It was a bittersweet moment for Jesse Altheim when the Canmore Eagles traded the 18-year-old defenceman to the St. Albert Steel.
"It was sort of like moving away from home again," said the Stony Plain product. "The relationship with my billets became exactly like a family. It was my second home. They were my second parents, my little sister and little brother. It was very hard to leave them."
Altheim went to Canmore last season to play for the Alberta Junior Hockey League team and was welcomed with open arms by billets Ken and Donna Browne and their kids Jessica and Nolan.
"Moving into a stranger's house was hard at first but I had a really good billet family. They were very experienced and great people. They made it very easy for me," Altheim said. "Being four and a half hours away from home and not seeing my parents every day I definitely had to look after myself a lot more, like going to school and kicking my own ass, I guess you could say."
In his AJHL debut the six-foot and 180-pound skater collected 11 assists and served 47 minutes in penalties in 51 games.
"As a 17-year-old I thought I did very well. I had very good coaching and a good group of guys around me. It was a building year for us all," Altheim said of the 19-39-1-3 Eagles. "This year they felt I would be a better fit somewhere else. I was really wanted here in St. Albert. They needed another D-man so it was a good trade for me."
The Nov. 26 deal for future considerations caught Altheim off guard.
"We were leaving for Camrose for a road trip and my coach [Andrew Milne] called me right before we left and said, 'We made a trade for you,'" Altheim said. "Was I surprised? Very much so. In October before the Showcase [weekend] I wasn't really playing my best hockey and I was having a hard time but after that, when we came on our northern road trip to Edmonton and we beat the Steel [4-2 Nov. 20] and Spruce Grove [3-2 Nov. 21] in their buildings, I was playing the best hockey of my life. [Steel head coach/general manager] Greg Parks saw me play and I guess he was really on my old coach to get me here."
In 24 games before leaving for St. Albert he scored his first AJHL goal (Sept. 18 in period three against Braden Redman in the 4-3 loss to the Calgary Canucks) and added two assists to go with 55 PIM.
"I feel right at home here. It's a great group of guys. Great facility. Great staff. Many volunteers," Altheim said. "I actually thought I would have a hard time fitting in but it's been great. All the guys and the coaching staff made it very easy for me to step in and play my game."
With the Steel he is pointless in nine games while racking up 44 PIM. On the fight card he surpassed his career total of two bouts with Canmore with some serious fisticuff action with his new team.
"I'm not usually the tough guy but if anybody needs to act tough I can play the part a little bit."
In rep hockey Altheim patrolled the wing and only recently made the transition to defence while in his second year of midget with the Leduc Oil Kings in 2007/08.
"I've always been a good skater so it's been easy for me. I'm a heads up kind of guy, so I see the ice well. I actually enjoy it better playing in the back end and looking up ice because I like to move the puck," said Altheim, who played bantam AAA and his first year of midget in Spruce Grove.
Meanwhile, the Steel (16-19-1-3) have 21 games left to gear up for the playoffs. At the Christmas break they ranked six out of eight teams in the north. They lost three of their last four games while outscored 23-10 and were 5-4-0-1 in the last 10. They have also surrendered the most goals in the north with 171 in 39 games. Only the Calgary Royals (182 in 41 games) and Drumheller Dragons (173 in 40 games) have allowed more goals in the AJHL.
"We can use this time off to re-evaluate and look at things, get our team back together and rally the troops and get at it again," Altheim said.
The last game before the holidays was a 9-0 shellacking by the third-place Fort McMurray Oil Barons (27-12-1-2) Dec. 22 at Performance Arena.
"When the goals start going in like that, it's very hard to keep pushing and keep it down but definitely the floodgates did open up on us," said Altheim, who traded punches with Dylan Seymour during a rash of scraps late in the game. "In a loss like that emotions run high. I'm not usually the fighter but I stepped up to try and rally the troops."
The Steel resume league play Saturday and Sunday at Fort McMurray.
"Definitely that's the time to answer back and make a point against them."
Steel captain Ryan Edens (171 PIM in 38 games) will serve the second game of his two game suspension Saturday for being involved in a fight while another was in progress in the Steel's 6-5 loss to the last-place Drayton Valley Thunder (10-26-2-2) Dec. 20 at Performance Arena.
The first home game of 2010 is Tuesday against the fourth-place Bonnyville Pontiacs (22-17-2) at 7 p.m. Next weekend the Steel play three games in three days at Canmore, Okotoks and Olds.