A long road back and a career taking off have Okotoks Oilers siblings both in the lineup for the first time.
Through the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Return To Play last month Oilers defenceman Tanner Sawka and goaltender Parker Sawka have finally been able to both skate together as teammates in the lineup, a first in the careers of the Cochrane siblings.
“We were both excited just in general to get back playing hockey, in the first place, but to get play together also,” said Parker, a 2002-born goaltender. “We’ve billeted together and pretty much done everything, but playing together for the last year and a bit. It was kind of that one game to get to test it out.
“Honestly, it was just cool to get out on the ice with him, even going to the rink, getting dressed in the room together, just a new experience really.”
An experience that was two years in the making.
Tanner, a 2000 born defenceman, has battled through massive adversity to get himself back into the lineup in this his final season of junior.
On the heels of a strong rookie season in 2018-19, the smooth-skating blueliner skated in just four games the following campaign and was sidelined after double-hip surgery.
Rest and rehabilitation was a more than two-year process with Tanner taking a run at playing again in the pre-season of 2020 before tackling rehab once more once the regular season was underway.
“It was a really long grind, it was two years being off the ice, but once we got to go back on the ice it was awesome,” Tanner said. “Just showing all the progress I’ve made through those years, the rehab I went through, all those struggles.
“It was all worth it in the end.”
Though the AJHL’s pause from play from November to March was a massive blow for the league it gave the 20-year-old the time to work his way back to health.
“I started to rehab again once we got that break and it felt really good once I got back on the ice,” he said. “The break was kind of convenient for me because I honestly didn’t rehab properly so getting those extra months really benefited me.
“I wouldn’t say it’s (completely back to) my full self yet, it’s a little different, skating in general you’ve got to alter your stride and all of your technique changes and you’ve kind of got to adapt to it, but over time I think it will be better.”
Parker was there for the journey back to health as the Sawka brothers billet together and have since the netminder joined the Oilers in 2019-20.
“Throughout the break, we worked out together every day usually, so it was really cool seeing him work every day and where he had come from,” Parker added. “From not being able to even move to being able to skate and workout.
“It was definitely a big motivation seeing that every day.”
In the second game back from the return to play, Parker got the start in goal with Tanner patrolling on the blueline as the Oilers got past the Calgary Canucks 6-4 on March 14.
“It’s huge, just how he is as a person, his character, his mental strength and to be able to just dial into it and stay positive with himself to go through these last couple years,” said Oilers head coach and GM Tyler Deis. “And now being able to play here during COVID and also getting himself back playing in games with his hips, it’s a huge testament to his character.”
Parker has battled adversity of a different kind to get himself into a regular spot in the lineup as well.
The highly-touted 6-foot-1, 190 pound shot-stopper, the CSSHL Top Goaltender in Midget Prep in 2019, was part of a three goalie set up on the team in his rookie season with veterans Ashton Abel and Brady Parker.
“He’s highly regarded from us, we knew that Parker was one of the goalies that was going to be part of the program and wanted him to be part of our program,” Deis said. “Last year, having the three goalies and him being patient and it working out positively for him in the long run and for us we couldn’t be happier.
“We’re super high on Parker in terms of what he’ll be able to do for this organization.”
After Abel moved up the ranks to the NCAA’s Boston University for the second half of the season, Parker got the chance to be in the lineup, but saw limited game action with Brady Parker getting the lion’s share of the starts.
In 2020-21, Parker has been in the net for three of the eight games played thus far and has made the most of his opportunities with 3-0 record, along with a .920 save percentage. Through eight career starts with the Oil, he’s a perfect 8-0 in regular season action.
“It’s really meant a lot,” he said. “That was a tough year last year, but that’s the way junior hockey works sometimes and I knew that. I just had to keep working and coming to practice and giving it hundred per cent and I knew my opportunities would come.
“This year it’s been pretty exciting getting some games in and proving what I’ve been able to.”
Tanner credited his younger brother’s determination in battling his way into the lineup after a tough situation as a freshman.
“I think it really helps his confidence getting into games and getting that junior experience and exposure,” Tanner said. “Not playing last year I think was a pretty big struggle and it took a toll on his mindset, but him just persevering through was really helpful and just being positive with everything.”
The brothers form half of the impressive hockey playing Sawka siblings.
The oldest Taylor played NCAA hockey at Clarkson University and the youngest Hunter is a strong 2005 prospect plying his trade at the Edge Academy.
“It’s meant a lot to us throughout the years,” Tanner said. “My dad was a hockey player back in the day, he put us into the sport, getting us skating and just something to do when we were little. Over time we grew to love it, my sister got into it, then I did and then it was just that trickle effect of all of us siblings.”
Tanner, one of six 2000-born skaters on the Oilers, is not taking the chance to play amid the pandemic for granted. Okotoks is currently part of a three-team cohort with Calgary and Brooks and have played five games since the league resumed play in mid-March.
“It’s been really nice, a lot of guys are really fortunate in the AJ to be able to get to play,” Tanner said. “I know a lot of guys across Canada are chomping at the bit to get on the ice.
“I’m just really grateful to get the opportunity to be on the ice and play the game I love.”
COVID-19 update: A positive test of COVID-19 amongst the Okotoks Oilers was identified on April 2 resulting in the team being suspended from team activities for 14 days as per the AJHL's Return to Play protocols. Okotoks' April 2, 4 and 6 games were cancelled, which were the final games scheduled as part of the team's cohort with the Brooks Bandits and Calgary Canucks. For the latest information go to ajhl.ca.