Barons kick off pre-season with a bang

photo7By Tyler King

It’s tough to say what was more impressive in the pre-season opener for the 2013-14 Oil Barons – the tenacious, effective play of a young group of mostly rookies in a 4-1 win over the Notre Dame Hounds, or the massive response by the Fort McMurray community, which packed the Casman Centre with 1,363 people to set the team’s pre-season attendance record.

Let’s start with the former, which may have come as a surprise to those who expected the bulk of Fort McMurray’s talent to come from the returning veterans, most of whom were scratched for the game.

Despite an early one-goal deficit encountered just 3:30 into the game, and a heavy-hitting Notre Dame squad, the young Barons responded quickly and effectively.

First, local product Kaiden Tobin, acquired from Drayton Valley in the off-season, dropped the gloves for a lengthy fight with a Notre Dame defenceman that brought the near-capacity crowd to a thundering ovation. The tide turned noticeably afterwards, with the tying goal coming before the end of the opening frame.

Two of Gord Thibodeau’s major recruits at forward spurred the offence on a line together, as Mitchell Byrne and Mitchell Vanderlaan recorded two point nights. Both were teammates last year at the same prep school in Rothesay, New Brunswick.photo8

First, it was Byrne’s one-time goal off of a perfect cross-crease pass from Vanderlaan. Then, only a minute into the third, it was Byrne’s turn to capture the highlight reel, with a nifty move around a Notre Dame defender in the slot that led to a perfect pass to Vanderlaan at the side of the net for the eventual game-winning goal.

The lead was extended soon afterwards when local prospect Kole Gable, only 15 years old, dropped a pass back that ricocheted off of a Notre Dame player’s skate, straight to fellow McMurrayite Kyle Campbell, who fed a pass across to Danton Ayotte for a 3-1 Barons lead.

Campbell would end the night as the leading scorer with 2 assists, and an empty net goal with 15 seconds left to seal the game.

“I was impressed with my team,” said Barons guest coach and NHL veteran Scottie Upshall after his coaching debut. “There’s a lot of young kids trying out, playing really hard; they’re learning systems and at the same time they’re trying to impress. I was just trying to roll lines and have fun with it.”

Upshall was flanked on either side by two other former Barons – his brother Brent, and former MOB captain and NCAA national champion Carson Cooper – but Scottie wasn’t one to hold back a bit of tongue-in-cheek pride in his now-undefeated coaching record.photo4

“I had to bring a chalkboard in after the first, smash a couple of markers on it, and get the boys fired up,” he chuckled when asked to explain the team’s comeback.

The only thing as impressive as the team’s performance and the guest coaches’ resumes was the support of the Fort McMurray community and its always raucous and enthusiastic hockey fan base.

Not only did ticket sales far surpass what many might have expected, but the event also helped to add new people to the national bone marrow database, and raise funds for both cancer research and local charity Kids Forever.

The game was played as a tribute to former Notre Dame student Mandi Schwartz, who passed away from leukemia in 2011.photo1

Her brother Jaden, now a forward for the St. Louis Blues, has been a major face of his family’s commitment to the cancer awareness cause.

As guest coach for the Notre Dame side, he wasn’t the slightest bit affected by the loss – knowing that the purpose of the game was far greater than that.

“They did a great job organizing this,” he said. “Credit goes to the people who organized this – Christos [Kalogirou] and his buddies – they did an unbelievable job to get this many people out here. It was a lot of fun.”

For Schwartz, the event was just the latest in a long line of efforts he and his family plan to continue making in Mandi’s memory.

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“This is something we want to keep going, and keep getting bigger if we can,” he added. “I think this is the biggest one so far, and hopefully we can build on it. I think a lot of people learned quite a bit from this weekend.”

The young Barons will hope to learn a lot from this coming weekend as well; they’ll head to Drayton Valley to take on the Thunder in their first intra-league pre-season games.

MOB NOTES: The Barons say they plan to take 30 players on the road trip to Drayton with games Friday and Saturday night; we’ll have live updates via Twitter throughout the weekend – follow @tyler_king.