The Stettler Lightning aren’t just turning the calendar for the beginning of a new season.
They believe, too, that they’re turning the corner.
After underachieving last season, losing twice as many games as they won in the Heritage Junior Hockey League, the Lightning are shooting for a playoff berth — and more.
With training camp set for next week at the Stettler Recreation Centre, it appears the 20-year-old franchise already has the respect of its peers.
“Everybody outside our team looks at us as being a threat, so we might as well fulfil their expectations and be a threat,” Lightning coach and general manager Doug Smith said Monday with a chuckle.
Stettler has age on its side.
“We’re a very old age-group team this year, so it’s definitely our year to make some hay,” Smith said.
“We’re carrying our full limit of (four) 21-year-olds, and then we also have eight 20-year-olds, so in our league that’s considered a quite-old age group, per se.
“And then we’ve got a lot of good young players down below, so there’s a good core of old, experienced guys and young, talented guys. They walked that walk last year, with 13 or 14 one-goal losses. If we had turned even half of those into wins, we would have been way ahead.”
The Lightning get down to business next Tuesday, with registration at 7 p.m. at the Rec Centre, and on-ice sessions at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The tryouts are open.
“We’re still looking for lots of new guys,” Smith said.
“There will be lots of spaces down below to fill in — hopefully, with lots of local guys again, so it keeps it a fairly localized team. But the holes we have to fill, we’ll try to fill them with the best possible guys.
“Anybody locally that we haven’t touched base with, please feel free to come out.”
The Lightning’s overage complement is made up of defenceman Cam Wright and forwards Blake Frechette, Kyler O’Connor and Landon Potter. To qualify as an overager, players must have played with the team the previous season.
Among the Lightning graduates from last season are defenceman Steve Blacklock and forwards Tyler Bissett, Gavin Brandl and captain Tyson Glazier.
“There’s big leadership shoes to fill there,” Smith said. “A couple of guys — one on the blue-line (Blacklock) and one at forward (Glazier) — who had been with this program for four and five years. Those two guys had been through the ropes.
“We have lots of guys capable of being leaders this year, so we’ll ask some guys to step up right off the bat and get it going.
“I think everybody kind of felt that we were that close last year to being a really good hockey club. We just won’t let those chances slip away this year.”
Stettler potentially returns its top eight scorers, including frontrunners O’Connor, Potter, Frechette, Reese Anheliger and Jacob Schwarzenberger.
More offensive skill comes from the likes of Wyat Haustein and the Ternes twins, Adam and Scott.
Simon Thieleman, 20, is a workhorse in net and anchors the back end. A couple of other Castor natives, Mark Dietz and Steven Fletcher, are solid defencemen with leadership experience from their captaincy days with the midget AA Stettler Legion Blues.
“We’re looking forward to working with a really experienced group,” said Smith, who is going into his sixth season as Stettler’s coach.
“The team is going to be very solid. “Hopefully, for a lot of guys, the confidence grows and goal-scoring comes more at ease. It’s not a surprising thing anymore. It’s just something we do.”
On a couple of fronts, it’s shaping up to be a milestone season for the Lightning. It’s not only the team’s 20th anniversary, but it’s also Smith’s 30th year of coaching. He plans to make this his last season behind the Lightning bench.
“It’s probably time for some new words to surface,” he said.
Smith has been a constant with the Lightning — much like the Stettler organization has been a staple in the Heritage junior B league.
“Any community that can keep an organization going for 20 years straight and still be involved at that level, it takes a lot of organizing from a lot of people, before our group this year, to get it that far,” he said.
“So it’s going to be a fun time this year. We hope to recognize a lot of people for getting us this far, with lots of good things during the year to celebrate that. We look for a good season.”
On the calendar
Stettler has four preseason games, including home-and-home action against the Mountainview Colts and the Ponoka Stampeders. The Lightning visit Mountainview on Sept. 6 and host the Colts on Sept. 7 (8 p.m.). Stettler is at home to Ponoka on Sept. 9 (8 p.m.) and the Lightning visit the Stampeders on Sept. 11.
Stettler begins the regular season Sept. 20 at Three Hills. The Lightning play three road games before their Oct. 5 home-opener against the Banff Bears.