The first weekend in April was a big one for the Cranbrook Bucks. On Saturday, Apr. 3, Cranbrook played its first game as a BC Hockey League franchise against the Penticton Vees. The next day, the Bucks picked up the first victory in team history when they beat the Trail Smoke Eaters.
Through it all, there were several milestones reached by not only the organization — but its players as well. Forwards Noah Leibl and AJ Vasko enjoyed the team’s achievements and were happy they could contribute.
Both Leibl and Vasko have been with the Bucks for over a year now. It’s been months of hard work, a revolving door of teammates, and some mental toughness to get to this point.
The first game
Both players were over the moon when it was announced there would actually be some form of a regular season for them.
”Obviously excitement, but just finally getting the chance to show what we’ve been working for, for all these months, we were definitely stoked,” Vasko said.
After signing with the Bucks on March 30 of last year, Vasko chuckled before describing the feeling of playing the first game over a year later.
”It was electric, we’ve been waiting forever and putting in all this behind-the-scenes work. We’d love to play in Cranbrook in front of the fans, but we’re all excited and we just want to keep playing.”
— Penticton Vees (@PentictonVees) April 4, 2021
Despite a strong start to the first game against Penticton, Vasko thought the Bucks still had a lot more to bring.
”We were gripping the sticks pretty tight, to begin with — I think everyone was — I was myself for sure. Playing a team like (Penticton) right off the bat is obviously a challenge. We held our own and that’s just the beginning of it, I think we have a lot more to bring. I’m excited, I think there will be some pretty good tilts coming up.”
For Leibl, he admitted there was a bit of nervous energy ahead of the first game.
”You could just tell there was a different energy in the room. Honestly, I was nervous, lots of guys were definitely nervous, but not nervous in a scared way. It’s just been a long time leading up to this, so of course, there’s some different emotions. I think everyone was excited, we wanted to go out and win. I was pumped to play (the Vees), to show them what we have,” Leibl added.
A couple of personal milestones
Leibl became the first Bucks player to get on the scoresheet in the first game — but not in the way he would’ve liked. With 4:31 remaining in the first period of the debut game, he received a minor penalty for interference.
Being the player to receive the first penalty call in franchise history is something he most certainly will always remember.
Bucks are headed to the penalty kill as Noah Leibl takes an interference penalty at 15:29 of the 1st pic.twitter.com/MCNuzujC5v
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 4, 2021
“Obviously not great for the team,” he said with a laugh. “Of course, I didn’t think it was a penalty. At least it wasn’t tripping or something, I got a good hit on someone. Thank goodness they didn’t score.”
Despite giving Penticton the man advantage, Leibl was confident his team’s penalty-killing unit would bail him out.
”We’ve been working on our penalty-kill, (so) I trusted the guys. Of course, your heart drops a bit, but it wasn’t a penalty where coach (Donald) was mad or anything. (I was) just playing hard, (it was) a good hit, but the ref thought otherwise, which happens all the time.”
Vasko also got on the scoresheet in the first game, scoring his first BCHL goal to tie it up in the third period. “(It was a) sweet play by Zeth Kindrachuk to throw it across (to me) there, made my job pretty easy. It felt nice to get one early so I don’t have to worry about it a few games in.”
2-2 with 16:30 left in the 3rd pic.twitter.com/cMTuFrcyjE
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 4, 2021
In the Bucks second game, Vasko scored again to start the season on a goal-scoring streak. It was a power-play goal — the first in franchise history.
The first win
While trying to describe the feeling after the first win, Vasko said it was like a movie.
“I’m really happy for the ownership, the coaching staff, and especially these boys here putting all that work in. Everyone knew what was on the line and what it meant for everybody. It was sweet for both the day-one guys who were here and the new pieces that we added on.”
”It was awesome, you’re never going to get that again, so I’m really grateful to be a part of that. For myself, it felt great, but it’s just one, we want a bunch, but it was good to get it early.”
When trying to describe his own feelings on that first win, Leibl couldn’t hold back his emotion. ”It was great to be a part of, an awesome feeling, and a long-time coming for sure,” he said with a huge smile on his face.
”It was nice to be able to hold onto that lead. Just controlling the highs and lows of the season, because we are a young team, (and) it’s most of our first times (going through it).”
The Cranbrook Bucks defeat the Trail Smoke Eaters by a score of 5-3 to record their first win in franchise history!
The Bucks are now 1-1-0-0 on the season and will face the Smoke Eaters again on Wednesday, April 7th at 8PM MST. pic.twitter.com/taDyXwyL3J
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 5, 2021
“We get super excited, then we get down, they score right after we score. To be able to sit on that lead and have our goalie play outstanding, it was huge for us knowing we can get the job done.”
Expectations for themselves
In an interview with Leibl just prior to the regular season, he said he wasn’t setting any goals as far as points or numbers. Instead, he just wanted to feel like he put his best into whatever role he was given.
Early in the season, he’s been given some defensive responsibilities, something he takes great pride in doing.
”I’ve been penalty-killing basically every time we get the opportunity, and I’ve been out in the last minute. If my job for this (season) is to be defensive, be on the penalty-kill, and to chip pucks out when we’re up a goal, I’m more than happy to do that.”
”I love that type of stuff. If I come off (the ice) after a penalty-kill and we don’t let them get in the zone, I’m fired up — probably more than if I score a goal. If I can’t get it going offensively or other guys are going, I’m more than happy to fill that role.”
In Vasko’s case, with the Bucks losing some of their original leaders, he’s been trying to lead by more of an example. ”Coming to the Bucks in the beginning, we had some great leaders like Briggs Gammill, Dane Dowiak, Rhys Bentham, and Cameron Kungle. So, I knew my role to begin with was to let my play talk for itself. We lost some of those pieces, so certain guys need to step up.”
AJ Vasko post-game interview following a 5-3 win over Trail. pic.twitter.com/TawBa3llJB
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 5, 2021
”I’ve been told I need to step up, and that’s what I’m trying to do, every day, every practice, prove that I deserve to be here. I’m going to play with these guys and let my work speak for itself, and that’s all I’m trying to focus on.”
Who has stood out to them?
Both Leibl and Vasko are humble young men, so they enjoy talking about the team more than themselves, including some of the accomplishments of their teammates.
For Leibl, he’s been happy with how the season has started for Vasko, and also the much younger Walker Gelbard. “I think the obvious answer would be Vasko, one of my best friends on the team. He’s come out absolutely firing and it’s been awesome to see and be a part of. He’s such an energy guy, if he’s going — we’re going.”
”Of course, Walker Gelbard coming in as an ‘05 (born). I remember thinking before our first game, ‘If I’m nervous, this kid’s three years younger than me.’ Then he comes out with two assists and playing as a top-six forward, (he’s) so calm and mature.”
Bucks goals from tonight’s game:
🚨 Cam Reid (1) – Asst: Walker Gelbard (1), Zeth Kindrachuk (1)
🚨🚨 AJ Vasko (1) – Asst: Zeth Kindrachuk (2)
🚨🚨🚨 Tyson Dyck (1) – Asst: Noah Quinn (1), Walker Gelbard (2)
— Chris Keck (@CK885) April 4, 2021
In response to Leibl, Vasko returned the favour and gave credit to his close friend. “Leibl’s one of my best friends on the team, and he’s another one of those guys. Good leader, works (hard) all the time, it’s coming for him too.”
Vasko also gave Gelbard a shoutout and added that players like Kindrachuk and Noah Quinn have looked good early this season.
”Walker is another one — he’s a player. He works hard, great shot, super skilled, so it’s been nice on a line with him. Also, a quick shoutout to Zeth Kindrachuk, I play with Zeth quite a bit and we’re good buddies. He’s super dialed-in, he’s focused, he’s a good role model to me.”
”Some under the radar stuff, our centres have been focused on face-offs, trying to be the best we can at the dot. Noah Quinn is really stepping up there,” said Vasko.
Still looking to find consistency
Despite the confidence gained from getting the first win, the Bucks haven’t found that second win yet. Vasko hasn’t played a game since the Apr. 4 win due to an injury suffered on that historic night.
Leibl’s game has been getting better each time out, and he scored his first BCHL goal on Apr. 9 against Penticton. The milestone goal is nice, but Leibl says he just wants to win games.
”Obviously it’s nice, but at the end of the day, I just want to win. We just want to beat Penticton and Trail as many times as we can. I feel like with how long we’ve been together, it’s more of pride for one another.”
As for padding their point totals, it’s not something the Bucks put an emphasis on. “I don’t hear anyone talking about their points. We just want to win,” added Leibl.
Noah Leibl ties it up!!
— Cranbrook Bucks (@CranbrookBucks) April 10, 2021
The team has shown relentlessness, and an ability to not give up in any game. It has allowed them to hang around in most of their games, but aren’t getting the results yet.
They are hoping to fight through some injuries and fatigue in this battle of attrition and start finding some success. For Leibl and Vasko, they are happy to be playing games again and doing everything they can to represent Cranbook.