The Stettler Lightning hope for a few surprises when training camp begins next week.
Although most of last year’s players are eligible to return to the Heritage Junior Hockey League team this season, a couple of other variables are at play in the formation of the 2012-13 edition of the Lightning.
Graduates of the Stettler Legion Blues — a midget AA powerhouse last season — expect to push for jobs with the junior B Lightning.
And the tryouts are open, so there’s always the possibility that they might attract an unknown newcomer or two.
“Camp is wide open,” said coach and general manager Doug Smith. “Anybody that didn’t get contacted, or would like to try out, we’re more than glad to have them.”
The camp begins next Tuesday at the Stettler Recreation Centre and runs for three straight nights from 7:30 to 9:30. Registration is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re usually in that 35 to 40 range,” Smith said of the number of players expected for tryouts.
“Our camp is a little bit earlier than most (other junior B teams), so some of the kids might still be in junior A camps. Perennially, we start seeing a few kids back here the first week of September, or a little bit later.
“There should be a good body of returning players and some kids that played with us a little bit that were affiliated with us last year and have since graduated from midget, so it kind of gives us a nice base of kids that already has the team concept down.”
Graduation has cost the Lightning a couple of valuable hometown forwards in Mitch Finkbiner and Brett Ouellette. Among the looming losses are young defenceman Dylan Muhlbach, who’s headed to the University of Calgary, and Ontario forward Shayne Liukkonen, who’s testing the U.S. junior A waters.
Lyle Wooden, a rookie forward last season, is attending the Drumheller Dragons’ junior A camp, while prospect Michael Neumeier — a towering forward from Castor who played midget AA in Stettler — is trying out with the junior A Olds Grizzlys.
“With his brother an assistant coach in Three Hills, he’s got some avenues he can explore,” Smith said of Neumeier’s possible junior B options. “So we’ll have to see what he decides to do.
“Some of the other midget graduates are also probably going to go to junior A camps first.”
The Lightning’s backup goaltender this season is likely to come straight from the midget ranks. Smith listed the Stettler tandem of Josh McCallum and Mack Schell, Castor’s Derrick Van Hienen and Delburne’s Boe Biggs as goalies expected at camp and potential partners for veteran netminder Simon Thieleman.
“Our goaltending should be solid, with Simon returning,” Smith said of the 19-year-old Thieleman.
“And our defence corps pretty well stays intact, so the back end is pretty well-experienced. That’s a good base to start from, for sure.”
The Lightning begin their four-game exhibition schedule Sept. 7 at home against the Ponoka Stampeders at 8 p.m.
The same teams face off Sept. 9 in Ponoka at 2:30 p.m.
Stettler wraps up preseason play with a home-and-home series against the Mountainview Colts — Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. in Didsbury and Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. in Stettler.
The Lightning’s regular season opener is on the road, against Mountainview, on Sept. 22. Stettler’s home-opener is Sept. 28 against the Three Hills Thrashers.
The Lightning’s 37-game schedule ends Feb. 7 at Three Hills.
After missing the playoffs last season, Stettler has a ready-made goal for the new campaign.
“Let’s take off where we ended last year, and not regress,” Smith said of his pre-season message. “We had a really good after-Christmas part of the season. I think we only had a couple of losses to the end, so everybody kind of felt their stride and got their place on the team figured out. We’re just hoping to continue on right from there with a little bit of a kick in our stride and a lot of confidence, knowing that we’re as good as anybody.”