There is only one team in the Alberta Junior Hockey League that has been in the playoffs every year of their existence.
On Friday night, the Grande Prairie Storm start the quest to make it 17 in a row when they kick off the latest campaign in Sherwood Park against the Crusaders.
No other team – not the Spruce Grove Saints, Fort McMurray Oil Barons, Camrose Kodiaks nor any of the other 12 AJHL teams – have appeared in the playoffs every year of their existence.
But, for the first time ever the Storm head into an AJHL regular season coming off a season where they finished below .500.
The Storm won just 21 of 60 games last season – well below the team’s average win percentage over 16 years of .635 – one of the best in the league since the Storm joined in 1996.
That’s the bad news and that was last year. The good news heading into the 2012-2013 season there is much more optimism.
“We are going to be a much more balanced team from top to bottom which will allow me to spread out the ice time with all the players on the team,” said Storm coach/general manager Blaine Bablitz. “We have a totally new look for the upcoming season. I have been able to add a lot of very quality players that I think fans will really enjoy watching.”
Bablitz is starting his second year as Storm mentor after four years as assistant coach to Mike Vandekamp and he helped the Storm win its second AJHL championship in 2009.
He says it was a learning curve for him being the main man for the first time.
“The biggest thing I learned coming out of last season is not to sacrifice the things I believe in and what I want our program to be about just to bring in a talented player. All players will be treated exactly the same and asked to hold themselves accountable to what I believe and what I want this progra to be about.”
After a five-game exhibition season, where the team won three, lost one in overtime and one outright, Bablitz likes what he sees from his troops.
“The biggest difference between our team from this to last is the attitude and work ethic of the players,” he says. “They are all great kids who want to work and are working to achieve the same goal. I am very happy with the depth that I have created at all position on this team.”
There is, however, lots of work to be done.
“At this point in the year our team game is what still needs the most work, but that is to be expected. With the work ethic and commitment the players have shown so far we will get that sorted our very quickly.
Helping Bablitz sort it out is the team’s first full-time assistant coach Matt Hughes, who has head coaching/GM experience in the British Columbia Hockey League and most recently was assistant coach with the Dawson Creek Rage of the North American Hockey League.
“Matt has already had a huge impact on our team in so many ways. His hockey knowledge and experience is a huge asset to our team. He and I have very similar ideals on the game of hockey and how it should be played.”
After opening in Sherwood Park the team travels to Camrose for a date with the Kodiaks Saturday before returning home for the GT’s Oilfield Hauling/Isolation Equipment Services Home Opener Weekend March 14-15 against the Lloydminster Bobcats. One of the highlights of the opening weekend is a visit by Circus Montreal performer Balanzo, who will be on the ice each intermission during the two games.
While Bablitz and Hughes are similar in their ideals and how the game should be played, they are also like-minded in what they want the team to be.
“Our goals for the upcoming season are to be known as the hardest working team in the league. From there we would like to finish as high as we can in the North standings and be peaking as a team once playoff time rolls around. Our team will be based on hard work and playing hard every night. We hope to do our home town fans proud and hope to get more fans back in the building.”
Seventeen in a row? That’s what the 60-game schedule will decided. It is one game at a time starting on Friday in Sherwood Park.