects a much better season than the one a year ago. The club went 5-7-2 after he took over behind the bench from Bob Beatty and the team finished the year 20-34-4.
“Everyone that has come in has been in great shape and they’ve obviously done their work and that’s a credit to them with what society has gone through for the past six months for them to stay focused that says a lot about them,” said Thibodeau who will have to get his roster down to 25 players before the first game is played.
Despite much uncertainty on the ice, off it, the Oil Barons are once again holding their Dream Home Lottery. The Dream Home is the teams biggest fundraiser of the year and as a community owned team, the club rely’s on ticket sales.
“The one thing this community has always done is it rallies around its own and we’ve done that with the fire, the flood and now through Covid. We keep finding ways to support local and it’s one of the best things about this community, that togetherness that we have and we’re no different with the Oil Barons,” said Thibodeau who is entering his 13th season with the MOB.
Dream Home tickets are now on sale. The home is valued at over $1 million and there’s lots of other cash prizes including the early bird draw for $50,000.
“We want to be a proud member of the community and we do need that support. These are trying times for everybody and we understand that and we’re just trying to do our part as community citizens here, make sure that if we do get back playing that we can put a product on the ice that our community can be proud of and we’ve always had great support from this community throughout the many years that we’ve been here and now more than ever we need that,” said Thibodeau.
“It’s a tough situation for everybody and we just want everyone to stay healthy and we’re hoping that at some point we can get back to doing what we do best and that’s playing hockey.”