By Stephen Dafoe
Morinville – Like Santa Claus, the Jets home opener and tailgate party comes but once a year. And like the jolly old elf, the home opener brings with it a bag of goodies for kids of all ages. This year’s home opener and tailgate party is no exception and organizers have a variety of activities set to fill the Ray McDonald Sports Centre Sept. 19, expanding into the parking lot and street.
The tailgate party begins at 11 a.m. Sunday, three hours before the Jets take on their West Division rivals, the Spruce Grove Regals, at 2 p.m. But that three hour window is the perfect opportunity for Jets fans to come out and enjoy the festivities while supporting the community.
Jets Director of Player Development Roland Blackburn said the tailgate party portion of home opener day is something the club has done for the past two or three years and is designed to be a fundraiser for community groups.
“It’s about the community and it’s about the Jets in someway giving back to our community because we’ve received so much from our community now,” he said. “All the money raised from the tailgate party goes to a local charity. This year the charity is the Morinville Christian Fellowship Youth Group.”
Blackburn said the youth group will be manning the barbecue concession that will be set up outside the arena, and 100 per cent of the proceeds will go to the group. Given that the food and beverages are being donated by Sobeys and Tim Hortons, and the equipment and tents supplied by home Hardware, the Jets and the local business community are ensuring that the youth group have no costs to cut into their sales.
But while the concession stand will cook up something for hockey fans to munch on while they wait for the game to begin, there will be plenty of action cooking in the street in front of the arena.
The Morinville Volunteer Fire Department will be on hand with a display of their equipment and firefighters to explain what it’s all about. Additionally, The Morinville Minor Hockey Association will once again be hosting a community street hockey game. Blackburn said the street in front of the Ray McDonald Sports Centre will be cordoned off with nets set up ready to go from 11 a.m. until 1:30 p.m.
“Anybody can play,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if you’re three or 93, you can come out, bring your hockey stick and you can play in the street hockey game.”
But while anyone can play in the street prior to the home opener, only a select two dozen will be permitted to hit the ice for the Jets. Those 24 players have been whittled down from more than twice that amount over the past few weeks.
“The home opener is really the culmination of what has happened over the last month with the Jets, and it’s been a lot of work,” Blackburn said, noting that the process began with the club’s scouts looking for the right players to invite to camp, then opening and running the camp, evaluating players through the various skates and exhibition games leading up to the start of the season. “Ultimately, it’s almost like a construction project. It starts out with a bunch of material strung out all over the place, then when it’s all said and done, you forget how painful it was.”
Blackburn said after starting with more than 50 players in late August, the Jets are down to 24 players who made the team. The Jets made their final cuts Sunday night. Blackburn said those who made the cut have all gone through quite a process over the past month to earn themselves a spot.
“They’ve gone through it all, succeeded and accomplished the task of making this hockey team,” Blackburn said. “This is our first real chance to show our community the result of all that work.”
But when it comes to just what Jets fans can expect this season, Blackburn, who once wore a Jets jersey himself, holds no modesty. “I think this might be the best Jets team ever,” he said. “We’re going to have a much more balanced attack. I think we’re going to have a lot more scoring, a lot more size. Everything we were looking for when we were scouting for players, we’re going to have.”
Jets fans will get the opportunity to see for themselves beginning this Friday night. The Jets open the CJHL season in Leduc, taking on the Schwab Riggers at 8 p.m. The Jets / Regals home opener game starts at 2 p.m. Sunday.