Sixteen-year-old Jasper Bearcats forward Brandon Lawson is alone in the bleachers in the Jasper Arena.
With 45 minutes before game time, on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in Jasper, Lawson is taping his hockey stick. As he makes the final wraps on the right handed blade, the only other sound in the rink is of arena manager Pete Bridge putting the finishing touches on the ice surface. Lawson’s concentration isn’t broken until his 13-year-old buddy and fellow Bearcats forward, Tegan Barker, shows up.
“I SnapChatted you for a ride and you didn’t answer,” Lawson chides his friend.
“I know, I woke up at 11:30 and was like ‘oh man I gotta be at hockey,’” Barker replies.
The Jasper Midget A Bearcats are themselves just starting to wake up—to the new hockey season, to the rigors of an arduous travel schedule, and to the realities of being part of a highly competitive Tier 1 league. This weekend they’ve got a double header against Red Deer and Viking, and as the Bearcats find their way to the dressing room— straight-brimmed hats and NHL-themed swag giving some flair to their otherwise uniform collared shirts and ties—they are greeted by their coaches, Tony Bielec and Nathan D’Heer. Connor Malcolm, his hockey bag over his shoulder, is one of the last players to rush in.
“Sorry, I was at firearms training,” Malcolm says.
“Oh man I wanted to do that,” Bielec responds.
Bielec isn’t the yelling, screaming, garbage-can-kicking coach that can sometimes be associated with minor hockey. He doesn’t stack the lines, he doesn’t play favourites and unless someone isn’t practicing hard, no one sits.
“We win and lose as a team,” he says. “Our philosophy is that if you practice 100 per cent, everybody plays.”
Today, the only one not playing is Tristan Nissen, who’s out with a broken arm. As the guys gear up, AC/DC blasting on the speakers (some things never change), the coach reminds them not to take their opponents lightly.
“I don’t care what the internet says, who beat who,” Bielec says over the sound of sock tape being snapped off and chinstraps being closed shut. “Let’s play Bearcats hockey. Dump it in right off the pop and two guys hard in.”
As the first period starts, the boys are executing their game plan. They put Red Deer on their heels with quick transitions and hard forechecking. When Red Deer manages to get to the Bearcats’ net, Chase Thompson skillfully kicks out a save. Eventually, Jasper gets rewarded for their efforts and Jack Hilworth pots a backhander.
“All right Jack!” comes a cry from the bench.
Red Deer gets back in the game with a back door one-timer on the powerplay, but before the first period ends, Hilworth nets his second of the game, putting the home team ahead.
In the dressing room, Bielec is less concerned that the penalty kill collapsed than the fact that the shifts were going long.
“Thirty five to forty seconds,” he says. “You guys are bagged out there!”
Morgan Poirier, the Bearcats’ captain and quarterbacking defenceman, offers some constructive criticism for his teammates, who were guilty of a defensive lapse near the end of the period.
“I like that you guys are coming back hard but we can’t take a penalty every time they get a breakaway,” Poirier says.
Back on the ice, the momentum has swung in Red Deer’s favour and as the period starts to wind down, the Bearcats are down by a goal. But the game is getting chippy, and with a man-advantage, it’s Hilworth again with the puck in the slot. With a minute left in the frame he scores his third, a low wrist shot underneath the goalie’s blocker. The score is tied, but in the locker room, the coaches are bugged by the lack of discipline.
“No more chirping on the bench,” Bielec warns his team in the locker room. “That’s not helping.”
The third period starts with Hilworth getting his fourth goal, putting the Bearcats up, but Jasper can’t match the intensity of their opponents and soon enough, the game is tied again. The rink goes silent after a punishing hit by Jake Delorme sends a Red Deer player to the dressing room and on the ensuing penalty, Jasper pays the price, allowing a goal. A minute and a half later, Red Deer grabs the lead and things go from bad to worse for Jasper when the visitors pot an insurance marker with four minutes on the clock. Venting his frustration, Lawson gets called for a misconduct after he draws a slashing penalty and as the buzzer sounds, The Bearcats’ shoulders slump simultaneously.
In the locker room, there are some red eyes. Bielec is trying to keep the group positive, but he wants them to take responsibility for their play. Before he turns to leave the group, he reminds them this was their game to lose.
“You had these guys beat. It wasn’t the refs’ fault. Think about how you’re going to come prepared tomorrow,” he says.