The St. Albert Merchants are looking like a force to be reckoned with so far this season as they currently sit on top of the league standings through the first month of play.
The Merchants have won seven of their first eight games in the Capital Junior Hockey League (CJHL), including a couple of blowout wins, and as of Oct. 18, they lead the league in most goals scored (54), and fewest goals against (18).
Scoring an average of 6.75 goals per game is exactly what second year head coach Niall O'Donoghue is looking to see from the team this year.
"Goals were at a premium for us last year," O'Donoghue told The Gazette prior to a game against the Edmonton Royals on Sunday, Oct. 16, which the Merchants went on to win 6-2.
"We have four lines that can score [and] we’ve got a top six forward group that can really get creative down in the other team’s end," he said.
Leading the Merchants on offence is their first line, which consists of Hayden Carlson, Dylan McFatridge, and Brett Reiter. Through eight games, the trio have combined for 20 goals and 29 assists.
“They’ve just formed a really quick connection – this is their first year as a group together," O'Donoghue said of the line. "They’re magic to watch out there sometimes.”
Another Merchants' forward, Nico Gallo, currently holds second place in the CJHL goal-scoring race with 11. Only the Morinville Jets star Kyle Buchanan, with 13 goals, has more than Gallo.
"He started really, really strong last year, and then other teams started to target him," O'Donoghue said of Gallo. "This year he’s matured a bit, so he’s been putting up some nice numbers for us.”
The team's only loss came against defending league champions the Sherwood Park Knights, 4-2, on Sept. 30. Since then, the Merchants have won five straight.
“We’ve got some growing pains still, but I’m happy with where we are,” O'Donoghue said.
The Merchants will hope to keep the momentum going as they look to improve upon last season when they finished first in the West Division, but were eliminated in the first round of playoffs by the North Edmonton Red Wings.
“The Red Wings are a good hockey team and they’re a team you can’t ever count out," O'Donoghue said. "They have a reputation of having a great work ethic, and that’s what happened last year."
CJHL marks 50th year
The 2022-2023 season is the 50th in league history for the CJHL. The Merchants joined the league in 1983, however, the CJHL website lists one of the league's first teams as the "St. Albert Juniors." The Gazette was unable to find any information about the St. Albert Juniors.
"Players that still want to play at a high level but want to go to school or have jobs have the opportunity to (play) in a league like ours, and the quality of hockey is great," O'Donoghue said when asked about what he thought made the CJHL important.
“It’s an opportunity for young men to still play a competitive level of hockey, but not have to put in the time commitment they would to go to, let’s say, the [Kootenay International Junior Hockey League]," he said. "It gives them a chance to keep going.”
“I think we’re trying to rebuild the connection with the town that maybe the Merchants lost for a while. We’re trying to build that connection back with the community and hope to get more people in the stands moving forward by putting a good quality product on the ice.”
The Merchants will head to Spruce Grove for their next game as they'll take on the Regals at Grant Fuhr Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 19 starting at 7:45 p.m.
The team's next home game at Jarome Iginla Arena is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 21 against the Morinville Jets, starting at 8:00 p.m. The entry-fee for the game is $5.00.