Saturday, 21 January 2017

Willo strikes again for Huskies

Star forward delivers a classic finish for U of S

Kaitlin Willoughby, centre, celebrates her OT winner.
    Kaitlin Willoughby played like she was from another world and delivered was of the biggest moments of the season so far for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team.
    On Saturday night at the ancient Rutherford Rink, Willoughby’s Huskies went into overtime locked in a 4-4 draw with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, who are ranked first in the CIS top ten rankings. Of the opening faceoff of the extra session, Huskies captain Lauren Zary won the draw to Willoughby who went to work.
    She sped down the left wing into the Thunderbirds zone, cut to the net and sniped the winning goal top corner past diving Thunderbirds defender Kelly Murray and netminder Amelia Boughn. The tally nine seconds into the extra session delivered the Huskies to a 5-4 victory. Willoughby’s winner erased the disappointment in the fact the Huskies saw leads of 3-0 and 4-2 disappear.
    The 21-year-old Prince Albert product also scored the most famous overtime winner in the history of the Huskies women’s hockey program in her rookie campaign back in the 2013-14 season. Her double overtime winner in the series deciding Game 3 of the Canada West championship series against the U of Regina Cougars gave the Huskies a 2-1 victory in that contest and a 2-1 victory in the series.
Kaitlin Willoughby gets set to snip her OT winner.
    That shot came from a mid-range distance near the left boards. Her OT winner on Saturday was way more spectacular.
    Actually, Willoughby, who is in her fourth year of eligibility, arguably played the two best games of her university career this past weekend launching herself on to Canada’s women’s hockey team for the FISU Winter Universiade. The event runs from Jan. 29 to Feb. 8 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Willoughby departs in short order to join the Canadian team to prepare for that event. That means she will miss the Huskies next four games.
    Against the Thunderbirds on Friday and Saturday at Rutherford, Willoughby played with intensity and with a huge chip on her shoulder. She assisted on the Huskies only goal on Friday in their 2-1 double overtime loss to the Thunderbirds. Her OT winner on Saturday was the only point she had in that contest.
    In both games, Willoughby could have had larger nights statistically. On the ice, she seemed a step faster than she normally is and much more powerful physically than she usually is. It felt like she won every one-on-one physical battle or any other battle where she was outnumbered.
    Her passes were that much more crisp and Boughn, who played both nights in net for the Thunderbirds, had to be that much more on her toes to stop Willoughby’s shots. For large stretches especially in Friday’s game, Willoughby basically imposed her will on what was going on and dominated play. If you were at the Ruthy on both nights this weekend, you realized you saw something special, when Willoughby stepped on the ice.
Kaitlin Willoughby celebrates scoring her OT winner.
    Despite her heroics over her career, Willoughby isn’t as big of a star as she should due to all the cuts in the mainstream media. When she scored her OT winner on Saturday, there were no mainstream outlets to spread the news and images of that moment, because they were all concentrated at the home opener of the Saskatchewan Rush of the National Lacrosse League.
    In a past era, mainstream outlets had the ability to staff both events. As far as female athletics go at the University of Saskatchewan, Lisa Thomaidis, who is the head coach of the Huskies women’s basketball team, is the only one who has a far reaching high profile.
    When Thomaidis’s hoopsters won a national title last season, it marked the swan song of fifth-year veteran star post player Dalyce Emmerson, who also happens to be a Prince Albert product. Emmerson, who was a Canada West player of the year in 2014, was well-known on campus, but it never felt like she was a household name in the community of Saskatoon at large.
Kaitlin Willoughby clears the puck out of harms way in the defensive zone.
    Willoughby and her younger sister and Huskies teammate, Morgan, are well-known in their hometown, but the neither are household names in Saskatoon. With her resume of heroics and due to the fact she plays in Saskatoon on a regular basis, Kaitlin Willoughby should be a household name. She is arguably the biggest female star right now in the Huskies Athletics program.
    It seems female athletes need to be on Olympic teams or go to the NCAA to get any notoriety these days. That wasn’t always the case.
    One just has to look at Regina for one example in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the University of Regina Cougars women’s basketball team came into national prominence under then head coach Christine Stapleton. The Cougars hoopsters of Stapleton’s era won a number of conference titles and a national title in 2001.
Kaitlin Willoughby breaks into the offensive zone for the Huskies.
    During that time, the Cougars women’s basketball team was elevated to a level of importance that matched the Regina Rams football team and the Regina Pats WHL club. Stapleton’s players became celebrities in the community, and are still remembered to this day.
    The Cougars biggest star of that time was Cymone Bouchard, who was viewed in Regina like she was Michael Jordan. Bouchard’s rise through the athletic scene in Regina was well covered, as she was a star in every sport she played growing up and in high school. When she chose to play basketball in university and play for the Cougars, her choices were treated as major news.
    With the Cougars, Bouchard filled weekly highlight reels with unbelievable plays, and would go to the mall and often have to sign autographs for 30 little girls that immediately recognized her. She spent time in Canada’s national team program, and for about three years after she exhausted her eligibility with the Cougars, she was often viewed by girls in Regina and hoopsters in other communities as “the idol.”
Kaitlin Willoughby zips up the left wing for the Huskies.
    Bouchard had the total package. She was attractive and extremely athletic, but more importantly, she immediately elevated the Cougars team by her presence and had an extremely impressive self-confidence. She was also very personable to interact with, which made her the ideal athlete to look up too.
    The Cougars and Bouchard received that elevated platform, because they got a push.
In the current media slashed era, Emmerson didn’t get that same push, which looking back has to be viewed as a missed opportunity.
    Willoughby has earned the chance to get that same type of push. In her case, it feels like there is another missed opportunity that is falling through the cracks, and she still has another full season of eligibility left to play.
The Huskies mob Kaitlin Willoughby after she scores her OT winner.
    She would perfectly fit the role of household name role model. Anyone would be wise to check out a Huskies game and see her play before she exhausts her eligibility. Willoughby won’t disappoint.
    As far as the other scoring went in Saturday’s U of S win, Rachel Johnson, Emily Upgang, Kori Herner and Bailee Bourassa all netted singles for the Huskies (12-7-3) on Saturday. Cassidy Hendricks turned away 17 shots to pick up the win in the U of S net.
    Nicole Saxvik scored twice for the Thunderbirds (18-3-1), while Kelly Murray and Hannah Clayton-Carroll had singles. Boughn stopped 21 shots to take the loss in the UBC net.
    The Huskies return to action this coming Friday, when they travel to Regina to face the Cougars.

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Friday, 20 January 2017

Thunderbirds withstand Huskies' fight

UBC's Haneet Parhar (#12) battles U of S's Elizabeth Salyn (#3) for the puck.
    In what may have been one of their most intense performances of the season, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team deserved a way better fate.
    On Friday night at the ancient Rutherford Rink, the Huskies showed the grit and character that is currently being displayed by the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades. Facing the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds who top the U Sports women’s hockey top 10 rankings, the Huskies didn’t back down anywhere and took the fight to their foes, which at times meant literally. The squads engaged in a few post-whistle scrums.
    When the dust settled, the Thunderbirds, like any top ranked club, found a way to pull a victory out of what was an extremely hot fire. Playing in a three-on-three double overtime period, the Thunderbirds broke in on a two-on-one break, when the Huskies were still trying to change a couple of players.
Huskies forward Kaitlin Willoughby wins battle for a loose puck.
    Mathea Fischer, who is from Oslo, Norway, fed a nice pass past a Huskies defender to lineman Nicole Saxvik, and the fifth year forward buried her ninth goal of the season to deliver the Thunderbirds to a 2-1 victory. The Thunderbirds improved to 18-3, while the Huskies fell to 11-7-3.
In defeat, the Huskies showed the potential they have.
    The Thunderbirds started the contest with a mini momentum spurt, before things turned in favour of the home side. At the 7:19 mark of the opening frame, speedy forward Kaitlin Willoughby set up Elizabeth Salyn for her third goal of the season on just the Huskies second shot of the contest.
    From that point, the Huskies came at the Thunderbirds in waves. UBC rookie goalie Amelia Boughn stood on her head to ensure the Huskies didn’t get ahead by more, as U of S had a 10-7 edge in shots after 20 minutes.
Huskies forward Danielle Nogier fights for the puck along the boards.
    In the second, the Huskies created more scoring chances, but couldn’t find the back of the net. Willoughby set up fifth-year forward Rachel Johnson in the slot with a nice pass through traffic. Johnson didn’t get all of the puck on her shot, and Boughn came up with the stop.
    With their effort, there were times the Huskies were a little too aggressive, which resulted in the Thunderbirds getting four straight power-plays in the second frame. On the third of those opportunities, Fischer beat Huskies netminder Cassidy Hendricks with a high looping shot to tie things up at 1-1.
    In the third, the Huskies really kept bringing the pressure. Right off the opening faceoff, Willoughby blew in on a breakaway and wired a shot that just missed the top corner of the UBC goal.
    A short time later, fourth-year forward Kori Herner found herself on a breakaway, but she was denied by Boughn. The UBC goalie gave up a rebound on Herner’s shot, which allowed Johnson a scoring chance, but she was also stopped.

The Thunderbirds, left, celebrate their overtime winning goal.
    Following those opportunities, Willoughby, who was playing with as aggressiveness similar to former Prince Albert Raiders defenceman Chris Schlenker, found herself on another breakaway, but Boughn came up big again for the Thunderbirds.
    Near the end of the third, rookie forward Bailee Bourassa, who used to pile up the goals for the Weyburn Gold Wings midget AAA team, had two chances in close but was unable to find the go-ahead tally.
    After the two teams played through a scoreless four-on-four overtime period, that set the stage for the Thunderbirds to get the winner in the second extra frame.
    Boughn made 27 mostly extremely hard stops for the Thunderbirds. Hendricks turned away 23 shots in net for the Huskies.
    The Huskies biggest hurt came from the fact they went 0-for-5 on the power play. So far this season, they have converted on just 10.8 per cent of their chances with the one person advantage.
    The two teams go at it again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Rutherford.

Woytowich honoured in Play for a Cure

Hailey Woytowich, centre, drops the puck for a ceremonial faceoff.
    Tonight’s Huskies game was a big one for my family as my young cousin Hailey Woytowich dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff as part of the Huskie Play for a Cure game.
    Woytowich graduated from Bethlehem Catholic High School last June, while fighting cancer. At one point in time, she had a big lump on her neck, while fighting the disease. She had surgery over the summer and was declared cancer free.
    With that bit of news, she became the first person in my family that I know of to survive a battle with cancer. Cancer has taken the lives of many members of my family.
    Woytowich was brought to centre ice by another one of my young cousins in Danielle Nogier, who is a rookie forward with the Huskies, and fifth-year defender Alyssa Dobler, who is Woytowich’s neighbour and a long time best friend.
    Woytowich, who was nervous about the puck drop, made quick work of the formalities quickly dropping the puck between Huskies captain Lauren Zary and Thunderbirds captain Stephanie Schaupmeyer. Following the game, Woytowich also got Nogier’s game jersey as a keepsake.
    Since I moved back to Saskatoon in the summer of 2014, I still have a hard time keeping track of all my family members. I believe I speak for everyone in thanking the Huskies for the special night.

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Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Blades are legit for real

Josh Paterson (#61) leads a rush out of his own end for the Blades.
    The Saskatoon Blades have become one of the teams you don’t want to see if you are an upper echelon club in the WHL.
    Having missed the playoffs for three straight seasons since hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013, the Blades were usually chalked up as somewhat of an automatic win game by their opponents. The current campaign could have been a write off too, when you consider their best player in centre Cameron Hebig hasn’t played since suffering an upper body injury in the pre-season and a number of the team’s other top players have missed big stretches due to injury.
    The injury bug also took right-winger Mason McCarty out of the Saskatoon lineup with a lower body injury suffered on Nov. 25, 2016 in a 3-2 home victory over the Brandon Wheat Kings. The 19-year-old Blackie, Alta., product still isn’t expected to return for some time.
Braylon Shmyr had two goals and an assist for the Blades.
    Despite the injuries, Dean Brockman, who is in his first year guiding the Blades as head coach, seems to find a way to keep the team pushing forward by believing in the healthy guys that dress. Having put together a storied career as a bench boss of the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, Brockman always believes good people make good players, and it appears he is surrounded by a lot of good people in the Blades dressing room.
    As the season has gone on, the Blades players have shown noticeable improvement. On Wednesday night at the SaskTel Centre, they faced a measuring stick game against the Central Division leading Medicine Hat Tigers.
    The Blades lost their three previous encounters with the Tigers this season by a combined score of 19-6. When the two clubs last met at the SaskTel Centre on Nov. 26, 2016, the Tigers skated the Blades out of the rink to the tune of an 8-2 drubbing.
    Effort wise after that loss, the Blades didn’t pack it in. Instead, they manufactured one of their big turning points with a 2-1 overtime upset victory over the Pats in Regina on Dec. 10, 2016. The Pats have topped the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 rankings for much of the campaign.
Logan Flodell has been stellar all season in goal for the Blades.
    That road win was the biggest victory of the season for the Blades. Still, they were in search of a defining home win over a top caliber club.
    On Wednesday against the Tigers, the Blades showed they were a much different team than the last time the two clubs met coming away with a 5-3 victory. The Tigers, who fell to 30-14-1, held a 51-28 edge in shots on goal, but it never felt like the Blades were in trouble even when the visitors carried play.
    The first key to the win was the play of netminder Logan Flodell, who made 48 saves to pick up the win in goal. Flodell has been stellar all season, and gives the Blades a chance to win every night.
    It should also be noted that Brock Hamm, who is the Blades other goalie, has played well in his last seven starts after being in what seemed like a slump that would never end. Brockman should be given credit for sticking with Hamm for a lot longer than most coaches would.
Michael Farren gets the puck out of the Blades own zone.
    The Tigers carried play to start Wednesday’s encounter, but the Blades calmly weathered the storm. In the last 5:23 of the opening frame, the hosts exploded for three goals as left-winger Braylon Shmyr scored twice, and overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk netted his first of two on the night. All three tallies came off good set ups in the offensive zone.
    Centre Logan Christensen score at the 2:02 mark of the second to put Saskatoon up 4-0.
    As any top rate team would do, the Tigers battled back. Near the midway point of the second, import defenceman Kristians Rubins blasted home a goal on the power play, and centre James Hamblin tucked home a tally on a penalty shot to cut the Blades edge to 4-2. At that point, there were thoughts that the Saskatoon lead could evaporate.
    The Tigers proceeded to get into penalty trouble, and while working a five-on-three power play, Shynkaruk netted his second of the contest on a nice feed in the slot to give Saskatoon a 5-2 edge.
Logan Christensen fires a snap jump shot on goal for the Blades.
    Left-winger Ryan Jevne scored for the Tigers early in the third to round out the game’s scoring.
In the win, Blades stayed composed and received strong shifts from all four of their forward lines. Their top unit of Shmyr, Shynkaruk and Josh Paterson combined for four goals and three assists.
    Right-winger Caleb Fantillo proved he could fulfil the pest role for the Blades. He got under the skin of Tigers goalie Michael Bullion in the first period and withstood a big blocker shot from the netminder. Bullion made 23 stops taking the loss in the Tigers net.
    The Blades defense seems more solid especially after they acquired Clavet product Evan Fiala in a trade with the Spokane Chiefs before the WHL Christmas break. Fiala, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 205 pounds, is a physical presence in front of the net who is tough to play against.
    The Blades were missing that type of presence on the back end before Fiala’s arrival. Fiala is also popular in local hockey circles, which is another bonus.
Tigers goalie Michael Bullion decks Blades left-winger Caleb Fantillo.
    With the win over the Tigers before a sparse crowd of 2,608, the Blades improved their winning streak to three games and their record to 18-22-5-1. At the moment, Saskatoon sits eighth overall and holds the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    They sit two points ahead of the Edmonton Oil Kings (18-22-3-1) and the Calgary Hitmen (17-20-4-2) in the standings. The Oil Kings and Hitmen have two and three games respectively in hand on the Blades.
    The Blades are a legitimate participant in the race to make the playoffs. They have also found the ingredients to beat top teams like the Pats and Tigers.
    What the Blades don’t have are enough pieces to content for a league title or a Memorial Cup, but they present a big headache to any opponent that crosses their path. Any of the Eastern Conference’s top teams would have to be weary of any possible post-season encounter with the Blades.

Lazaruk calls his 1,700 game

Les Lazaruk calls his 1,700th game as the Blades play-by-play voice.
    Les Lazaruk hit a milestone on Wednesday calling his 1,700th game as the play-by-play voice of the Blades.
    Lazaruk began calling Blades games at the start of the 1994-95 season after spending over a decade working in Winnipeg, which included 10-and-a-half years hosting the hour long pre-game and post-game shows of the original Winnipeg Jets game broadcasts for CJOB radio.
    During his time calling games in the WHL, Lazaruk has built a reputation for being one of the best in the business. He also bring a great professionalism and class to his trade. Fans also love his trademark energetic calls of Blades goals.
    Lazaruk has become so closely branded with Blades broadcasts you almost couldn’t imagine another person making those calls.
    Lazaruk will make his next call on Friday, when the Blades host the Brandon Wheat Kings at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.

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Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Huskies who rock

Kaitlin Willoughby is all smiles after a goal.
    The University of Saskatchewan Huskies had a tough Christmas season over how the resignation of football head coach Brian Towriss played out, but there are still lots of good people who are involved with that athletics program.
    Due to the awkward news conference that happened on Dec. 19, 2016 to announce Towriss was stepping down, fury went up around Huskies alums and current players from football and the other sports that comprise the 15 total teams from the athletics program. Supporters from all the program’s teams were also very unhappy about that move. 
    The fury was so great that an apology was released by U of S president Peter Stoicheff regarding how that situation was handled.
    While a lot of former athletes and current ones were upset over that situation, an educated guess leaves me to believe the memories and attachment to the Huskies logo and colours will make the hurt feelings disappear over time. I believe some alums and supporters have already started to return to games after about a couple of weeks despite saying they wouldn’t be back for a lengthy time.
    In the present, there is still a second half of the U Sports season that needs to be played out, and the Huskies teams that are in action can still do some special things.
    The Huskies teams are still represented by a large number of quality individuals. As the Huskies like to give out what they call their seven major awards at the end of every season, here are seven outstanding individuals that represent the green and white.

Kaitlin Willoughby

Kaitlin Willoughby breaks up ice for the Huskies.
    Willoughby is the extremely likeable and sweet star of the Huskies women’s hockey team.
    Actually, trying to dislike this 21-year-old Prince Albert product is like trying to hate Bambi. You just can’t do it.
    As a rookie in 2013-14, the speedy and skilled forward cemented her spot in the history of the Huskies hockey program, when she scored the double overtime winner in a series deciding Game 3 of the Canada West championship to give the Huskies a 2-1 victory over the U of Regina Cougars at the ancient Rutherford Rink. 
    The win marked the first time the Huskies women’s team won a Canada West title, and they would capture a bronze medal at nationals. She also happened to become the U Sports rookie of the year collecting 10 goals and 15 assists in 28 regular season games.
    Her production wasn’t just a one-year thing. In 102 regular season games, Willoughby has piled up 38 goals and 49 assists despite always facing extra attention from the opposition. She has eight goals and eight assists in 20 games this season, and she will play for Canada’s women’s team at the FISU Winter Universiade, which runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 8 in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
    Willoughby is loved by her teammates on any of her teams past and present and by a large number of players from the other Huskies teams. While she is sweet, she can get fired up on the ice, if someone takes a liberty or cheap shot at one of her teammates or her. It is a side her opponents would be wise not to bring out of her or you might find out she can be traditional P.A. Raiders tough.
    On a night by night basis, Willoughby alone makes it worth the price of admission to attend any Huskies women’s hockey game, and she is a player you can never go wrong with supporting.

Emmalyn Copping

Emmalyn Copping nails a kill.
    Copping is the big city girl who has made her life in the smaller city.
    The Calgary, Alta., product arrived on campus before the start of the 2013-14 campaign to play for the Huskies women’s volleyball team. She quickly established herself as a standout outside hitter averaging 2.53 kills per set and 2.04 digs per set in her career, and she has also made her life in “the Bridge City.”
    Usually, players that live outside of Saskatoon return home for the summer months. Copping ended up working full time in Saskatoon. She became well known as first a courteous server at Earls before moving on to keep customers upbeat when they pass through the doors of Hudsons.
    She kept a fairly busy schedule in summer.  When she wasn’t training to prepare for volleyball season, Copping was working.
    On the court, Copping helped bring respect back to the Huskies women’s volleyball team. The Huskies were last a powerhouse squad back in the 2001-02 campaign posting a 16-4 regular season record, when setter Carlee Thorsen and middle Lindsay Bothner were stars for the green and white. Since that time, the Huskies have often struggled to earn five wins in regular season play.
    With Copping, the Huskies posted a 9-13 mark in her first year in 2013-14 and a 10-14 record last season. Both of those marks are the best records the Huskies have posted since the 2001-02 campaign.
    Before she joined the Huskies, Copping spent one season with the Medicine Hat College Rattlers women’s volleyball team of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference in 2012-13. She shined on and off the court there and became really well known for keeping an eye on the two young sons of then Rattlers men’s volleyball coach Steve Russell.
    When the Huskies make community appearances, Copping, who is positive and sweet, shines when she interacts with young fans.
    Copping is currently playing her final season of U Sports eligibility. You can bet she will do her best to help the Huskies earn their first Canada West playoff berth since that 2001-02 campaign.

Matt Forbes

Matt Forbes (#13) looks to drive the ball for the Huskies.
    How key is Forbes to the Huskies men’s basketball team?
    So far this season, the Huskies have already equaled last season’s total of regular season victories at eight. The Huskies are 8-4 in 12 games this season after posting an 8-12 record in 2015-16.
    Forbes was supposed to play out his final campaign of U Sports eligibility last season, but the 6-foot-6 post suffered a foot injury in the Huskies first pre-season game that sidelined him for the entire campaign. So far this season, the Regina Beach product is back in top form averaging 13.3 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game.
    While he usually matches up against players that are taller in height than he is, Forbes still changes the dynamics of the inside game for the Huskies both offensively and defensively in a good way. When Forbes isn’t in the lineup, it presents a huge void for the Huskies to fill.
    In 2014-15, Forbes was instrumental in helping the Huskies post a 15-5 regular season record averaging 13.4 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. He helped the Huskies advance to the Canada West championship game, where they fell 70-67 to the U of Victoria Vikes. That result allowed the Huskies to make an appearance at nationals.
    Away from the court, Forbes can often be found working as a staffer at other Huskies events. He is also one of the friendliest players on the Huskies men’s hoops team, and he is comfortable with talking to anyone that greets him out of the blue. Forbes also made the Huskies all-academic second team in 2012 and 2015.
    With Forbes in the fold, the Huskies have a good chance to make another deep playoff run.

Ben Getzlaf

Huskies receiver Ben Getzlaf (#86) collides with a defensive back.
    The rookie receiver from the Huskies football team prefers to shy away from accolades, but you will likely hear a lot about him in future seasons.
    The Holy Cross High School graduate had the expected modest first season catching six passes for 74 yards and one touchdown. Traditionally, the Huskies football program likes young players to focus on developing for a couple of seasons before seeing significant field time. For a first year player fresh out of high school, Getzlaf saw a lot more field time than most players in his position normally receive.
    In high school, he starred for the Crusaders and played on two of Saskatchewan’s teams that took part in the Football Canada Cup. Getzlaf also suited up for Canada’s under-18 team for the International Bowl series that ran Jan. 31 to Feb. 1 last year in Arlington, Texas.
    When he joined the Huskies, a number of the team’s veterans were impressed with the skill set Getzlaf had. Standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 180 pounds, Getzlaf makes his living on the field as a possession receiver that runs crisp routes.
    Getzlaf’s second cousin is veteran CFLer Chris Getzlaf, and both like to avoid the limelight if they can.
    One of Ben Getzlaf’s visibly most embarrassing moments came, when he had to pose for some pictures for a feature that ran on him in the Saskatoon Express about a year ago. In a scene you might see on a signing day for a United States university team, Getzlaf put on a Huskies football hat and posed for a photo holding a football out towards the camera with one hand.
    The whole picture shoot was done in front of about six players from the Holy Cross Crusaders senior girls’ basketball team, who laughed and gave him the gears. Getzlaf turned blushing red.
    In future seasons, expect Getzlaf to one day become the Huskies silent and modest star pass catcher.

Kendall McFaull

Kendall McFaull raised the Dr. W.G. Hardy Trophy.
    McFaull is the even-keel captain of the Huskies men’s hockey team.
    A product of Rosetown, Sask., McFaull is remembered by minor hockey coaches in the Saskatoon area for being extremely coachable.
    Before joining the Huskies, McFaull established himself as a high-character guy during his four seasons toiling on the blue-line with the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors. After his 17-year-old season in the 2009-10 campaign, McFaull, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 210 pounds, was selected in the sixth round and 155th overall in the NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers, who relocated to Winnipeg to become the second version of the Jets.
    With the Warriors, McFaull, who was the team’s captain in his final WHL campaign in 2012-13, established himself as a solid defensive defenceman who is tough to play against in front of the net, and he had the ability to chip in the odd point here and there. He carried that reputation on to the U of Saskatchewan campus.
    McFaull played a key role on the Huskies back end during their trips to the University Cup national championship tournament in 2014 and 2016.
    Last season in his third year of eligibility, McFaull was named the Huskies captain and he led the Huskies to a first place finish in the Canada West conference recording five goals, six assists and a plus-10 rating in the plus-minus department in 28 regular season outings. In the first game of the playoff run that saw the Huskies win a Canada West title, McFaull scored the overtime winner that delivered his side to a 4-3 victory over the U of Calgary Dinos.
    When the Huskies captured the Canada West championship, McFaull ensured the memory the Huskies late hard working, glue guy forward in Cody Smuk was part of the celebrations. Smuk passed away from cancer in June of 2015, and McFaull was his teammate on both the Warriors and Huskies.
    During the Canada West title celebrations, McFaull skated around the ice with Smuk’s jersey and he helped bring Smuk’s parents, Marty and Darla, and fiancĂ©e, Stephanie Vause on to the ice for the team picture.
    McFaull seems to ensure his Huskies, who lead Canada West with a 15-3-2 mark, always step in the right direction.

Zak Rempel

Zak Rempel serves the ball for the Huskies.
    During his career with the Huskies men’s volleyball team, Rempel has morphed into the guy that will play any role that is asked of him.
    Way back in the fall of 2013, Rempel joined the Huskies after a successful two-season run as the star setter for the Medicine Hat College Rattlers men’s volleyball team of the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. With the Rattlers, Rempel showed strong leadership qualities and was always front and centre for post-game interviews, and it didn’t matter if it was good or bad.
    In his first two seasons with the Huskies from 2013 to 2015, Rempel, who stands 6-foot-5, saw decent action as a setter and proved to be calming influence when things got hectic on the court. Unfortunately, nagging injuries slowed Rempel down especially at the end of his second season.
    After leaving the program for a season, Rempel returned to a Huskies team that had won a silver medal at the Canada West championship tournament and advanced to the semifinal in the U Sports national championship tournament. He also came back to a Huskies team that was deep at setter with Derek Epp, who was a member of Canada’s junior national team, and Troy Wiebe, who was in his final year of eligibility.
    Rempel moved over to become an outside hitter and is playing more of a supportive role. The 23-year-old has always been a good influence in the dressing room, and he will step back to take lesser time on the court to help the team.
    When he has stepped on the court, Rempel has averaged 2.56 kills per set.
    Rempel has always carried a sound commitment when it comes to working out in the gym. With the Huskies just holding on to one of the seven playoff berths in the Canada West conference with a 7-5 record, you bet Rempel will be there to help his team in whatever role he is called up to do.

Lisa Thomaidis

Lisa Thomaidis is the best coach in Huskies Athletics.
    She is known as “The Idol.”
    Way back in 1998, Thomaidis arrived on the U of S campus at age 26 to become the new head coach of the Huskies women’s basketball team. Back then, the Huskies seemed to always find themselves at the bottom of the Canada West standings.
    Since that time, Thomaidis built the Huskies into a national powerhouse winning four Canada West titles, qualifying for the U Sports nationals in seven of the last eight years and winning the program’s first national championship in March of last year. She was also named a YWCA Woman of Distinction in 2009.
    When she isn’t coaching the Huskies, Thomaidis is the head coach of Canada’s national senior women’s basketball team. Under her guidance, Canada won gold at the Pan-Am games in 2015 and make the quarter-final round at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
    On campus, she is looked up to not only by the players she coaches but also a large number of players that are members of the Huskies other women’s team.
    Thomaidis’s greatest gift is the fact she is able to inspire great confidence in her players. Due to that fact, her players always improve greatly as the season progresses.
    On the court, Thomaidis’s squads always play a sound team game and mix things up on the court. They can push the ball up court in transition or slow things down and break down a defence in half court. On the defensive side be it press, man or zone, Thomaidis’s teams can do it all.
    Away from the court, Thomaidis’s players always seem to be first rate superstar people who carry themselves extremely well. When all is said and done, the veteran coach likely sees that as her biggest victory.
    While she has coached for a long time, Thomaidis can still be young at heart too. When the Huskies won the Canada West title last year, she finished cutting down the net, turned to her players, smiled and said it was time to go out and party. Her players gleefully responded with big cheers.

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Saturday, 14 January 2017

Grinder turns scorer, MacKenzie delivers winner in Blades rally

Lukus MacKenzie celebrates scoring the winner for the Blades.
    You have to love it when the hard working grinder steps into the spotlight.
    On Saturday night at the SaskTel Centre, gritty 17-year-old left-winger Lucus MacKenzie of the Saskatoon Blades resembled the team’s former high scoring captain Derek Hulak for a moment. With the Blades locked in a 2-2 tie with the visiting Red Deer Rebels and killing a penalty, MacKenzie saw a Rebels player fumble with the puck near the Red Deer blue-line.
    MacKenzie zipped in and picked up the puck to create a short-handed breakaway opportunity. The Calgary product sniped a smart shot low to left side of the Red Deer goal past netminder Lasse Petersen to put the hosts up 3-2.
    Tally was just the sixth goal of the season for MacKenzie, and it stood up as the winner. The Blades later added an empty-net goal to seal a 4-2 victory before 3,173 spectators.
    “I was thinking change first, but I saw the guy bobble it there,” said MacKenzie. “I knew I had the speed to kind of get a chance there, so I gambled and it paid off.
    “I know how to make a goalie slide, and that is what I try to do on breakaways. I just opened him up and slid it through there.”
Blades D Evan Fiala battles Rebels LW Evan Polei (#10).
    Following his breakaway short-handed winner, MacKenzie put on an exuberant celebration. Back in 2014, the Blades selected MacKenzie in the third round and 60th overall in the WHL Bantam Draft after he tallied 21 goals and 45 assists in 59 games with the Edge School bantam prep team in Calgary.
    So far in his WHL career, MacKenzie, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 198 pounds, has become known for his work ethic and his commitment to battle. Noticeable offensive outbursts like his goal on Saturday have been rare.
    “It was nice to get rewarded there,” said MacKenzie, who was a plus-two in the plus-minus department. “We were battling all game. We never quit. It was good to get that one for the team.
    “I just go hard. I try to get the crowd fired up and the team fired up. That is what I try to do.”
Blades RW Lukus MacKenzie looks for an opening in the offensive zone.
    Saturday’s encounter was a physical contest that could have swung either way. The Blades got the only goal in the first period, when 16-year-old rookie winger Michael Farren slipped home his fourth goal of the season early in the frame to give the hosts a 1-0 edge.
    In the second, the Rebels went ahead 2-1 thanks to a pair of tallies from overage left-winger Evan Polei. Polei tipped home a knuckleball point shot to tie things up at 1-1, and he slipped home a backhander later in the frame to give the visitors a 2-1 edge.
    Saskatoon drew even at 2-2 at the 2:18 mark of the third, when Gage Ramsay fired home the equalizer through a screen while working on the power play. That set the stage for MacKenzie’s heroics that put the Blades on top for good.
    Blades head coach Dean Brockman was pleased to see MacKenzie break through on the scoresheet.
Jesse Shynkaruk charges up ice for the Blades.
    “I thought he has been working hard the last few games,” said Brockman. “He got rewarded.
    “He had a great chance in the second period that he didn’t bury. He was persistent and stayed with it and got his goal.”
    Overage centre Jesse Shynkaruk scored into an empty net with 16.7 seconds to play in the third. Logan Flodell made 20 saves to pick up the win in goal for the Blades (17-22-5-1). Petersen turned away 19 of 22 shots to take the loss in goal for the Rebels (20-18-4-2).
    With the win, the Blades pull into a tie for eighth place overall and the final playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with the Edmonton Oil Kings (18-22-3-1). Both teams have 40 points in the standings, but the Oil Kings have a game in hand.
The Blades salute the crowd after their 4-2 win over the Rebels.
    Brockman said it is important for his squad to win contests now in the push for a playoff berth noting the intensity of games in the regular season will pick up in February and March.
    The bench boss was pleased with the come-from-behind win against the Rebels. Saturday marked the fourth time this season the Blades rallied for a victory after entering the third period trailing on the scoreboard.
    “It is important that you comeback on teams,” said Brockman. “When we got that goal early (in the third), I felt the momentum switched for us.
    “In order to climb in the standings, you have to win games. You have to do all the catching now.”
    The Blades return to action on Wednesday, when they host the Medicine Hat Tigers at 7 p.m. local time at the SaskTel Centre.
    The Rebels travel to Swift Current on Sunday to take on the Broncos at 4 p.m. local time at the Credit Union i-Plex.

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Friday, 13 January 2017

Durant trade ends era for Roughriders

The Roughriders traded Darian Durant to Montreal.
    Darian Durant couldn’t play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders forever, but his departure is something most fans in Rider Nation are still digesting.
    Early Friday morning, news spread quickly that the Roughriders traded Durant’s CFL rights to the Montreal Alouettes in exchange for a fourth round selection (32nd overall) in this year’s CFL Draft and a conditional selection in next year’s draft. Montreal has until Feb. 14 to sign Durant, or the veteran franchise quarterback can become a free agent.
    Durant, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 214 pounds, had been with the Roughriders for 11 seasons and became the club’s unquestioned starter in 2009. He was part of the Roughriders 2007 Grey Cup championship team as a backup to Kerry Joseph and powered the Roughriders to a Grey Cup championship at home as a starter in 2013. The Florence, South Carolina, product also started for the Roughriders in heartbreaking Grey Cup losses in 2009 and 2010.
    Injuries also kept Durant off the field for significant time in 2014 and 2015.
    Way back on July 12, 2008, Durant made his first start with the Roughriders and threw them to a thrilling 33-28 road victory over the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton. From 2009 to 2014, he was part of a core group of players that powered the “green and white” to success year after year including Weston Dressler, John Chick, Chris Getzlaf, Rob Bagg, Mike McCullough and Neal Hughes.
    Out of that group, only Bagg remains. Last season, Durant and Bagg were the two lengthy veteran mainstays.
Darian Durant runs in a winning overtime TD for the Roughriders.
    Other key figures that passed through the Roughriders during Durant’s era included Gene Makowsky, Ben Heenan, Ty Brackenridge, Andy Fantuz, Tristan Jackson, Eddie Davis, Lance Frazier and Ricky Foley. At the moment, the Roughriders don’t have a face for the franchise. Arguably, veteran offensive linemen Brendon LaBatte and Chris Best are the team’s two most recognizable players.
    Outside of the past two seasons, most of Durant’s time with the Roughriders is linked with winning. It seems like only yesterday that Durant hooked up with Getzlaf on a long touchdown toss with less than two minutes to play to beat the Stampeders in Calgary 24-23, but that game was actually played on Aug. 1, 2009.
    Later that season, Durant watched from the sidelines when the Roughriders fell 28-27 to the Alouettes due to the infamous too many men call at the end of the game. That penalty gave a second chance for the Als to kick a winning field goal after the first attempt was missed. Had the miss stood, the Roughriders would have won that contest.
    The 34-year-old leaves the Roughriders sitting second in team history for career pass attempts (3,519), completions (2,186) and yards (28,136). His 149 career touchdown passes is third in team history.
    Durant’s legacy is more than just numbers. Being the starting quarterback of the Roughriders might be the hardest job in the CFL due to intense fan scrutiny, and Durant exceled at it. He became a fan favourite despite still having a few vocal detractors.
    In social settings, he always put his teammates in front of himself ensuring they were having a good time. During Durant’s years with the team, I had a few buds that played with the Roughriders over the years, and I got to see that part up close. That is a big sign of a good leader.
Darian Durant fires a pass downfield for the Roughriders.
    At the moment, the Roughriders don’t seem to have a successor in place for Durant. Saskatchewan head coach and general manager Chris Jones needs to find the team’s next franchise quarterback.
    Set to begin play at new Mosaic Stadium, the Roughriders need to surpass their 5-13 record from 2016, or the heat Jones feels now will really get out of control. If you are going to make a move to unload a player of Durant’s status and quality, you better have a guy waiting in the wings to do the job.
    When the NFL’s Green Bay Packers parted way with Brett Favre in 2008, Aaron Rodgers was ready to become the Packers starting quarterback. The Roughriders are not in that type of situation.
    With the way Jones has handed roster moves during his first season with the team, he doesn’t inspire confidence like a Wally Buono, John Hufnagel or the late Cal Murphy.
    It appears more rough times still await the Roughriders.

Wickenheiser calls it a career

A story on Hayley Wickenheiser from the 2013 Medicine Hat News.
    It was a low-key retirement announcement that was classic Hayley Wickenheiser.
    On Friday, the Canadian hockey icon announced over Twitter she was leaving the game. The Tweet included a photo of her relaxing on a bench by an outdoor rink.
    The 38-year-old wrote, “Dear Canada. It has been the great honour of my life to play for you. Time to hang em up!! Thank you! #grateful #graduationday #canada.”
    You would expect someone of Wickenheiser’s stature to announce her retirement at a huge news conference at the headquarters of Hockey Canada in Calgary. With that said, that isn’t her style. When news of Durant’s trade broke, you almost think Wickenheiser went into action to make her retirement announcement now in order to try and avoid being the centre of attention.
    The Shaunavon, Sask., product first made Canada’s senior national women’s hockey team at age 15 in 1994, and was part four Olympic gold medal winning squads and one Olympic silver medal winning team.
    I remember catching up with her for a story in the Medicine Hat News in October of 2013, when Canada’s women’s team was preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It was conceivable that Wickenheiser might play in the 2018 Winter Olympics, but it was highly realistic 2014 could be her last run. Canada’s national team system was being filled with numerous talented young players.
    At that time, Wickenheiser said she hadn’t made any decisions on her future but admitted to having little nostalgic moments.
    I asked her what it was like to be idolized by girls across Canada, and I received a unique response. Wickenheiser said she was glad female athletes in Canada have a lot of role models to look up to in sport.
    “When I grew up, I didn’t have female role models really in sport,” said Wickenheiser at the time. “Now there is myself and all the girls that I play with and players like Christine Sinclair in soccer.
    “You’ve got a lot of different female athletes that are high profile now in Canada, and that is really good for young girls that are coming up in sports.”
    Words aren’t enough to describe the impact Wickenheiser has had on the sporting scene in Canada. Here is hoping the next step of her life is as successful and rewarding as her playing days, and she gets into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

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Thursday, 12 January 2017

Mahura a key pick up for Pats

Josh Mahura was acquired by the Pats via a blockbuster trade.
    When the WHL playoffs roll around, the Regina Pats will likely be thankful they picked up Josh Mahura.
    While there was a flurry of activity leading up to the WHL’s trade deadline that passed on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Saskatchewan time, it is always key when a team can add a standout defenceman, and that includes teams like the Pats, who are rated first in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 rankings. Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock had been tinkering with his lineup for a month leading up to the deadline, but the blockbuster deal he made on deadline day will likely be key in solidifying a long playoff run.
    On Tuesday, the Pat acquired Mahura, forward Jeff de Wit and a conditional third round selection in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft from the Red Deer Rebels. Both Mahura and de Wit are 18 years of age.
    The deal was a costly one. In order to get Mahura and de Wit, the Pats sent the Rebels 18-year-old forward Lane Zablocki, 16-year-old defenceman Dawson Barteaux, a first round selection in the 2017 Bantam Draft, a first round pick in either the 2018 or 2019 Bantam Draft, and a conditional third round selection in the 2020 Bantam Draft. The Rebels are looking to reset after hosting the Memorial Cup last May.
    Mahura, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 185 pounds, was the key pick up. In 39 games with the Rebels, he had nine goals, 24 assists and a minus-one rating in the plus-minus department.
    Last season, the St. Albert, Alta., product turned heads when the post-season rolled around. Mahura’s playoff performance seemed to come out of nowhere in his sophomore 17-year-old campaign. After suffering a serious knee injury, he missed 70 regular season games.
    He put up decent numbers for a 16-year-old rookie in the 2014-15 campaign with two goals and six assists in 51 games, but with having missed a big chunk of time in 2015-16, one couldn’t be sure what type of impact Mahura would have on the Rebels lineup going into the 2016 post-season.
Josh Mahura controls the puck at the point in the 2016 playoffs for the Rebels.
    Mahura ultimately ate up huge minutes on the back end for the Rebels. As Red Deer marched and fell to the Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series, Mahura appeared in all of the Rebels 17 playoff games collecting two goals and two assists and minus-two rating in the plus-minus department.
    When the Rebels went to the Memorial Cup as the host team, Mahura logged significant ice time in his club’s four tournament games.
    Rebels head coach, general manager and owner Brent Sutter looked brilliant in the patience he showed waiting for Mahura to return from injury. That move was one of the key factors that helped the Rebels make a conference championship series for the first time in 12 years. Mahura impressed enough to earn an NHL Entry Draft selection in June of 2016 by the Anaheim Ducks, who picked him in the third round and 85th overall.
    The Pats became familiar with Mahura during the 2016 post-season falling to the Rebels in an exciting and highly competitive second round series that needed a seventh and deciding game. Red Deer prevailed 2-1 in Game 7.
    In Mahura, the Pats are getting that rare offensive defenceman that can still be sound in the defensive zone. Mahura can also spark the Pats quick transition game they like to use when they are not pinning opponents in their own zone.
    Actually, the Pats back end has the potential to be as formidable offensively and defensively as any unit seen over the past two decades in the WHL. Going into their home game Friday against the visiting Tri-City Americans, the Pats, who lead the WHL with a 27-4-6-1 mark, have three defenceman who are averaging at least a point a game.
    Connor Hobbs, the club’s star rearguard who is in his 19-year-old season, has 16 goals, 28 assists and a plus-24 rating in 35 games. Overager Chase Harrison had five goals and 28 assists and a plus-40 rating in 33 games. Russian import Sergey Zborovskiy has six goals, 26 assists and a plus-51 rating in 29 games.
    Mahura will make an already sound Pats blue-line that much better. He is also battle hardened when it comes to the post-season.
    Regina hasn’t made a conference final since 1993, a league final since 1984 and hasn’t won a league title since 1980. With Mahura added to their already talented roster, the Pats have one of their best opportunities ever to break all of those droughts.

Back in the Express with Brockman

Head coach Dean Brockman mans the Blades bench.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a feature on Saskatoon Blades head coach Dean Brockman.
    Brockman is best known for his 17-years in the junior A ranks working for the Humboldt Broncos from 1997 to 2014. He started as an assistant coach and assistant general manager before becoming the head coach and general manager in 2004. During Brockman’s years in Humboldt, the Broncos won the Royal Bank Cup for junior A supremacy in 2003 and 2008.
    The 49-year-old joined the Blades as an assistant coach in 2014, and became the head coach in June of 2016. In his first season guiding the Blades as head coach, Brockman has encountered some big challenges on the injury front, because a number of players have been out for lengthy stretches.
    The story on Brockman can be found right here.

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