Finally, it will count.
The Okotoks Oilers ended their never-ending more-than-a-year exhibition season with a 7-2 win over archrivals the Brooks Bandits and will now start the regular season this weekend in Camrose.
“It’s a great feeling, I know this being my final year, I just can’t wait for it to finally mean something,” said Oilers captain Tucker McRae. “Last year, it seemed like we were just playing to pass the time with no one watching.
“It was hard to keep motivated, but this year it’s really exciting knowing that we will be playing for something for the end of the year.”
The Oilers ended the regular season in 2019-20 with their second-best record in history with 98 points and were poised to make a run at their first AJHL championship, but they never got to play a playoff game because of the COVID pandemic.
And what little hockey was played in 2020-21 was of the exhibition variety.
For this season, Oilers’ fans better buy a program – there are a lot of new faces.
“Definitely different than past years, we are a lot younger,” said the blueliner McRae, a three-year veteran. “But I think there are a ton of guys with grit and speed who are willing to do anything for this team.”
There are some older guys as well, who will provide leadership on and off the ice.
“Rieger Lorenz and Bowden Singleton, who were both with us last year, they will both be great offensively and the newly acquired Brendan Boyle, a 20-year-old from the ‘Dub’ will contribute offensively,” McRae said.
All three showed they can contribute offensively in the 7-2 victory at the Scott Seaman Sports Rink in Davisburg on Sept. 11.
Lorenz and Singleton had a pair of goals while Boyle had an unassisted marker.
Austin Reschny had a short-handed goal and Jackson Rowland deflected a puck into the net for the Oilers' other two goals.
The Oilers’ powerplay was a perfect 3 for 3. Parker Sawka got the win in net and stopped 22 shots.
Only exhibition, but always nice to be up against the powerhouse Bandits.
“It gives us a good measuring stick to see where we are at this year,” said Oilers head coach Tyler Deis. “Things that we need to work on. That why we like to play against Brooks, it gives us a pretty good gauge on what we need to do.”
He was impressed with the energy of the young squad.
“The good thing is the group’s work ethic and being tenacious on pucks, things like that,” Deis said. “They battle and compete – the kind of things you can work with to have a successful year.”
There will be some growing pains.
“We’re really young and we have lost a lot (of players),” Deis said. “We’re excited for the potential not only for this year, but for the next bunch of years.”
He said homegrown players, forwards Brody Spencer-Ha, Conyr Hellyer and veteran defenceman Riley Bodnarchuk have had impressive camps. All three players were previously with the Okotoks AAA Oilers system. Bodnarchuk has played the last three seasons in the AJHL.
The coach shares the players’ excitement for the start of the regular season.
“It’s been a long time since we had something like this,” Deis said. “We’re excited to get things started up in Camrose.”
The OIlers dropped a 6-4 decision to the Bandits on Sept. 10 in Brooks. Lorenz had a pair of goals in the loss.
Okotoks opens its season with a pair of games in Camrose Sept. 17 and 18.
“I think definitely we can compete,” McRae said. “We don’t know what to expect each night, we have to treat every team like they are the no. 1 team.”
Their home-opener is Sept. 24 when the Canmore Eagles fly into the Pason Centennial Arena at 7 p.m.