It was a good year of growth for the Red Deer College Kings hockey team according to head coach Trevor Keeper.
Last season was the second year for the team after a lengthy absence from the ACAC and it wasn’t without some highs and lows.
“The biggest struggle is trying to establish your culture and your identity and what you’re going to be all about,” he said. “We kept bringing in better people and tried to up our character and up our talent level and we made it to the playoffs again.”
So as the Kings enter year three the template to build that culture and identity remains essentially the same.
“When you’re a university or college student and you’re playing hockey you have to be a good student but you also have to be passionate about the game to be committed enough,” said Keeper. “We’ve had a few in the past two years that had a hard time balancing school and the commitment hockey takes.”
It was the number one criteria Keeper had in mind when he set out on the recruitment trail this past summer.
“I watched players but I also talked to their coaches and people that know them. I meet the in person and have dinner, lunch, coffee and try to ask those questions .You can generally tell how much someone cares about hockey and how committed they are to school.”
Once the player gets to Red Deer College they aren’t left to their own devices in order to meet the academic goals laid out for them either. Keeper says they use advisers to help players get into the right courses along with a support system which includes counselling and tutors so the student doesn’t struggle with keeping marks up while playing hockey as well.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate over the last couple of years. We’ve only lost a couple of players due to grades and when you’re talking about a new program we surprised some people,” he said. “The past two years we’ve had between 12 and 14 players on the honour roll.”
The message is drilled into the players from day one about how important it is to do well in class along with working hard on the ice. Keeper says he wants the players to treat school like a full time job.
“A lot of them have blue collar jobs in the summertime and I ask them if they miss work and they say no, you can’t phone in sick. Well, I say it’s the same thing with school. You can’t mail it in. You have to be in class. You have to show up every day like you have a job and that makes things easier so you can manage your training time and commitment to hockey as well.”
His philosophy about building a hockey team starts with being solid in goal and he has that with a pair of bookends in veteran Kraymer Barnstable in his 5th year along with third year netminder Mike Salmon .The Kings will carry a third goalie in the person of Devon Fordyce who brings with him some WHL and Junior A experience.
“That’s going to make it more competitive and it’s also a safety valve if we have an injury,” said Keeper.
It’s a scenario which played out last year as both Salmon and Barnstable had to battle through various ailments. Another advantage with three goalies is during a high tempo practice with lots of shots goalies can get tired out and then start displaying some poor technique.
“This way they’re rotating between the nets and when they’re in they’re ready to go and they’re ready to perform at game-like level so I thinks it better all around.”
The core of the defence will be Tanner Butler, Blair Mulder and Alex Marcinew but they have added former Red Deer Midget AAA player Kirk Johnson who has some WHL experience in Moose Jaw and Calgary.
On the recruiting side of things Keeper is excited to see three players wearing the Kings jersey this year, David Heath, Dylan Baer and Mike Statchuk.
“All of them are real character guys and we now have seven legitimate defencemen that can do everything that we ask.”
On the forward lines he added some size and enhanced the speed with Regan Wilton who is 6’1’,190 lbs, Nick Fountain 6’1” 195 lbs., Dylan Thudium 5’11” 200 lbs. and Red Deer native Jody Sick,6’4” 210 lbs.
“Without sacrificing speed and skill we were able to get some guys that made us bigger too,” he said.
It’s a general blue print for the ACAC but Keeper says he knows his team has to compete with the speed of NAIT, the size of SAIT and Augustana which came to the rink with a mix of both components.
So he has added nine new pieces to the puzzle and even though it’s early Keeper says he likes how hard they compete for each other and how coachable they are.
“There’s no drama. There are no red flags. There’s no concerns. We’ve got guys that if we want to hold them accountable and tell them this is the way you have to play, we are pretty confident we have the group to do that this year.”
The Kings kick off the regular season against Concordia on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Penhold Arena.