Daily Herald-Tribune

The Grande Prairie Storm made a statement on the weekend and it took them all of 50 seconds to do so.

Team coach and general manager Blaine Bablitz has stated a key to success this season will be a return to the home-ice domination that the Grande Prairie Storm have enjoyed in the past.
Historically, Canada Games Arena has been one of the toughest rinks in the entire Alberta Junior Hockey League for opposing teams.

There are a few reasons for that. Fort McMurray notwithstanding, GP is the longest road trip teams have all season. Even by combining it with other stops, it’s still two-and-a-half hours away from the next rink, and that only changed this year, with Whitecourt joining the league.

Next, there are the fans. Grande Prairie has boasted the largest fan base in the league ever since its inception into junior A hockey. It’s not easy for players to perform in front of 1,500-2,000 fans cheering against them, when they are used to 500, cheering for them.

Then there’s the team itself.

The Storm have almost always been a force in the AJHL.

That home dominance was missing in the 2011-2012 season. They only won 14 of 29 home games last season.

The distance to GP was still the same, and the fans were still at the arena, so . . .

True, this was the first home weekend of the 2012-2013 season. And, true, this was a series against a Lloydminster team that has only seven players – three forwards, three defencemen and one goalie – who were with the team at the end of last season.

But still, was that a hint of a swagger I saw coming from Bablitz’s step on Saturday night, after his boys completed a two-game sweep of the Bobcats?

I think it was.

In fact, I think I saw hints of that same swagger coming from the players themselves, right off the opening face-off on Friday night.

There was clearly a confidence in the team that seemed to be missing for the majority of last season.

Despite getting off to an 0-2 start, dropping games in Sherwood Park and Camrose to kick off the 2012-2013 campaign, this Storm team looked anything but fragile.
And when newcomer Sam Lawson opened the scoring, 50 seconds in on Friday night, it triggered an attack that, had a few other Storm players been able to find their finishing touch, could have been the start to a blowout.

Yes, the Bobcats survived the initial onslaught and from there, frankly, Friday’s game turned into quite the snoozer, until the midway mark of the third.

But the result was the only thing of importance to Bablitz.

Even more importantly was how the team came out on Saturday.

One year ago, the second home game was when all the questions started. The Storm pummelled the St. Albert Saints 9-2 in the home opener, then one day later the team played like it was owed a second win.

The Storm built up a 3-0 lead against the Drayton Valley Thunder, then sat back and watched as Fran Gow’s squad came back with four straight goals to ruin the home-opening weekend party.
That attitude, that the team could somehow win games without trying, replayed itself over and over again last season. The Storm ended up 18 games under the .500 mark – the worst record in the history of the franchise.

This year’s team has already achieved something last year’s team did not – a couple of things, in fact.

With the two wins against Lloydminster, the Storm are at the .500 mark for the season – a mark they were chasing, in vain, throughout last year. And, they are also two games over .500 at home. They were never better than one game over that mark last season.

Now, clearly, there is a lot of season left to play – and most of those games will be against better teams than the one the Storm faced over the weekend. But if Bablitz can get his boys to continue with the approach they all bought into for the weekend home opener, the 2012-2013 season will be an exciting one for the fans.

Then again, last year it all started going south in their first meeting against the Drayton Valley Thunder.

The Thunder are here Tuesday night. Puck drops at 7:30 p.m.