Dylan Muhlbach received an early birthday gift on the weekend when he earned a job with the Old Grizzlys of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
It was a pleasant surprise for Muhlbach, a product of Big Valley and Stettler minor hockey programs who made the junior A grade after a weeklong training camp.
“I always planned on playing junior A — it was something I thought I’d do — but it’s something I thought I would be doing later on,” said Muhlbach, an offensive defenceman who turns 17 on Sept. 13.
“I didn’t think I’d be doing it this early. I thought maybe when I was 18 or 19.”
The Grizzlys’ coaching staff thought differently and told him to not only stick around for last night’s exhibition opener in Drumheller, but to make plans to live and play in Olds this winter.
What’s more, the Grizzlys also wanted Muhlbach’s twin, Derek, to play with the team this season.
Derek, a centre, attended the camp through Saturday’s Black and Gold intrasquad game, but he has elected to return home for his Grade 12 year and play junior B with the Stettler Lightning.
“He’s not quite ready to move away from home,” Dylan said of Derek. “He said, ‘Maybe next year.’
He wants to stick around Stettler for his last year of high school.
“It will definitely be different (not playing on the same team as Derek). We’ll have to see what it’ll be like. I’ve made the decision now to stay in Olds, but it’s not like it’s set in stone. I can always come back if I don’t like it.”
“But I think I’ll be comfortable with it. I’m registering for school Monday morning. I’ll be billeting with my auntie and uncle, so that makes it a lot easier, too. I think I’ll be able to adjust and make friends. I don’t think it’ll be too hard. It’s not much bigger than Stettler, so I think it’ll be good.”
With eight goals and 17 points in 20 games last season, Dylan was second only to his brother in scoring with the midget AA Stettler Legion Blues.
Derek scored 11 goals and 21 points in 19 games with the Blues, whose coaching staff included the twins’ father, Jim.
Derek, six-foot-one and 187 pounds, said it’s simply his preference to stay home this season and play with the Lightning, who open their training camp Friday night.
“It was a good week in Olds,” he said. “It went really well, actually.
“I talked to the coach and he said, ‘We’ll probably affiliate you for a couple of games.’ They’ll just bring me up during the season and see how I do.”
“I did have the opportunity (to stay), but I chose to come home. It just wasn’t the right time for me. Mostly because of schooling and stuff. I wanted to be around Stettler for my Grade 12 year. I just thought it would be a lot easier for me and I’d have fun here, too. I’m still hoping to go somewhere, maybe next year.”
The twins are “pretty close friends,” Dylan said, though that friendship might have been tested during the Olds camp.
“For a couple of games, they had us on different teams in tryouts and there was always times you’d try to hit each other, but it was all for fun,” he said.
Despite their relatively young age, the Muhlbach brothers are good-sized players built to handle the rigours of junior hockey.
“We affiliated with the Lightning last season and that’s different from midget,” said Dylan, six-foot-one and 180 pounds.
“There’s lots of older guys — bigger, stronger, faster pace — but this (junior A) is going to be an even bigger jump. Definitely a lot better skill-wise. I found myself looking over my shoulder quite a bit, trying to see what’s happening, but I’m much more comfortable now. But it’s going to be a big adjustment.”
Dylan’s adaptation to junior A, and the Grizzlys in particular, is eased somewhat by familiarity.
After all, the twins have gone to the Olds camp for the past three years.
“I think they’ve been watching us the last few years and seeing how we’ve progressed and developed,” Dylan said.
“This year, we were finally matured enough and ready and skilled enough, and I tried to work hard and stay focused on (the tryouts) the whole time. We had two ice sessions a day, but I slept in between them and got rested up.”
“We played lots of games — scrimmages and intrasquad games. Lots of it is teamwork, but you also have to play for yourself out there and show them what you can do. There’s everybody else trying to make the team, but you’re not trying to really help them make the team. Be there for yourself, kind of thing.”
The Muhlbachs live about 15 minutes south of Stettler. They have been fans of the Edmonton Oilers “forever,” Dylan said.
“We’ve been around hockey for a long time.”
This summer, the twins also kept active with the Stettler FC under-18 boys’ soccer team.