Jacob Schwarzenberger turned 18 on Sunday, the same day the Stettler forward was cut from the Drumheller Dragons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
But it was a happy birthday just the same for Schwarzenberger, who went the distance in his tryout with the junior A Dragons and remains in the team’s long-term plans.
“I actually just spoke with Jake a few minutes ago, and we’re going to reassign him to the Stettler (Lightning) junior B team for now,” Drumheller coach and general manager Dan Price said Sunday afternoon.
“But we told him that we’d like him to affiliate with us this year. He did a great job for us all throughout camp and all throughout the pre-season games. Had this been a year or two ago, when our roster was a little bit younger and a bit more open, he’d probably be playing for us this year.”
“This particular version of our team — 2011-12 —is a lot older and a lot deeper, so there isn’t as much room for first-year players this season. But we think Jake is really close. We think he has a good chance to play for us next year, but this year we’re just going to use him as an affiliate.”
That’s good news for Schwarzenberger’s hometown Lightning. He scored 11 goals and 26 points in 35 games last winter in his rookie season in the Heritage Junior Hockey League.
Schwarzenberger registered with the junior B Lightning on Friday night for the opening of their training camp, but he was otherwise unable to participate because he was on the Drumheller bus Saturday for the Dragons’ exhibition game that night in Kindersley, Sask.
“Oh, it would be another plus,” Lightning coach and general manager Doug Smith said earlier Sunday about the possible inclusion of Schwarzenberger in the Stettler lineup.
“It would definitely give us one more good, big, strong young guy that has got speed and size. And when you’ve got that combination, it starts to make the opposition defence back off on you, and then you get a lot of room for everybody else.”
Schwarzenberger showed those attributes during his Drumheller stint, scoring a goal and assisting on another during the Dragons’ 3-1 win over the Olds Grizzlys last Tuesday, and adding an assist and a few solid hits in Saturday’s 4-3 loss to the Kindersley Klippers.
“I really like his intelligence,” Price said of Schwarzenberger, a left-winger who is about six feet and 190 pounds.
“I like the fact that he can play the middle and can play the wall. He skates well, he’s got pretty good size (and) moves the puck well.
“He’s an unbelievable kid — our guys really like him. So he definitely fits the mould of what we’re looking for here. He just needs a little bit more time in junior B, I think, to take that next step. And also, a little bit more time for some of our older players to graduate and move on and to make room next year for some younger players coming in.”
Although he had hoped to stick with the Dragons this season, Schwarzenberger already had alternate arrangements in place. He has enrolled at Red Deer College and plans to live in Red Deer with a couple of his Stettler buddies and Lightning teammates, Reese Anheliger and Mitch Finkbiner.
“It’s really nice playing in your hometown,” Schwarzenberger said of returning to the Lightning.
“You know all the fans and it’s nice to be home every weekend and I can come and see my parents and what not. It’s just nice security, I guess.”
Schwarzenberger also believes that the junior B brand of hockey can provide him with worthy competition and a place to develop.
“It’s definitely a lot better league than what it used to be,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of skilled guys. It’s not just about fighting anymore.”
“Watching it growing up, there was a lot of fighting going on, but it’s really developed into a skilled league that really is the next step, if you want to make the jump into junior A. It’s definitely a good stepping-stone.”
With the AJHL season scheduled to open this week, Schwarzenberger lasted all the way to the final round of Drumheller’s junior A cuts.
“I would have liked to (stay even longer), but there’s nothing you can really do,” he said Monday as he prepared to move into his Red Deer residence.
“I played my best and that didn’t really work out, so I’ll give ’er another go next year. That’s basically my last chance, because I’ll be a little too old and not many teams would want to take me (after that). I guess we’ll see. I’ll take a serious commitment this year to hockey and getting better, and go from there.”
Schwarzenberger’s hockey fix, of course, extends to the NHL level. He’s been a fan of the Vancouver Canucks since his childhood.
“As long as I can remember,” he said with a smile. “My dad kind of brainwashed me at the start, to be a (Washington) Capitals’ fan, but then I learned pretty quickly not to be.”
Schwarzenberger said he had “good bonding time” with his father this summer as they worked together in the Wainwright/Provost area.
“I was helping my dad on the pipeline. I was a welder’s helper.”
Schwarzenberger was in the company of family and friends Sunday as he celebrated his birthday, three months after graduating from William E. Hay High School.
Although the Dragons cut him on his birthday, he took the news and the timing in stride.
“Hockey is a business,” Schwarzenberger said.