Even before winning their first pre-season game Friday, the Stettler Wildcats scored a big victory off the ice.
The junior B team received a blue-line boost with the return of hometown defenceman Dylan Muhlbach from the junior A Olds Grizzlys.
On the eve of the Alberta Junior Hockey League regular season, the Grizzlys released Muhlbach after he played in their final exhibition game last Tuesday, a week before his 17th birthday.
“They said they were looking at keeping me around, at first, and told me to register in school,” said Muhlbach, who was banking on a winter in Olds. “So I was already in school and living there and everything. Then they said, ‘Well, we’re just going to have to send you back.’”
“I was really disappointed and just frustrated that I had to get moved again. It was just a lot of stress.”
Muhlbach needed a couple of hours to pack up his belongings in Olds before heading home last Wednesday morning.
“It was hard to swallow, but I’m definitely happy to be back and everything is a lot easier now,” said Muhlbach, who has been reunited with his twin brother Derek, also a Lightning rookie.
“There’s a lot of those guys that I played with before, and guys that my older brother (Brett) played with, too. He last played with Lightning two years ago.”
Muhlbach believes his security with Olds was compromised when two Grizzlys returned from their Western Hockey League tryouts.
“It was really frustrating,” he said. “They said, ‘No hard feelings and there’s always next year.’ They didn’t want me to think that this was the last (chance). But I’m just unsure whether I’ll go back.”
Regardless, Muhlbach’s goal is still to gain an NCAA scholarship within a couple of years. While finishing Grade 12 at William E. Hay Composite High School in Stettler, he’ll skate with the Lightning this season.
At home Friday night, he was in the starting lineup for a 6-3 exhibition victory over the Ponoka Stampeders, and manned the point during the power play.
“I’m excited,” Muhlbach said. “I’m ready to take a high role on this team.”
“Coming back was a lot easier (after playing at the junior A level for a few weeks). Honestly, the pace is slower and it’s just a lot easier to follow. I feel a lot more confident and collected out there.”
As his team prepares for the Sept. 28 opening of its regular season, Lightning coach and general manager Doug Smith welcomed another talent in Muhlbach.
“It was a nice surprise for us,” Smith said. “You like to see a player of that calibre stay at the better levels, but at the same time, it’s a great opportunity here. He’ll get lots of minutes and lots of different situations, whereas at the junior A level, you’re maybe a little more restricted in what you get to do the first year there.”
The Lightning earlier gained forwards Derek Muhlbach and Reese Anheliger from the Olds junior A camp, along with left-winger Jacob Schwarzenberger from the Drumheller Dragons.
In each case, they’re poised to step into development roles with the junior B Lightning.
“They’ll get a chance to get bigger and stronger before they go back (to junior A), and hopefully during the year they get called up for a few games,” Smith said.
“At this level, you have to expose these young guys to all those facets — power play and penalty kill — and see how they respond to it.”
As their full facemasks indicate, the Muhlbach twins are underage juniors who would still be eligible to play midget this season.
The Lightning took both ends of the weekend home-and-home exhibition series with the Stampeders, winning 6-3 on Friday in Stettler and 7-5 on Saturday in Ponoka.
Stettler’s rookie-laden lineup came back from a 4-2 deficit in the third period Saturday. Brad Voice scored two goals, Landon Potter had a goal and two assists, and Jacob Hamel added three assists. Matt Tateson, Brady Smith, Cody Wright and Gavin Brandl also scored for Stettler.
In Friday’s game, Reese Anheliger’s two-point night included the game-opening power-play goal. Stettler also got goals from Potter, Mitch Finkbiner, Derek Muhlbach and brothers Trevor and Lyle Wooden.
This weekend, pre-season play concludes as the Lightning host the Mountainview Colts on Friday night and visit the Colts on Saturday night in Carstairs.