A pair of Okotoks hockey squads will be flying the regional flag at next week’s Alberta Winter Games.
The Rocky Mountain U13 AA Raiders and Okotoks U15 AA Oilers paved their way into the 2024 Alberta Winter Games in unique ways to earn the right to represent Zone 2 Big Country at the Feb. 16-19 youth sports showcase in Grande Prairie.
“I think they understand that it’s a special thing and opportunity to go and that they are the Raiders, but they’re representing the zone and will wear different colours,” said Raiders U13 AA head coach Mark Hallam. “They know there’s something on the line and the way they’re wired, the way they compete, it’s their own little identity, they’re gamers and I expect them to get after it and we’ll have some fun in the process.”
The girls hockey competition at the Games saw teams earn their way in through zone playdowns in early-December.
The Raiders knocked off the rival Airdrie Lightning in two games in the best-of-three set, the latter a 3-2 shootout thriller on the road.
Rocky Mountain’s Westyn Webb scored in the shootout with netminder Heidi Eckberg stopping all three attempts to backstop the Raiders to victory.
“From the start of the year to where they’re at now, they’re a tight-knit group that has improved a lot,” the coach added. “They have some good structure, and play a hard, disciplined game and they get after it and they play by committee.
“We score a lot of goals from committee, play good defence and our goaltending is steady for us.”
The U13 AA level is a new addition to the Alberta Female Hockey League this season and the Raiders bring a true regional team to the ice with players from Okotoks, Diamond Valley, Foothills County, Nanton, Vulcan, Chestermere and Strathmore.
“It’s a good mix from our draw zone,” Hallam said. “And throughout the year because of that uniqueness and travelling even the parents have had to help each other out and the kids have had the sleepovers and they’ve had the chance to create those relationships and create their identity and culture.”
The format on the boys side of the bracket in Grande Prairie features U15 AA teams that entered the draw with the best record in league play in their zone as of Dec. 19.
“There were six teams in our zone, all in our league. We had a great start to the season and started out 12-0-2 and got in the front door that way,” said Okotoks U15 AA Oilers head coach Daron Dumanski.
“I kept it quiet at the beginning of the year because I didn’t want them to be focused on it and once it was announced by Hockey Alberta, right around then we set our season goals and one of them was we wanted to win the Alberta Winter Games and league and provincials on top of that.
“We did use it as motivation as a countdown of what our magic number was.”
The Oilers sit second in the division standings in the South Central Alberta Hockey League with an impressive 21-6-3 record. The team has won 12 of its past 14 games in all competitions leading into the event.
Okotoks leads the SCAHL with 143 goals through 30 games.
“I went with a really young team this year, nine first years, and it really caught me by surprise that they could score this much,” Dumanski said. “Early in the year, there was a lot of individual stuff, but really over the last two months they’ve come together as a team and now they’re playing the right way and playing for each other.”
At the other end of the ice, Quinn Esler and Matthew McCallum have formed a strong goaltending tandem.
Esler will be competing in his second Alberta Games in as many years after playing rugby for Zone 2 at the 2023 Alberta Summer Games in Okotoks.
The Oilers have enjoyed success in tournament action this season with a spot in the semifinal round and in the final in its two appearances.
It will be about focus in Grande Prairie.
“I’ve coached at Prospects Cup last couple of years, Hockey Alberta events, and it’s a lot with travel days and three days of competition,” he said. “The thing we’ve been harping on the most the last month is shift length, more so just to finish the game as strong as we’re starting it and just doing the right things.”
To find out more about the Games, visit 2024awg.com.