When the puck drops for Friday’s American Hockey League season opener, it will have been 335 days since the Bakersfield Condors last took the ice for a regular season game.
There’s been plenty of anticipation for the 7 p.m. game against the San Diego Gulls, the first of back-to-back games to start the season. The Condors will play the Gulls again Saturday at 5 p.m. and return home next Friday for their home opener at 5 p.m. against the Henderson Silver Knights.
This weekend's games will be played at FivePoint Arena in Irvine, which is hosting Gull home games this season.
“I can tell you that I’ve had a real jump in my step ever since they announced that the American Hockey League was going to be played,” said third-year Condors coach Jay Woodcroft. “When you get the chance to work with people who are like-minded and people who are excited to come to the rink everyday, for me, that’s a real privilege. To be able to ply your trade during these trying times and these strange times that we’re living in …”
Plenty has happened in the 11 months since the Condors defeated Stockton 4-3 at Mechanics Bank Arena on March 7. A week later, with the team in Grand Rapids, Mich. for a pair scheduled weekend matchups with the Griffins, the AHL shutdown operations and suspended all games over COVID-19 health concerns. In May, the league cancelled the season altogether.
During the interim, the news went from bad to worse in April when forward Colby Cave, who spent much of last season with the Condors, died of a brain bleed. The 25-year-old was hospitalized and in a medically induced coma in Toronto following an operation to have a cyst removed from his brain.
Needless to say, it’s been a rough stretch for everyone concerned.
“It’s 11 months basically since we were last able to do what we love,” Woodcroft said. “So for us to be able to come to the rink and have a purpose of going on the ice. We’ve had 11 months to prepare for it. So we’re really excited to see the execution part of things. I can say, just for me, when you have something that’s taken away from you, you spend a lot of time reflecting on what’s important. And when you get the chance to do it again you make darn well sure that you’re going to make good on it.
“I can tell you that I have a sincere appreciation for every single day. I consider myself lucky that I get to do a job that I love. And be around a group of people in our staff, our coaches and and our players that I really enjoy being around. So I’ve had it really good so far through training camp.”
Although the Condors will be back in action, fans will still not be permitted to attend games, at least not initially, something that Woodcroft understands but is not happy about.
“For me, one of my favorite parts about being the head coach of the Bakersfield Condors is interacting with our fanbase,” Woodcroft said. “It’s about trying to put a product on the ice that this community is proud of and can feel connected to. So them not being in the building for us is going to feel different. These are the times that we live in. We’re excited that we get to come compete on a nightly basis. Though our fans won’t be in the stands, right away anyways, we know a lot of our fanbase will tune in online and listen to our great broadcasts, and try and feel connected to us in that way. Nothing changes for us in our goal of trying to make this community proud.”
To help accomplish this feat, there have been a few shake-ups on the team’s roster, most notably the departure of Bakersfield favorites forward Josh Currie (Wilkes-Barre/Stanton) and defenseman Keegan Lowe (San Diego), who signed contracts with other AHL teams.
But there are still plenty of familiar faces. That’s particularly true up front where most of the Condors’ scoring punch is back.
Tyler Benson, the team’s second leading scorer with 41 points last year in 47 games, leads an experienced group that features six players with at least three years experience in Bakersfield. That list includes Joe Gambardella, Brad Malone, Cooper Marody, Luke Esposito and Jakob Stukel. Ryan McLeod also returns. The seven players combined for 59 goals and 117 assists last season for Bakersfield, which finished 21-27-5-3 and in sixth place in the Pacific Division.
“I think our (General Manager) Keith Gretzky and the management up in Edmonton, with Ken Holland and his entire staff, they’ve given us a lot of tools to work with,” Woodcroft said. "And there’s a lot of experience up front. And for me, that experience to come down and help show our younger players the way, I think will serve our team well going forward.”
In addition to returners up front, Bakersfield added three veteran players, all with NHL experience, Adam Cracknell, Seth Griffith and Alan Quine.
“Those players are really good additions in terms of experience level, in terms of skill level, and they will help guide some of our younger players up front,” Woodcroft said. “So those additions go alongside some of the key pieces that we return from last season, as well.”
On the back end, Bakersfield returns just one player from last year’s team, defenseman Vincent Desharnais, but are bringing back former Condors Kevin Gravel and Ryan Stanton, who were with the team two years ago.
“I think they’ll help some of our younger D-men assimilate into the American Hockey League,” Woodcroft said. “And when I look at our roster, I see a lot of opportunity. There’s opportunity for players to make their marks, to command ice time and to really find niches or roles within the team as we move forward in the month of February.”
The biggest question mark for the team might be in front of the net where 20-year-old Olivier Rodrigue, a 2018 second-round draft choice by the Edmonton Oilers, and Angus Redmond, who has just two games of AHL experience, are the team’s goaltenders.
But Woodcroft is not concerned about his lack of experience. For him, he says, it’s part of job.
“Our focus is on the people that are in front of us,” Woodcroft said. “As I mentioned before, I think Keith Gretzky and our management group worked extremely hard to try and find, No. 1 great hockey players, No. 2 good people, No. 3 individuals that can fit into the team concept that we’re trying to implement down here. As excited as we are for those former players to move on, and find their way with new organizations, we’re also excited about the new players that are in front of us.
“I think we’re going to have a strong leadership group this season. They’ve done a lot of stuff off the ice to try to bring our group together and we’re just going to try to build on things on a day by day basis.”