Senior hockey caters to former junior, pro players

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:25 PM ET

When the Bentley Generals and the Stony Plain Eagles clashed in a battle of top Chinook Hockey League clubs last night, there were more than a few recognizable names on each roster.

For years, senior hockey has been a haven for former junior and professional players.

It's been a place to go to keep the competitive fires burning.

This year, former Edmonton Oiler Kelly Buchberger is playing in the league as a member of the Generals.

He joins a team which already features a number of former juniors and pros.

"Kelly has been a nice addition to the club," said Generals assistant coach Brian Gerrits. "He's fitting in well. He's in great shape. As far as physical conditioning, he's probably in as good a shape as anyone in the league. It'll probably take another game or two to get his legs back in game shape, but the three games he's played already, you can definitely tell it's coming."

Hailing from Langenburg, Sask., Buchberger is very familiar with senior hockey. His father ran the team in Langenburg for some time. And Buchberger is well aware of the talent found throughout senior hockey leagues around the country. It's one of the reasons he decided to join the Generals.

LOVE OF THE GAME

"The love of the game hasn't left me," Buchberger said.

"I enjoy it and I enjoy every second that I'm out on the ice with those guys. Everybody takes a lot of pride in their play; there's no days off whatsoever."

Despite having moved to the coaching ranks with the Edmonton Oilers, Buchberger still has that fire for playing the game. He's fit in well at the senior ranks.

"There are players that have a lot of skill and players that take a lot of pride in their play," Buchberger said. "When you have that, you're going to have a very good league."

The Chinook League has become one of the strongest senior hockey leagues in the country.

This year, the Stony Plain Eagles, Generals, Fort Hotel Chiefs and Innisfail Eagles are all in a tight battle for top spot in the seven-team league.

All of them have their eye on a trip to the Allan Cup, taking place in Powell River, B.C., this season.

"Everybody seems to have improved in the past few years," said Gerrits. "Stony, for a long time, basically owned the league. But we've come a long way in the past few years and the other teams have improved as well."

SMYTH CONNECTION

Coached by Kevin Smyth - the older brother of Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth - Bentley has been able to attract quality players to their team.

During the NHL lockout last season, the Generals even tried to bring Ryan on board. They weren't successful.

As a current NHLer, Ryan was ineligible to play senior hockey. Regardless, the Generals went on to finish first in the league standings, but lost to the Eagles in the playoffs.

It was Ryan who helped set up Buchberger with the Generals.

"Ryan has been around our hockey club since his brothers Kevin and Jared have been involved," Gerrits said. "Kelly just kind of said something to him one night, that he wanted to be back involved playing, and Ryan made a phone call to Bentley to Kevin. I would hope he's enjoyed himself, because we've sure enjoyed having him."

Adding a player like Buchberger is not just good for the Generals, it's good for the entire league.

"Getting more competitive balance is great for the league and great for senior hockey in Alberta," said Eagles coach Craig Goebel. "We've never got the exposure that some other leagues have, but we've had a lot of great players play senior hockey. Pat Falloon played for a team in Manitoba, obviously Theo Fleury played last year and this year with Kelly coming on board, it's creating some interest."

Creating interest outside of the communities which ice senior hockey teams has always been an issue.

A player like Buchberger extends the name of the league outside places such as Bentley, Stony Plain, Beaumont and Innisfail.

"He's such a great role model," said Goebel.

"We've been in their (Bentley's) seat before and had ex-NHLers on our team. It's good for the league and it's good for senior hockey."

And for the Generals, it'll be good for a playoff run.

"We're looking forward to being the same way he played in the NHL," Gerrits said.

"When we come down to the playoffs, that's when we'll be really looking for big things from him."


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