CANMORE – Taking a look at the names gone from the team, Canmore Eagles forward Owen Jones knows there is an offensive void he needs to fill.
On the list of the team’s top scorers a season ago after Vinny Scott, Kayden Smith and Kyle Young – who all played their final season in the AJHL as 20 year olds and combined for 147 points – was Jones, in his rookie season.
Now a sophomore, the nearly 19-year-old Canmore-raised talent said he is ready for the challenges that await with him and he’s itching for the home opener Friday night (Sept. 15).
“I'm prepared, for sure,” said Jones. “I do have a lot of weight on my shoulders and I gotta be prepared for that because we lost guys like Vincent Scott and Kayden Smith last year. But I mean, a lot of guys are gonna help me out.”
Jones was tied in fourth in the AJHL for most goals as a rookie last season with 19, and he was in the top 10 for most power play points with 14.
It was a good season for a first-year player; however, after a heartbreaking first round elimination in last season’s playoffs to the Drumheller Dragons, a teary-eyed Jones pledged to get to the gym and bulk up his physique and improve his game.
It’s been six months since that elimination day and Jones said he’s benefited from a great off-season.
“You know the young guys coming in are gonna be ready to try to take your spot, and I mean, I wasn't gonna let that happen,” said Jones.
Jones also has the distant accolade as the only Canmore-raised Eagle this season.
With the departure of defenceman Finn McLaughlin to the United States Hockey League, Jones is the only Canmore-raised player on the Eagles this season. Left winger Haruki Morikawa from Banff will provide the other half of Bow Valley athletes on the Eagles’ roster.
“I really take pride in that [I'm the only Canmore-raised player] and I want everyone to look up to me, all the young kids,” said Jones. “I just wanna really be good to the community and people that remember me for playing for my hometown, for sure. I love it. I don't think I'll ever stop loving it.”
Last season, a big thrill for the team came when Hollywood star Jon Hamm visited the Eagles locker room; though losing 19 games by one goal was anything but a tinsel town-worthy story.
With most of the defensive core returning, there is going to be an emphasis on blueliners’ hard-hitting prowess, said head coach and general manager Andrew Milne.
Despite the team going 0-4 in the pre-season, Milne said it isn’t a concern for the regular season.
“We're gonna have to play solid defence, right from our goaltenders out,” said Milne.
“I don't think we're going to have the high octane we've had maybe in years past with scoring, but we'll definitely be able to, hopefully, contain some of it with defensive play and keeping their guys a little bit more accountable on the back end.”
In between the pipes is Matthew Malin, who’s entering his third season with the Eagles. Malin, 20, who was named to the AJHL’s 2021-22 all rookie team, played in 34 games last season and had a .903 save percentage. He’ll get the start Friday.
Canmore’s second goalie is newcomer John MacPherson, who was the Saskatchewan AAA's top goalie in 2022-23.
“I'm really happy with the goaltending and I think that's gonna be a big strength of our club,” said Milne.
The Eagles underwent staff changes in the off-season as well as bringing in Ben Assad as a new assistant coach and Dave Rowe as its new athletic therapist, replacing athletic therapist Rebecca Kuresh. Assistant coach Kyle McLaughlin is returning to the team on a part-time basis.
Assad played for three AJHL teams from 2012-17, including the Brooks Bandits. Following his stint in Alberta juniors, Assad played for the University of Windsor, where he was captain. He then played professional hockey in the Southern Professional Hockey League in southeastern USA.
The Eagles also promoted Bryan Arneson to assistant coach and assistant general manager. Arneson, a former Eagles player, has been part of the coaching staff the past three seasons.
Milne said there is a heightened excitement level among staff this upcoming season.
“I think that's something that, you know, we take a lot of pride in making sure that our players are as prepared as possible,” said Milne. “It takes a lot of time now with today's atmosphere where you have to spend a lot more time with them as individuals and you know a lot more communication needs to be had with them on both the positive and the negative.
“So I think with our staff, we have a lot more people that are available to the players to support them when they need it.”
The Eagles season home opener is Friday Sept. 15 against the Okotoks Oilers. Puck drop is 7 p.m.
Before the season starts Friday, a tailgate party is planned at 5:30 p.m. outside the rec centre, where there will be food trucks and a DJ.
BILLETS STILL NEEDED
The Eagles are still in need of billet homes to house players.
"We're hanging on by a thread, put it that way," said Milne. "We were able to get through, but you know, we're definitely looking for more.
"We're not totally off the hook yet."
Due to common struggles in the Bow Valley, such as a shortage of housing, higher cost of groceries and other programs seeking billets, finding beds is a year-over-year issue for the hockey club,
Each billet family is given Eagles season tickets, $500 per month throughout the season, a 15 per cent discount on groceries at Save-On Foods, and other sponsors and discounts.