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Enjoying every minute

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One local player will eventually have to deal with the emotions of seeing his junior hockey career come to a close this spring. For another, he’s just happy to be able to play hockey again after seeing the majority of his season lost due to injury.
For 18-year-old Lane Kirk, not getting any real game action until his mid-February debut with the Swan Valley Stampeders has made him want nothing more than to make up for lost time this spring by playing for as long as he can.
After cracking the Western Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders out of training camp, Kirk had to bide his time to get into the line-up of a team that started the season on an absolute tear.
As luck would have it, Kirk suffered a herniated disc, sidelining him for what seemed like an eternity.
When the Jan. 10 roster deadline rolled around, the Raiders were faced with the tough decision of releasing Kirk to the Stampeders. With little reassurance that he would play at all this season, Kirk made the trip home in hopes he could eventually suit back up again with the Stampeders, a team he spent the previous two seasons with.
“This year has definitely been a tough one with lots of ups and downs,” he said. “More downs than ups obviously.
“Early on, when I was being diagnosed they were saying that I wouldn’t skate until November and that seemed so far away. Looking back, I never would have thought I’d been out for as long as I was.
“Once I started to feel better I was always chasing another opinion but was always being told what I wasn’t allowed to do and that was the hardest part,” continued a now very relieved Kirk, who lists Clark Byczynski and Riley Hiebert as his favourite all-time Stampeders.
While the season didn’t go as he’d hoped, one person who is thrilled to have him in a Stampeder uniform is Head Coach and General Manager Barry Wolff.
“I was impressed with how Lane adjusted quickly to the game pace and compete level - some thing you don’t get in practice,” said Wolff.
“It was a special day when he was cleared for contact and playing. He’s a strong skater who has excellent vision and can make those passes that seem to be impossible options – but he threads the needle and gets the puck on the tape. He’s also solid in the defensive zone, and brings a high end compete level and has a good shot from the point.”
Then there is 20-year-old Josh Tripp who knows the end is near but is bound and determined to stretch things out as long as he possibly can. When it comes to Tripp’s season, there’s not much more he could have asked for after leading the entire MJHL in scoring while picking up the league’s most valuable player award along the way.
There’s also a lot to be said about getting to finish out one’s junior career in front of friends and family.
“I wouldn’t want to finish my junior career anywhere else,” he said. “This is where I started my career and it’s where I always felt I should be playing. If I’m being honest, I wish I could say I spent all four years as a Stampeder. I loved every minute wearing this jersey.”
Wolff couldn’t say enough good things about Tripp, who’s helped guide the Stampeders during this season to remember.
“As one of our (assistant) captains this year, Josh is a solid veteran who brings experience and leadership on and off the ice and does a great job of making everyone feel important,” he said.
“Tripper’s a natural goal scorer, one that can change his shooting angle in a hurry, which catches goaltenders off guard.
“He’s a strong skater who can play any forward position and creates offense out of dead plays,” continued Wolff. “He’s smart, knows how to find the open ice and makes himself available to his teammates for quick give and go’s. He’s also one of the best at stripping pucks from behind on the back check.”
While Kirk might have every reason to be bitter the way his season played out, you’d never know it when talking to him. He’s grateful for where he’s at now.
“Coming home from PA, not knowing whether I’d play again, was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” said Kirk. “The group of guys that I had there – the trainers, coaches and physiotherapists were great people. They made everything for me easier to cope with.
“Now, being home again playing with the Stampeders, I am excited to do everything I can to help this team do great things.”
To help get by this season, Kirk, who comes from a tight-knit family, leaned on his parents for encouragement during those dark days.
“I leaned a lot on my mom and dad, but also I felt the guys in PA got me through some tough days. Whether it was grabbing a bite to eat after practice or hot tubbing in the evening, they were always there for me no matter what. Without them I don’t think I would have been able to make the best of my time there,” finished Kirk.
As for Tripp, there’s no hesitation when he says what he’ll miss most when the season ends.
“Without a doubt I’m going to miss all of the friendships the most,” he said. “Every person you play with becomes a life-long friend. Sure I’ll miss the feeling of a big win or scoring a big goal but nothing compares to all the brothers that you gain playing this game.”
And while he’s played for a number of coaches in his junior career, he feels the group that has led this year’s team has done a magnificent job.
“The entire coaching staff has been a huge help to me this season,” said Tripp.
“Wolffy trusted me a lot from the day he showed up, even though he knew very little about me. He put me in a good position to put up numbers and made sure I was always pushing myself to improve.
“Darren Webster has always been a huge believer in me right from my minor hockey days and Ryan Bettesworth always shares tips he learned from his junior days. And, of course, all of my teammates were a huge help. Everyone on this team was good at lifting one another up and making sure everyone stayed on track to be successful.”
While the Stampeders continue their quest for the franchise’s first league championship, you can bet both Kirk and Tripp are hoping this season will never end. When it does, however, you can bet they want that fateful day to be a day of celebration.

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Brian Gilroy
REPORTER
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