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When the Saints Go Marching In

I've always had a complicated relationship with junior hockey. I grew up in St. Albert, Alberta, right next door to Edmonton and within spitting distance of about a dozen junior 'A' teams, the Oilers, and the short-lived Edmonton Ice playing out of the shambles that was the Northlands Agricom. Even today, living in Victoria, I go to far more games for the BCHL's Grizzlies than the ECHL's Salmon Kings. There's something about junior 'A' that combines superb hockey with an utter lack of pretention.

Hockey was easy to find in St. Albert back in those days. But from day one, I had eyes for only the most nails team in junior hockey history: the Alberta Junior Hockey League's St. Albert Saints.

The higher-level teams were great, and I went to a couple of Ice games in that ersatz hockey rink/convention centre in my time. But the Saints had a distinct élan as an organization that was irresistible to any young man who truly loved the sport of hockey. I was the only hockey fan in my home growing up and I didn't get to as many Saints games as I'd have liked (the ideal number being every game they ever played plus two), but the worst and probably most symbolic blow was when I was hauled off on a family ski trip to Jasper, utterly incommunicado as the Saints played those fuckers the Fort Saskatchewan Trader for the inaugural Rogers Wireless Cup. The first I heard of a single result was on the drive back home, when my mom's decrepit '91 Ford Tempo rolled past the even more decrepit Akinsdale Arena and a sign congratulating the Saints for winning in six.

Of course, if things didn't end badly they'd never end at all. The Saints are dead, executed by St. Albert City Council in 2004 when mayor Richard Plain and company refused to replace Akinsdale until the hockey team had already left. The Saints moved back to their ancestral home in Spruce Grove (from which St. Albert had first stolen the then-Spruce Grove Mets) and St. Albert eventually stole those fuckers the Traders from Fort Saskatchewan and plunked them into their $40 million bland, corporate multiplex. But being an old Saints fan and cheering for the St. Albert Steel is like switching from oysters to prairie oysters.

But though the Saints have been dead for half a decade, their memory lingers in the NHL. From Mark Messier to Steven Goertzen, Saints alumni have impacted the NHL for their entire history. Even today, a half-dozen former Saints will likely play NHL games this season; the heritage of a dead team.

For an Oiler fan, Mike Comrie is the most significant old Saint in the 2009-10 season. His recent history of 40-odd point seasons have led some to forget how remarkably gifted a scorer Comrie was in his junior days; he was one of the stars of the ridiculously talented 1998 Saints team that came an undeserved runner-up to the South Surrey Eagles at the Doyle Cup between the champions of Alberta and British Columbia. He was never the most highly touted of his junior class, but he was always the best.

Comrie spent two seasons in St. Albert, playing his first game in 1996 at age fifteen and winding up his rookie season as a point-per-game player barely old enough to drive on one of the best teams in Alberta. His next season went down in history, as Comrie piled up 138 points alongside 134 penalty minutes as the most infuriating pest from hell with hands soft enough to sculpt clouds. Two years at Western Michigan and half a WHL campaign in Kootenay more than proved his potential, and Comrie's omnipresence in the NHL to this day is a testimony to what the Saints once were.

His legendary linemate in 1998 is current Flames farmhand Jamie Lundmark. They were so similar on the surface but so different on the ice. In his youth, Lundmark was taller than the late-growing Comrie and much more a natural playmaker compared to Comrie's talent as a sniper. The two meshed like few junior players ever can, but in spite of Comrie's gaudy totals Lundmark got all the hype from day one. He looked like a hockey player. Comrie tucked in his jersey like Wayne Gretzky and did a little thing with his wrists and the puck went in, but Lundmark romped from blue line to blue line like he owned the ice.

Not to say Lundmark couldn't play. His rookie season left much to the imagination but he piled on a magnificent 91 points with St. Albert in 1998 before Moose Jaw and stardom beckoned. It was his last AJHL and first WHL seasons that made his reputation and earned him the ninth overall pick from the New York Rangers, while Comrie languished until the Oilers picked in the third round. But it was Comrie who turned into the reliable NHL player, while Lundmark continues to ping-pong between the minors and the show. And if you'd asked a Saints fan in 1998, not one of them would have been surprised.

Much more of a surprise is the career of the best player on this list, Calgary's Rene Bourque. Bourque arrived in St. Albert during the hangover season of 1999-2000, where the Saints were beginning their final and ultimately fatal spiral to mid-table irrelevancy. He was seventeen, old for an AJHL rookie. He wasn't the best skater and, though big for his age, used his size with a distinct lack of finesse. He shot first, and he asked questions later.

But by god what a shot it was. His biggest drives rivaled those of a man twice his age. He was more accurate than anybody that age with that much power had any right to be, and he scored forty-four times while earning every last one of them. You couldn't come away from Akinsdale unimpressed by the kid, but the NHL? Never! Too slow, not enough touch. Well, time makes fools of us all.

He leapt to the University of Wisconsin after receiving AJHL all-rookie honours, scored a bit, impressed nobody. In his senior year he played a more complete game and got the interest of the Chicago Blackhawks, who took a chance with a contract and missed their just rewards only by trading Bourque to Calgary without appreciating his full value. What a shame he is with the Flames, and yet what a solid player he has become from such unpromising beginnings.

While Comrie, Lundmark, and Bourque are all pure scorers of varying ability, Florida's Steven Reinprecht is much more the prototypical junior 'A' alumnus; a heart and soul player with skill but who would have washed out of the NHL long ago if not for his ability in his own zone. Reinprecht played with the Saints from 1994 until 1996, winning the league championship in his last injury-shortened season but falling as the Saints too often did in the Doyle Cup.

Now closer to the end of his career than the beginning, Reinprecht's first years had much in common with his later ones. Inconsistent (sometimes maddeningly so) but gifted enough to earn forgiveness. His defensive skills only revealed themselves with time but from the start he was more than a stereotypical one-dimensional scorer. While his boxcars from two AJHL seasons wouldn't add up to a good year's work for Mike Comrie, his career has been as long and successful as anybody's. For one, he's the only active Saint with his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

A much shorter career belongs to current Hurricanes farmhand and former Reinprecht teammate Steven Goertzen. Goertzen's apprenticeship in the red, gold, and black was limited to a single game, but not for the usual reason. Many great players were sent down from major junior to help them learn. But Goertzen was sent up from his full-time team; he spent most of his 16-year-old season with the midget St. Albert Raiders.

An improbable path to the NHL to be sure. A sixteen-year-old who can't crack a junior 'A' lineup fulltime almost never has a professional future. Playing midget hockey into high school is the first, best wakeup call for youngsters that it's time to focus on school instead of sports. The lucky one get into junior the next year, get attention from an American college team and hopefully bag a scholarship to learn something useful. But this path was not Steven Goertzen's. The season after playing with the Raiders, he leaped straight into the starting lineup of the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds.

He stank at first. How could he not? But he made fast progress and earned a flyer of a seventh-round pick from the Columbus Blue Jackets that summer. He improved for three years in the WHL and by 2005-06 he had made it, playing thirty-nine games for the Blue Jackets. He scored like a hungover Jean-Francois Jacques, going -17 and not registering his first NHL point until last season. But he had made it, and there aren't many sixteen-year-old midget players who can say likewise.

Finally, there is a man who may not play a minute this season but has guaranteed a place with the game's warriors in hockey Valhalla. Fernando Pisani, hero of big games, survivor of diseases that sound like Star Wars characters, a man so smart on the ice that he won the nickname "Instant Chemistry". He begins the season on long-term injured reserve with a frustratingly vague back injury, and the sight of him in a suit on Saturday watching his friends warm up could pain the hardest heart.

He has played only six NHL seasons but he has burned his name on each in letters of fire: the improbable 26-year-old hat trick scoring rookie, the impossibly poised utility winger who could make anyone look good, the invincible playoff Hercules robbed of the most unlikely of all Conn Smythe trophies by the myopic media's fetish for goaltenders, the great warrior struck down in his prime but fighting back from the brink to be once again robbed of recognition by an abrasive Maple Leaf and his cronies, and finally a dependable, hard-working veteran on a team mortally short on all three qualities.

He spent most of three seasons, from 1993 to 1996, as the heart and soul of the Saints. Somebody who's still playing junior 'A' at age nineteen usually winds up selling mufflers, but not Fernando Pisani. Instead he went to college in Providence, Rhode Island and won their hearts as surely as he won ours. While he was still a Saint the Oilers had drafted him in the eighth round - the eighth round! - and waited almost half a decade before he even made the Hamilton Bulldogs.

He lost the 1996 Doyle Cup, and with it a shot at the national championship, to the Vernon Vipers in one of the best-played series in the junior trophy's 38-year history. He left the Bulldogs in time to miss their run to the Calder Cup. His Stanley Cup heartbreak in 2006 needs no recollection. Like Percival his fate is to look upon the Grail without ever achieving it, yet if he is an Arthurian knight of the ice he also recalls Tennyson's Ulysses: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

You can keep Reinprecht or Comrie or even Messier. When the St. Albert Saints are but memory and shadow, it is Fernando Pisani who will stand as the enduring monument to what once was. Too often he has been robbed of his just accolades by ill luck and the ignorance of lesser me. His compensation is immortality.