The early returns are more than positive for the Okotoks Jr. B Bisons.
Through two exhibition games the Heritage Junior Hockey League team has 17 goals with new additions to the lineup making an immediate impact.
“We really weren’t set to lose too many players, but we were really trying to target some high-end scoring. That’s what we lacked last year,” said Bisons general manager Ryan Rarick. “We were really targeting and wanting to bring back some local kids, but we were really looking to fill some holes we thought we had last year.”
The Bisons finished third in the division and fifth in the league with 171 goals last season and were void of a top-35 scorer in the HJHL.
Those numbers should improve with a number of new forwards in the fold, including 1999-born sniper Tyler Witzke – who split last season with the KIJHL’s Fernie Ghostriders and Creston Valley Thundercats.
“He’s a Buffaloes kid who played the last two years in B.C.,” Rarick said. “I was hoping the last couple years to get him, but he finally decided to come back to U of C. He’s going to help a lot.”
Up-front, Okotoks added Nanton’s Josh Niwa, a big-bodied forward who played last season in Fresno, along with the physically imposing Brennan Schwark and local talent and former Okotoks Midget AA Oilers captain Ryan Bedard. The latter won the Jr. B league and provincial championship with Revelstoke last season.
Okotoks is also hoping to bring back Austin O’Bray who was the team’s leading scorer midway through last season before moving up to play Jr. A with the Calgary Canucks.
“Ryan did a great job with recruiting,” said Bisons head coach Chris Beston. “We were looking for depth players, key guys and top-end players is what we were trying to recruit.
“We felt we had a good core and we just wanted to add to it.”
Okotoks’ defence will have a familiar look.
All-star blueliners Mitch Wolfe and Bryan Weber are back along with Joel Deeprose, Luc Thorimbert and Travis Scott.
New to the squad is 2000-born Michael Bentz, who spent the last two seasons with the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders, a 6-foot-2, 205 defenceman from Lloydminster.
They will be backed up once again by Devin Reagan, the all-star goalie returning for his third season with the herd.
“Our back-end is really strong and we’ve got great goaltending with Reagan back this year,” Rarick added. “I will be surprised if we don’t do really well this year.
“This is definitely the strongest team we’ve had in the three years that I’ve been here.”
Okotoks’ training camp and exhibition schedule opened last week.
The Bisons edged the Strathmore Wheatland Kings 8-5 on Sept. 4 and then overpowered the Flyers, icing a prospect-laden lineup, by a 9-1 count on Sept. 8 in High River.
“We don’t ever really have a big training camp, it’s better just to get right at it,” Beston said. “We’ve learned we’re going to be a deeper team this year. We’re an older team, for sure. We’ll be strong and we’re excited to get going for the regular season.”
Beston said the team is at about 27 players after the weekend and expects to have the roster whittled down to what it will be on opening day by the team’s final exhibition game on Sept. 15 against the Lomond Lakers in Lethbridge.
Okotoks opens the regular season on Sept. 20, an 8 p.m. start at the Murray Arena, in the Battle of the Foothills against High River.
For more information go to okotoksbisons.com