MARC CIAMPA, a native of Alberta, Canada, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine. A student at the University of Alberta, Ciampa is the hockey columnist for Chicago Sports Weekly and the Calgary Cannons correspondent for the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs.
The 1997-98 Saints celebrate after winning the Alberta Junior Hockey League championship
It's one thing that has probably been on the mind of many players, coaches and general managers in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
Just what is it that makes the St. Albert Saints so successful year in and year out, anyway?
Of all the levels in hockey, the junior level is perhaps the most difficult to sustain competitiveness over a long period of time because of the high turnover rate. For most teams at this level success goes in cycles, sometimes two or three years in the middle of the pack, followed by a year - maybe two if lucky - at the top of the league and, inevitably, several years at the bottom of the pack rebuilding once again.
However, there are always a few teams that buck the trend and continue to churn out great teams year after year. The Kamloops Blazers come to mind, the Oshawa Generals are generally competitive each and every season, and in the AJHL that team is the St. Albert Saints.
Champions of the league last season, more than a few "experts" felt they were destined for reality in 1998-99 but general manager Marcel Viveiros and the rest of the St. Albert club knew they were going to be proven wrong.
With only a handful of players back from last year's championship club - and none from the top line of Jamie Lundmark, Mike Comrie and David Hukalo - the Saints remain in first place in their division and second in the league this season.
The team continues its success, obviously, because the players retained, and new players recruited are all highly talented and have great character but the team's system is one thing that has remained constant.
On Tuesday, December 23rd, 1998 I was privileged enough to observe the successful Junior "A" Hockey Club from the inside as they travelled to Calgary for an important game against the Calgary Royals.
Things were quiet until just after the noon hour as several players began filing into Akinsdale Arena. As I arrived, rookies Colin Grimard and Kris Liber were perusing the AJHL website in the team's office. There are two computers in the office for the use of the players. They are there mainly to help out players who are taking courses through tutorial programs and have aspirations of moving on via a college scholarship thanks to the Saints program. Another new addition to the arena is the dressing room. The room was built to have an uncanny resemblance to the Edmonton Oilers dressing room.
About thirty minutes before the bus gets ready to leave, most of the players have arrived. The few who have not will be picked up along with three of the coaches at a south Edmonton location. Saints all-star defenseman Scott Farrell has brought along with him a tape from a game he played several years ago at a tournament in Minnesota with the Northern Alberta selects. As the players on the team gather around, Farrell only has time to fast forward through the tape to the "good parts," which include several of his bone crushing hits, before they are told to get on the bus.
At this time, equipment manager Leo Mueller has loaded the bus up with each player's equipment and at 2:00pm the bus is set to depart for Calgary. On the bus, each player is given a pre-game meal consisting of high-carbo foods like lasagna. The mood on the bus is decidedly light as the players decide which movie to watch on the way to Father David Bauer Arena in Calgary. About thirty minutes into the city, the movie Deep Rising goes on and diverts players attentions from the game at hand - at least for a little while.
Another thing that diverts the players' attention is the sun. Several players begin taping up a wall of newspapers against the windows in order to block the highly annoying glare staring them in the face. There's a definite irony in using the Sun to block out the sun.
After three players and most of the coaching staff is picked up just off Highway 2, south of the city, the bus is now fully on its way to Calgary. At around 4:00 another movie is shown. Throughout the entire trip, the team would see three films. When one considers that the club plays over 30 games a year away from home, it boggles the mind how many movies they go through. GM Marcel Viveiros informs me that after road losses, the bus trip home is usually very quiet and does not involve a movie, however.
The bus arrives in Calgary just in time for rush hour. Unfortunately, it looks like despite leaving well ahead of time, the club will probably only make it to Father David Bauer Arena minutes before the pre-game warm-up. It takes the exit ramp off Deerfoot Trail onto McKnight Blvd. Having lived in Calgary for 12 years, I knew that was a definite no-no. As expected, cars were backed up and there were three and four light delays. Thankfully, the bus did eventually get to the arena on time. At this time, Viveiros had a word with the team. It would be the only time before the game that he would speak with them collectively. He spoke of team pride - the club being undefeated on the road against South Division teams - and he mentioned sending a message to the Calgary Royals about who was the second best team in the league.
Father David Bauer Arena definitely ranks among the best the AJHL has to offer. The home of Canada's National Team, the arena has Olympic-sized ice to go along with a fantastic training facility. The players went quickly to their dressing room in the arena and began their stretching exercises to a variety of different music. The warm-ups began with each player jogging on the spot, followed by key stretching exercises. Upon conclusion, the players clapped in sync - a definite indication of team unity. At this point, each player started to put their equipment on, with the exceptions being game scratches Jeebo Manah and Blair Miller.
As the players head onto the ice for the pre-game warm-up, Miller and Manah tap each player. The players stretched again as soon as they went on the ice and started with a light skate to get their legs warmed up. The first drill was largely for the netminders as the players lined up right across the blueline to let the goalies feel the puck. At this point it is obvious that Scott Kabotoff will be starting on this night as he gets the bulk of the workload. Next, the team does a breakaway drill which also warms up the goaltenders and each player's timing with respect to passing the puck. The rest of the warm-up consists of two-on-ones, two-on-twos and finally three-on-twos before the team takes the final few laps and heads off the ice. The ease with which both the on and off ice warm-ups went gives a strong indication of the Saints program and why it is, indeed, so successful.
After the 15 minute warm-up concluded, the players went back to the dressing room. The room was silent as you could sense a quiet confidence among each player. The coaches entered and said a few words to the team. The team knew how important the game was. On the road, just before a long break against one of the best teams in the league. They had no choice but to win. Before they hit the ice, equipment manager Leo Mueller entered the room. The players knew what was coming as Mueller yelled a fiery inspirational speech in order to get the team pumped up and he did just that.
The Saints were flying to start the period and Pavel Beranek helped the Saints get on the board early as he skated in from the side of the net and deposited the puck in behind Royals goaltender Peter Dobrowolski. The Saints would score again before the period ended as Rob Ziemmer put the puck in the net during a mad goalmouth scramble in the last minute.
In between periods, one would expect jubilation in the Saints dressing room but the atmosphere was very business-like. The team knew they were only a third of the way through. Head Coach Alex Belcourt had a word with the team on the off chance that they wouldn't be focussed on the next periods. He listed ways the team could improve their game, tighten up defensively and create some more chances offensively. The players knew they would have to play even better in the next two periods to have a hope of going home with two points.
The second period began the same way as the first, with Mueller once again getting the team fired up before they hit the ice. In this period, the Saints couldn't crack Calgary's Dobrowolski, but they did generate a lot of chances low in Calgary's end. The Royals' scoring chances were few and far between and after 40 minutes, so far it was mission accomplished for the Saints.
In between periods, the players were motivating themselves. They had 20 more minutes before they could call it a night. They knew what they had to do. The game was defined in the third period by two key incidents. First, Calgary's Kevin Olsen, in what was Calgary's best scoring chance of the game, was robbed by Kabotoff on a breakaway about a minute into the period. Second, Scott Farrell was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct for high sticking. However, the Saints remained composed. They had confidence in their penalty killing and for the entire five minute duration they didn't even give the Royals a chance to set up. From then on, the clock would basically run out on Calgary as the Saints won the perfect "road game" 2-0.
The atmosphere in the club's dressing room was jubilant to say the least. They had just accomplished what no other team in the league could do, that is win all their games in Calgary - Canucks and Royals - for the entire season. Each player was given a bottle of Cola and had about 30 minutes to shower before the bus would be set to go.
One of the hardest working Saints, Leo Mueller spent this time getting all the equipment ready to be put back on the bus for the trip home. By 10:00 everything was ready to go as all but four players - who would be staying in Calgary for the holidays - got on the bus.
Before hitting the highway, Viveiros had a few more words to say to the players and the bus stopped off at Peter's Drive-In. The players, coaches, and others associated with the team each got themselves a meal and a milkshake before the bus set off for home.
When the team finally arrived at Akinsdale at 1:45am, they each parted ways for the holidays, wishing one another a Merry Christmas. The next game would be in just over two weeks as the season begins to get geared up for the stretch run.
There is no question that the players already can't wait to return to the ice and put that Saints crest on again since every time they step on the ice, no matter where they're playing, from Canmore to Calgary to Fort McMurray, they know they can win because they're the St. Albert Saints.
And at this level of hockey, it doesn't get any better than that.
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