‘I would definitely do it all over again’: WHL players head home after once-in-a-lifetime season

The Red Deer Rebels lived in hotels, empty college dorms and the arena itself.

Now, after the conclusion of an incredibly unique regular season, WHL players are packing their bags and heading home.

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Throughout their stay in the Westerner Park Centrium, the Rebels went through 1,448 cartons of milk, 270 pounds of hashbrowns and 1,980 eggs.

Still, after 85 nights in the rink, not everyone was ready to say goodbye.

“They were really trying to kick us out,” graduating player Josh Tarzwell said with a laugh on Wednesday. “We were definitely trying to prolong it a little bit. I didn’t get out of there until around 9 a.m.”

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While other players were carted off to the airport or packed up for long drives across Western Canada, Tarzwell only had to drive about 10 minutes to get home.

First order of business? Reuniting with his dog, Wally.

“He’s just a ball of energy,” Tarzwell said. “I live on an acreage, like 10 minutes out of town. I drove into the yard, and he’s just running around. It was awesome, a huge stress relief.”

As players trickle home, all that’s left for them to do is look back on a — hopefully — once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I went a year without seeing my best friends… Then every single day, we spent close to every second of every waking moment with each other,” Tarzwell added. “It was awesome.”

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While memories of wins, losses, ping-pong tournaments and pranks will stay with all the players, life in the COVID-19 bubble could be difficult, especially when wins were hard to come by.

“There are no windows in the Centrium,” Tarzwell said.

“We can get out and walk but more often than not, it’s not very nice. It’s just hard, constantly looking out from your suite to the ice surface. It kind of reminds you of what’s going on, and there’s really no escape from what’s happening, so that was really hard for a lot of guys.”

Down the highway, the Calgary Hitmen left the Grey Eagle Resort in the rearview mirror by mid-morning on Wednesday.

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Their goodbyes also looked unusual, as players continued to follow strict protocols, leaving the hotel at assigned times in small groups to retrieve their gear from the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex, and hit the road.

“Spending more than three months in a hotel isn’t really ideal and not being able to see family or anything,” goaltender Jack McNaughton said.

“Honestly, I was pretty disappointed that we don’t get to play playoffs this year but also I think it’s probably in the best interest to get guys out of the bubble.”

The season saw one positive COVID-19 case in Alberta’s Central Division: a young Hitmen player who was asymptomatic and was able to play out the remainder of the season.

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“We don’t know where he got it. The contact tracing just couldn’t get it,” Hitmen general manager Jeff Chynoweth said.

“We wanted to make sure that player didn’t feel that guilty. We made a point of talking, reaching out to the family and the boy, the coaching staff and the players… It is what it is. It can happen to anyone as we all know, and it affects everybody in different ways.”

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Teams and the league are already looking forward to next season in hopes of playing a full slate of 68 games.

“We’re working on scheduling right now,” Chynoweth added.

“Nothing’s written in stone. As someone’s told me, COVID will determine when you come back. But I think the most important thing is we need fans in the rink. If we don’t have fans, that’s going to be very difficult.”

In the meantime, the players return to school, jobs and life outside of the bubble with no regrets.

“These are the friendships that will last forever,” McNaughton said, “so I don’t regret anything. I would definitely do it all over again.”




© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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