On the same night the NHL lockout began, hockey fans from central Alberta gathered in Stettler on Saturday to watch a major junior pre-season game.
For the young fans in the Stettler Recreation Centre stands, it might just as well have been the NHL in town. In reality, it was the nearby Red Deer Rebels, who made their annual Stettler visit and lost 2-1 to the Medicine Hat Tigers in the final exhibition game for both Western Hockey League teams.
“Hey, that’s (Mathew) Dumba over there, wearing the green tie,” one rink-rat said to another Saturday as Red Deer’s star defenceman watched from the sidelines, because of a minor injury suffered a few days earlier.
“Yeah, it really is. He plays in the NHL.”
Well, he’s on his way to the NHL, at least. The Minnesota Wild selected Dumba seventh overall in the NHL entry draft last spring.
Labour unrest has derailed the NHL for the second time in eight seasons, and in many Canadian markets, junior hockey is poised to become the main event.
For the estimated 850 fans who packed the Stettler Recreation Centre on Saturday, a taste of WHL action was seemingly enough of a hockey fix.
“Sorry we couldn’t get you guys a W tonight,” Rebels forward Charles Inglis said as he signed autographs en route to the team bus.
“That’s OK, as long as you had fun,” replied one of the minor hockey kids who were already up past their bedtime.
There probably wasn’t much fun in the Rebels’ 0-6 pre-season performance, but the small-town sentiment from grassroots hockey fans spoke volumes against the backdrop of another stalled NHL season.
“It’s really awesome, because I dreamed to play in the WHL, and hopefully a lot of other kids here dream to play in the WHL,” said Rebels forward Turner Elson, a Calgary Flames’ prospect.
“You’ve got to take it step by step. You can’t just dream to be in the NHL and be there.
“It’s nice to see that these kids are coming out and supporting us, and wanting to be one of the Rebels, so it’s really good.”
No one has to explain to Elson, 20, that hockey is a business. That reality hit home Saturday — a few hours before he boarded the bus for Stettler — when the Flames told Elson that his American Hockey League tryout with the Abbotsford Heat would have to wait.
The imminent NHL lockout had caused a surplus of AHL-bound players, so young prospects like Elson were advised to stay with their junior teams.
The St. Albert native begins his fourth WHL season Friday night when the Rebels host the Calgary Hitmen.
Junior hockey is poised to step into the forefront, just like it was last Saturday in Stettler.
“You could probably ask 90 per cent of the fans here (tonight) and they’d probably rather watch this game than an NHL game, anyways,” said Stettler Minor Hockey Association president Jason Hegberg, a WHL graduate.
“It’s good hockey. These guys are young and energetic. They’re not pulling out a huge paycheque at the end of the game. They’re just playing for (roster) spots and they’re playing for the future. That’s why it’s such good hockey to watch.”
That was a popular comment from fans at the WHL exhibition game, which doubled as a fundraiser for Stettler Minor Hockey.
“A lot of people were saying tonight that it doesn’t seem like it’s hockey season yet, but people are antsy to start watching some hockey,” said Hegberg, a former captain of the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
“I’ve heard a lot of people tonight, saying, ‘There’s no NHL this year, so it’s nice to get out and watch a hockey game.’
“(The lockout) could last a while … who knows. Hopefully, they get a deal done soon and we get to watch (NHL) hockey again.”
Hockey fans watched the personable Dumba as he interacted with people of all ages in Stettler. He spent half an hour before the game signing autographs in the rink lobby. He even obliged when a couple of kids asked him to sign his name on their foreheads, of all places.
One man, showing his allegiance to Dumba’s pro team, sported a Minnesota Wild jacket. A young fan wore his Taylor Hall Edmonton Oilers’ jersey, while multiple spectators wore Rebels’ colours.
Including a barbecue and silent auction, it was a fun-filled night that left organizers and participants happy with the results.
“I just talked to (the Rebels’) radio guy, Cam Moon, and he said what a heck of a job we put on here, and that everything is done perfectly, just like it is in any Western Hockey League rink,” said Hegberg, the new president of Stettler Minor Hockey.
“It’s nice to hear those comments. We’ve heard it tonight from a couple of people from the Red Deer organization.
“It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year. Len Hoac has really taken charge of this game the last couple of years. Everything is right down to detail, detail and detail. Nothing is forgotten. We just keep adding to it. It just keeps getting better and better. A lot of credit goes out to Len.”
Stettler’s connection with WHL pre-season action goes back to Hegberg’s major junior career.
“My last year in Lethbridge, my 20-year-old year, was one of the first years they had it here in Stettler,” Hegberg said of the 1999-2000 season.
“The neat thing about that year was that Brett O’Malley, a Stettler native, was a 15-year-old that year and (the Hurricanes) put us on the same line, because we were both from here.
“I still remember it — it was me and Brett and Eric Godard, who plays in the NHL. He’s a fighter in the NHL.”
The Brett O’Malley Award was one of three minor hockey awards presented Saturday night for achievements in the 2011-12 season. Tye Mulgrove received the O’Malley award as the top peewee player from the Stettler association.
Steven Fletcher, who captained the midget AA Stettler Legion Blues last season, earned the Ross Wigley Memorial Award as the most dedicated midget player. Fletcher is now a rookie defenceman with the junior B Stettler Lightning.
The third award presented Saturday went to up-and-coming referee Cole Nichols, who received the Stephen Wright Memorial Award as the top Stettler Minor Hockey official from the 2011-12 season.