Hockey season began a couple of months early for a couple of Stettler bantams who toured Europe in August as part of the Canadian Cowboys.
On and off the ice, Paul du Toit and Tye Mulgrove soaked up the trip of a lifetime, as the AAA summer hockey team of 1999-born players made stops in Germany, Italy, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Mulgrove had so much fun that he didn’t want the 15-day journey to end.
“I liked playing hockey with new people, and meeting new friends,” he said of skating on a select team of Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan players.
“I’m friends with most of them on Facebook now. “I learned a lot from different coaches and different cities.”
The Cowboys’ coach was a familiar face in Jon Nichols, who coached du Toit and Mulgrove last winter with the Stettler peewee AA team.
Venice, Italy, was among the favourite destinations for Mulgrove, who turned 13 in July.
“There’s no cars or anything,” he said. “It’s all walking and boats. It was kind of cool. It’s all really old, with lots of castles.”
Likewise, sightseeing intrigued du Toit, who also turned 13 before the Cowboys left Canada in late July. He marvelled at Neuschwanstein Castle in Fussen, Germany.
“On the first full day there, it was really nice to see it — on top of the hill and everything — it’s really big,” du Toit said. “Verona, Venice and Vienna were really nice, too, and Prague, too — those were probably the top five (highlights).”
It was as much a cultural experience as a hockey tour for the kids and members of their families — du Toit was joined by his mother Amore and brother Stefan, while Mulgrove’s travel companions were his father Ryan and grandfather Larry.
“At the end of the trip, Grandpa and Dad were ready to go home, but Tye wanted to go play some more hockey,” said a smiling Larry Mulgrove.
The Canadian contingent covered 15,000 kilometres in the air and 2,800 kilometres on the bus. It’s no wonder the Cowboys had to catch up on their sleep when they returned home.
“I didn’t think it was going to be so busy,” du Toit said. “The most sleep we could get was one night of 10 hours of sleep. And the rest were, like, eight hours, and that’s not fun for me. I like 10 hours of sleep, at least.”
The international hockey experience was a tuneup for the Stettler boys — Grade 8 classmates — as they prepared for this season’s jump to bantam.
“It’s helped to improve (my skills),” du Toit said. “But it was more really nice just to see Europe and the culture there. That was more the highlight for me. It was really fun.”
He came home with a greater appreciation of the facilities available to hockey players in Canada — and indeed Stettler. Not to mention the officials.
“They could not understand English — the Czech refs — and they made bad calls,” said du Toit, a defenceman. “Like, if we had good hits, they’d call it as a penalty. It got annoying.
“In the bronze-medal game (of the Czech Hockey Challenge Cup), we were ahead 2-0 going into the last period, but we lost 4-3 (to the host Czech Republic), and all four of their goals were power-play goals and all four of our penalties were not good penalties. Like, in Canada, they would not have been a penalty.”
In the Cowboys’ final game, Mulgrove had two points, including the opening goal. He broke loose on a breakaway as an opposing defenceman fell to the ice.
“I went forehand to backhand,” said Mulgrove, a centre who listed that third-place showdown as the most memorable game on the trip.
“The goalie went down quick and, poof, the puck was in the net,” said his proud Grandpa.
It was a busy summer for Mulgrove, a pitcher who played competitive baseball before heading on the hockey journey.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” he said of the travel toll.
Team Canada gathered in Canmore for a July training camp and a tour of Banff. The players were decked out in Canadian clothing, jerseys and equipment before they left the country.
Fittingly, some members of the Canadian entourage sported cowboy hats.
“At the tournament party in Prague, we met kids from other countries,” du Toit said.
“Me and my brother, we traded our cowboy hats and we got two jerseys from Europe — I think they were both from Poland, so it was nice.”
As for wearing the Canadian colours, “it was nice,” he said. “But sometimes our teammates got really mad. I’m just, like, ‘OK, we’re representing Canada, act more like grown-ups. Show some class.
“I got two bad penalties, and I was mad at the ref, but I just said nothing.”
The soft-spoken Mulgrove did most of his talking on the ice. The Edmonton Oilers’ fan also had a strong recollection of details from each of the Cowboys’ games.
After winning a pair of exhibition games over Italy and Austria, the Cowboys visited four arenas in the Czech Republic for Challenge Cup action.
“Three of them were pretty much a barn,” Larry Mulgrove said. “They were in tough areas — poor areas — and they were smelly, stinky old dives.”
In tournament play, Canada beat the Boston Blue Chips 4-3 and a Polish team 7-5 before losing 7-1 to the Russians and 8-2 to the Czech Republic.
“The Russians played really good as a team,” said du Toit, who scored Canada’s go-ahead goal against Boston on a top-corner shot. “They passed really good and they were fast.”
It was another round in the storied Canada-Russia rivalry — not of the magnitude of the 1972 Summit Series, but memorable nonetheless.
“It was an awesome trip for sightseeing,” Larry Mulgrove said. “It was a great experience for the kids and their hockey.”
The Cowboys, who were made up mostly of Albertans, included Daysland twins Braydan and Brendan Davis. Brendan was one of the Canadian goaltenders.