Another winning season starts this weekend for the St. Albert Nektar Raiders.
The 2019 Mac’s Cup champions and Alberta Midget AAA Hockey League provincial finalists have a tradition to uphold after going 19-11-4 as the north division pennant winners and 6-5 in the playoffs with five games decided in overtime.
“We want to do what we did last year and go even farther. It’s going to be tough, but it’s going to be a good year,” said centre Mathieu Gautier, one of five returnees from the first team to compete in the AMHL provincial final since the 2012 Raiders. “It sucks that we lost, but we had a good team and it was a solid year.”
League play kicks off tonight against the KC Pats at 6:15 p.m. at Castledowns Arena and Sunday’s home opener is 2:30 p.m. against the Southside Athletic Club at Jarome Iginla Arena.
“It’s a new season so we’re going to try and live up to what we did last year and all the accomplishments we had,” said defenceman Tye Pedersen. “We’re going to start fresh and try and do it again.”
Pedersen and Breck McKinley are the holdovers on defence while netminder Andreai Proctor-Ramirez and forward Jaxon Dube are back for another go-round with the Raiders.
The roster includes Ryley Morgan and Drew Kuzma, a pair of forwards with AMHL experience with KC last season.
The 2019 Alberta Minor Midget AAA Hockey League provincial champion St. Albert Flyers are represented by three players and the St. Albert Source for Sports Crusaders, winners of the midget AA Playoff Cup in the Northern Alberta Hockey League, have four players on the Raiders.
Head coach Geoff Giacobbo cautioned the roster is not set in stone yet.
“There’s probably seven guys out there that we could still get back,” Giacobbo said. “You never know until they walk into the office, but there is that possibility.”
The current lineup was assembled with much deliberation after eight exhibitions as the Raiders finished 3-4-1 and the last two games were wins of 4-1 against the Sherwood Park Flyers and 4-2 against the Red Deer Chiefs.
“It was extremely difficult. There were some very hard decisions in getting down to 21 and there are some more hard decisions to come over the next week for sure,” Giacobbo said. “I would like to have the roster finalized in the next week to 10 days.”
There is a lot to like about the current Raiders, according to the new bench boss. “We skate well, we have good size, we have good hockey IQ, we work hard and we’re a hard forechecking team,” Giacobbo said. “It’s a great group of guys and all the coaches are looking forward to working with them. It could be not only an exciting year, but a real fun group to be around.”
Giacobbo was brought on board to coach the team after Jack Redlick, the recipient of the 2019 Glen Sather Coach of the Year Award in his third season with the Raiders, suffered multiple injuries in a crash involving three motorcycles June 29 in Idaho.
Giacobbo has coached a gazillion St. Albert teams, male and female, in a variety of divisions for a long time after his junior B playing days with the St. Albert Merchants ended and he was also an assistant on the Raiders during the Sandro Pisani head coaching era.
“It’s tough in the sense that I feel terrible for what happened to Jack, but good in a sense that this is a great opportunity,” said Giacobbo, the sports academy coordinator for Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools. “Jack and I are working closely together. I talk to him lots and we have a relationship from when I used to coach him to me coaching his boys and now we're bouncing ideas off each other for the midget AAA team.”
Don’t expect the Raiders to change their winning style of hockey with Giacobbo at the controls.
"It's going to be like last year for us. We’re going to get the pucks deep, get on the puck, hit the body and try to be as physical as we can,” said Gautier, who contributed three goals and three assists in 33 games playing “all over the place” and in the playoffs posted the same totals in 11 games.
“Last year I had a decent season. I didn't put up too many points, but it didn’t really matter to me,” said the Grade 12 Bellerose student who will celebrate his 17th birthday Sunday. “This year I want to really help out the team in any way I can.”
Pedersen, 17, is looking forward to a healthy season after a ruptured appendix and two fractured ribs limited him to 21 games and one goal and five assists in the regular season.
“The injury affected how I finished my year, but it was still a great experience and now this year I want to be part of another great experience like that and make it to the Mac’s and go far in the playoffs,” said Pedersen, who was healthy enough to return to the team for the first game at the Mac’s Cup and the rest of the season, including 11 playoff matches while picking up one assist.
“We’re going to work our butts off the whole year once again,” Pedersen added. “We’re going to work teams hard and push them and push them until they get tired and then we start capitalizing on our chances.”
As for the blueline brigade, “It’s a skilled core this year. Guys are a good size and we’re more puck-moving fast players than a lot of other clubs,” said Pedersen, a Grade 12 St. Albert High student.