Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Hurricanes hit new heights in Game 3 win over Pats

The Hurricanes mob Jadon Joseph (#23) after he scores.
    LETHBRIDGE, Alta. – Head coach Brent Kisio pretty much had no complaints about his Lethbridge Hurricanes on Tuesday night.
    Just 16 seconds into Game 3 of their WHL Eastern Conference championship series with the Regina Pats, the Hurricanes beared down on the Regina net on an odd man rush, and Lethbridge defenceman Brennan Menell cut across the face of the Pats net to tuck home his fifth goal of the post-season to give his side a 1-0 lead. Menell’s goal helped bring the 5,178 spectators that squeezed into the Enmax Centre to their feet.
    The raucous crowd backed the Hurricanes all night, who put together a textbook 3-1 playoff victory. The win gives the Hurricanes a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference final with the Pats. Game 4 is set for Wednesday at 7 p.m. local time at the Enmax Centre.
    “I liked that we stuck with our plan,” said Kisio. “We were getting pucks deep.
    “We were managing a lot better. I thought we played hard. It was real good 60-minute effort, and it was probably one of our better ones of the post-season.
Brennan Menell breaks into the offensive zone.
    “We played all four lines. I thought all our lines were skating well, and that is why we had a good 60 minutes.”
    Besides being able to roll when they had the momentum, the Hurricanes stayed steady when the Pats carried play. While the host side scored early, the Pats pushed back late in the first period gaining momentum from a power-play chance and firing a bunch of stops on Lethbridge netminder Stuart Skinner, who stood tall making 13 saves during the opening 20 minutes.
    Skinner’s sound play was one theme in the contest.
    “He (Skinner) is a good goalie,” said Pats captain Adam Brooks. “He probably one of the best ones for his age in Canada.
    “You have to do a little bit extra to beat him. You’re not going to beat him on straight shots. You have to get rebounds.
    “You have to get effort. The pucks were laying there. We just have to work to get in there.”
    Shortly after the halfway point of the second period, the Pats pulled even at 1-1, when winger Dawson Leedahl tipped home the point shot from defenceman Josh Mahura.
    The visitors had a big chance go ahead a short time after Leedahl netted the equalizer, when Hurricanes rookie centre Jadon Joseph was penalized for slashing.
Tyler Brown makes a stop in close for the Pats.
    Star offensive-defence Connor Hobbs wired a point shot on that man advantage that hit both posts of the Lethbridge goal and stayed out.
    When the penalty expired, Hurricanes defenceman Brady Pouteau was able to get the puck to Joseph as he stepped out of the penalty box. Working with a partial breakaway, Joseph wired a snap shot past Pats netminder Tyler Brown to put the Hurricanes up 2-1 heading into the second intermission.
    Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock said Menell’s goal at the start of the first period and Joseph’s tally were key turning points in the contest.
    “We obviously weren’t good enough,” said Paddock. “In saying that, once we tied it up there we had like four or five good chances on that power play.
Egor Babenko cuts into the offensive zone for the Hurricanes.
    “It was like a two-goal swing, when the guy (Joseph) comes out of the box and scores. We should have scored on the power play, and the first goal shouldn’t have happened.”
    At the 4:08 mark of the third period, the Hurricanes closed out the game’s scoring when left-winger Egor Babenko came down the right wing and wired home a set up pass from captain Tyler Wong.
    Inside the final minute of play in the third, Joseph received a big ovation from the Enmax Centre crowd for a fierce forechecking shift in the Regina zone that killed off some key seconds.
    Skinner made 28 saves to pick up the win in goal for the Hurricanes. Brown turned away 24 shots to take the loss in goal for the Pats.
    “I thought we played really well,” said Menell. “We came out to a good start, and we finished it.
    “We didn’t have any letdowns. Everyone played hard. Of course Skinner, he was amazing again tonight.”
    NOTE - Pats standout winger Austin Wagner left the contest in the second period and didn’t return. Paddock didn’t have a status update on Wagner after the game.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Ball finds home with Northern Bears in Prince Albert

Kate Ball was a perfect fit with the Prince Albert Northern Bears.
    Kate Ball and the Prince Albert Northern Bears ended up being a match made in heaven.
    Before the season started, the 15-year-old Saskatoon product was kicking tires looking for a female midget AAA team where she would have a chance to contribute in an offensive role. On a whim, she decided to attend a tryout camp with the Bears, and head coach Jeff Willoughby asked if she wanted to play.
    Ball had a choice of playing with either the Saskatoon Stars in her hometown and the Bears. With the Stars returning almost all of their key offensive players from the previous campaign, the skilled centre decided to go play for the Bears.
    “It has actually been so exciting,” said Ball. “I love my team. They are just all like really awesome.
    “The room is just filled with like positive. We’re all like really nice to each other. It is just like really great.”
Kate Ball celebrates a goal with Jasper Desmarais and Camryn Amundson.
    With the Bears, Ball, who stands 5-foot-5, had a spectacular rookie season finishing second in team scoring with 15 goals and 15 assists in 28 regular season games. Prince Albert finished with its best record in team history going 22-6.
    In the post-season, the Bears won their first 11 straight contests sweeping the Stars in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series in three games and taking out Hartney, Man., based Westman Wildcats in a two-game sweep in a Western regional playdown series in Prince Albert.
    Those victories allowed the Bears to earn a berth in the Esso Cup female midget AAA national championship tournament for the first time in team history. The Esso Cup started on Sunday and runs to Saturday in Morden, Man.
Kate Ball (#21) battles for the puck behind the net in the offensive zone.
    While big goals were established on personal and team fronts before the season started, Ball was still a bit awestruck that those goals were realized.
    “I wasn’t expecting myself to do that good,” said Ball. “I guess just really good teammates just helped me a lot.
    “I actually never thought we would like come this far. I am just so proud of my team coming this far. It is just an amazing feeling.”
    Willoughby said the Bears were fortunate Ball decided to come to Prince Albert to play.
    “She’s been playing very consistent for us,” said Willoughby. “We’ve asked her to play an offensive role, and she jumped right into that.
    “She is always around the puck. She definitely knows where the net is. Her effort she has given is second to none.
    “Getting a point a game as a rookie is a pretty outstanding feet.”
Kate Ball, left, enjoys the Bears SFMAAAHL title win.
    Willoughby said it was cool seeing Ball improve on the ice and off the ice. Away from the game, the bench boss was impressed with how quickly Ball found a high comfort level with the rest of her Bears teammate.
    “At the start of the year, I think she was maybe a little bit to herself and shy like a lot of rookies would be,” said Willoughby. “I think she’s come along.
    “She’s really opened up. I think she is no different than the rest of them. They are all such good teammates, and they care about each other, and they care about what the other person is doing.
    “They want to help each other out, and that is exactly what Kate (Ball) has been doing.”
    Ball’s move to the Bears was also made easier by the fact nine other players from the Saskatoon area were also on the team. The Bears roster contains fellow Saskatoon products Jadyn Kushniruk, Kassidy Kicia, Kate Wagner, Sierra Parenteau, Hannah Koroll and Miranda Heidt.
    Also on the team are Warman products Jordan Ashe and Jasper Desmarais and Martensville’s Story Navrot.
Kate Ball cuts into the offensive zone for the Bears.
    Ball said she actually knew more players on the Bears than she did on the Stars due a lot to her experiences playing spring hockey. On the ice, she found magic playing on a line with Desmarais and speedy Debden product Camryn Amundson.
    “I’ve played with Jasper for four years, so we have like good chemistry,” said Ball. “Camryn, me and her just like clicked right away, so it was really great.”
    As for her start in the sport, Ball followed in the footsteps of her two older brothers Daylon and Justin. Daylon, who is now 21, finished his competitive playing days at age 16.
    Justin was with the Saskatoon Contacts last season, who played in the Telus Cup midget AAA national championship tournament, and he recently finished his 18-year-old rookie season in junior A with the Melfort Mustangs of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
    Kate’s brothers weren’t her only family members that made waves as competitive athletes. Her uncle Sheldon was a star quarterback first with the Saskatoon Hilltops and then the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. He has been the offensive coordinator of the Hilltops for the past 11 seasons.
Kate Ball piled up 30 points in 28 regular season games with the Bears.
    While she has had a lot of good influences to help her along in hockey, Ball found her own love for the sport.
    “I love skating,” said Ball. “Skating is my passion. I just love it.
    “I like the playmaking. It is just really fun.”
    Ball admitted beating the Stars in the SFMAAAHL championship series was a big highlight this season along with winning the Western regional over the Wildcats with a thrilling come-from-behind 7-6 series clinching victory in Game 2. The Bears were down 6-3 with 13:24 to play in the third period and closed the contest with four unanswered goals.
    She was pumped to go to Esso Cup and is also looking forward to playing two more seasons with the Bears. 
Kate Ball, left, and her teammates enjoy the Bears Western regional win.
    This season she continued to live in Saskatoon, and her parents drove to her to Prince Albert for practices and her games.
    Next season, Ball is planning to live with a billet family in Prince Albert.
    “I’m actually real excited to think about two more years,” said Ball. “I just love this group of girls and just being here. I think it will be good.”
    After her midget AAA playing days are done, Ball has a wish of where she would like to play on the post-secondary front.
    “Hopefully, I get to play with University of Saskatchewan, because it is like a mile from my house,” said Ball. “That would be really convenient.
    “If that doesn’t work out, then NCAA or college in the States that would be really good too.”

Bears pick up first win at Esso Cup

Camryn Amundson (#9) scored twice for the Bears on Tuesday at Esso Cup.
    On Tuesday in Morden, Man., the Bears picked up their first win at Esso Cup dumping the Summerside, P.E.I., based Mid-Isle Wildcats 6-1 at the Access Events Centre.
    Camryn Amundson and Jadyn Kushniruk both scored twice for the Bears, while Story Navrot and Miranda Heidt each netted singles. Ryan Fontaine turned away 13 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Bears.
    Madison Vincent had the lone reply for the Wildcats. Maggie Johnson turned away 57 shots to take the loss in goal for the Wildcats.
    The win allowed the Bears to improve to 1-2, while the Wildcats fell to 0-3.
    The Bears opened the Esso Cup on Sunday falling 2-1 to the host and Manitoba champion Pembina Valley Hawks. On Monday, the Bears dropped a 5-1 decision to the Pickering, Ont., based Durham West Lightning.
    Prince Albert returns to action on Wednesday taking on the Alberta-based St. Albert Slash. The Bears close their round robin schedule at Esso Cup on Thursday, when they face the Sherbrooke, Que., based Harfangs du Triolet.
    The top four teams in the round robin standings qualify for the playoff round. The semifinal round for the Esso Cup is set for Friday. The bronze and gold medal games will be held on Saturday.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The spectacle of the Rush

National Lacrosse League team thrills Saskatchewan fans

Matt Hossack celebrates scoring a goal for the Rush.
    When it comes to providing the ultimate escapism for the sports fan in Saskatchewan, no one beats the Saskatchewan Rush.
    After winning a league championship in 2015 in Edmonton, the National Lacrosse League franchise relocated to Saskatoon for the 2016 season after owner Bruce Urban was unable to secure a long-term lease in the Alberta capital. In June of 2016, the Rush repeated as NLL champions, and local fans from around the province had the opportunity to experience the thrill of championship victory first hand.
    Leading the best-of-three NLL championship series 1-0 against the Buffalo Bandits, the Rush hosted Game 2 at the SaskTel Centre on June 4, 2016. Locked in a 10-10 draw, a crowd of 15,182 gleefully watched Rush defenceman Jeff Cornwall bolt coast-to-coast and tuck home the winning goal with 12 second to play to give the host side an 11-10 victory in the game and a 2-0 sweep of the series. 
A mini-monster truck shoots sparks at the Rush game.
    In the aftermath of that exciting finish, it seemed the Champions Cup found its way to numerous parts of Saskatchewan.
    Now in their second season in Saskatoon, the excitement around the Rush hasn’t diminished. On Saturday, they improved to 11-5 and locked up first place in the NLL’s West Division with a 15-10 victory over the storied Toronto Rock before a raucous crowd of 15,045 at the SaskTel Centre.
    During their nine regular season home dates, the Rush are averaging just under 15,000 per game, and the ticket buyer is enjoying every minute of the action.
    The action isn’t limited to the game itself. It also includes all the entertainment aspects surrounding the contest.
    Last year, I went to games were the Rush locked up the West Division final series and the NLL championship game as a ticket buyer. On Saturday, I ventured to the SaskTel Centre on the media end to get my feet wet with another side of the Rush experience.
Members of the Crush Dance Team entertain the SaskTel Centre crowd.
    I took my camera and expected to shoot photos of the game and likely write some sort of story about the night. The Rush victory allowed head coach Derek Keenan to become the all-time leader in NLL career wins at 122 surpassing the previous mark of 121 held by Darris Kilgour, who coached the Bandits from 2003 to 2013.
    Keenan’s record win provided the perfect bailout story for me. I became so involved with the picture taking aspect of the night I was really oblivious to the blow-by-blow of how the Rush won by a 15-10 final.
    I remember the Rush bolting out to a quick 2-0 lead, when Ben McIntosh scored 47 seconds into the contest and Mark Matthews tallied at the 3:03 mark of the first quarter. From there, half of pictures I took were of the game and half were of things that happened around the game.
Rush fans do the chest beat celebration after one of the team’s goals.
    I took cool shots of the mini-monster truck shooting out huge sparks during the pre-game and was taken in by the skill displayed by the Crush Dance Team during their performances. I found myself in the party zone set up in the one corner of the facility and wandering the concourse checking out the various displays the Rush staff set up through the facility.
    It was also a 1980s promo night on Saturday, and considering I love 80s music, I was grooving pretty good to the tunes Trystan Meyers , who is also known as “D.J. Anchor,” was cranking out. The Nightrain, which is a Guns N’ Roses tribute band, was pretty sweet as well.
    In between, I was able to capture a couple of shots of Bruiser the Rush bulldog mascot.
Rush mascot Bruiser waves a team flag.
    On the floor, I loved the up tempo pace of action the NLL presents. Being at the contest in a media capacity, I really took in and was in awe checking out how much the fans reacted and enjoyed the night. While there are obvious fan favourite players like goalie Aaron Bold, Jeremy Thompson, Matthews and Robert Church, the fans were soaking in the pure fun.
    Even if the Rush had lost, you felt like the fans wouldn’t be over dissecting the game, which commonly happens when the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders come up on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
    The announcers do their best to get the crowd revved up into the game like noting the Toronto Rock come from a city that considers itself “the centre of the universe.”
    When the Rush score, everyone get super intense into the chest beat celebration.
    Behind the scenes, the Rush game day staff are first class to deal with. It seem like they are upbeat all the time, which adds to the fun.
    At a Rush game, it feels like all your daily troubles go away for the two to three hours you are there.
    For the ticket buyers that are coming from all over Saskatchewan, that feeling of euphoria is priceless.

    If you have any comments would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Rush delivers wins record to coach, first place to fans

Ryan Keenan celebrates his goal with Robert Church (#17).
    Derek Keenan was the man of the hour on dads’ night for the Saskatchewan Rush.
    Before Saturday night’s National Lacrosse League regular season game at the SaskTel Centre, Keenan, who is the Rush’s veteran head coach and general manager, escorted son and Rush rookie forward, Ryan, on to the floor during pre-game festivities. The Rush had all their players introduced with their fathers and walk on to the SaskTel Centre floor to pay tribute to their dads in the club’s final regular season home game of 2017.
    After the festivities wrapped up, the Rush turned a 7-7 draw into a convincing 15-10 victory over the visiting Toronto Rock. The win moved the elder Keenan into top spot in NLL career coaching victories with 122. 
    The 51-year-old Oshawa, Ont., product passed Darris Kilgour, who piled up 121 victories guiding the Buffalo Bandits as head coach from 2003 to 2013.
    The Rush improved to 11-5, and with the aid of a Vancouver Stealth 13-7 home victory over the Colorado Mammoth, Saskatchewan clinched first place in the NLL’s West Division.
Rush HC and GM Derek Keenan holds court during a media scrum.
    The Rush bench boss said the important thing was his club locked up first place in the West Division before reflecting on his wins record.
    “It was a nice milestone,” said Keenan, whose Rush existed in Edmonton before moving to Saskatoon for the 2016 season. “We’ve won a lot of games the last four or five years.
    “Certainly, the credit goes to the players and my assistant coaches and the organization as a whole. You don’t get to this milestone without having around you, and I have a whole bunch of them.”
    Son Ryan chipped in a goal and a pair of assists in the Rush victory before a raucous sellout crowd of 15,045 at the SaskTel Centre. Derek admitted it was cool to get the wins record on the Rush’s dads’ night.
    “It was kind of weird that I had to go out on the floor before the game,” said Keenan with a laugh. “There was some kind of strange quirky things this weekend that we kind of worked through. It was fun.”
Robert Church had two goals and five assists for the Rush.
    Saturday’s encounter with the Rock had some momentum swings early. The Rush scored two early goals to go ahead 2-0, but Toronto answered back with four straight tallies to vault to a 4-2 lead at the end of the first quarter.
    After the teams entered halftime tied 7-7, the Rush surged ahead 12-7 with five unanswered goals in the third quarter. They cruised to victory from there.
    “It was unbelievable,” said Keenan of the third quarter. “I think the biggest thing about it was we’ve done OK in third quarters, but we haven’t scored a lot.
    “We kept teams to low numbers in third quarters, but I think our offence really got going. Defensively, I think they ran out of gas a little bit. They were really pushing the transition game the first half.
    “I think they ran out of gas a little bit, so we were able to get to run our offence. I thought defensively we smothered them for most of the night.”
    Star forward Mark Matthews powered the Rush with four goals and three assists. Robert Church piled up two goals and five assists for the hosts. Ben McIntosh, Matt Hossack and Adam Jones all had two-goal nights for Saskatchewan, while Dan Taylor and Curtis Knight added singles.
Mark Matthews (#42) had four goals and three assists for the Rush.
    Brett Hickey led the Rock with four goals. Tom Schreiber and Dan Lintner both had two-goal nights for Toronto, while Jesse Gamble and Reid Reinholdt had singles.
    Tyler Carlson turned away 40 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Rush. Nick Rose turned away 34-of-49 shots to start and take the loss in goal for the Rock (8-9). Brandon Miller stopped the only shot he faced in a short relief appearance for Toronto.
    Carlson didn’t know he was going to get a rare start in goal in place of Rush star goalie Aaron Bold. Keenan informed Carlson of the decision on game day.
    “It means a lot especially coming from Derek (Keenan),” said Carlson. “He has so much confidence in Boldy (Aaron Bold). We all have confidence in Boldy.
    “I was there to step in. It is an amazing honour to be able to be in there with those guys.”
The Brampton, Ont., product was pumped to help Keenan get the NLL’s career wins record.
The Rush salute the SaskTel Centre fans after their win on Saturday.
    “Keenan is just a classy guy,” said Carlson. “You are not going to find a coach like that.
    “He is our father figure in there when we come here. It is nice to have our fathers in the stands, but Keenan, he is just an amazing coach, and he is an amazing human being too.”
    The Rush return to action on Friday, when they travel to Denver, Colorado, to face the Colorado Mammoth.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Heart of the Hurricanes

Lethbridge stuns Pats in Eastern Conference finals opener

Jordy Bellerive, left, celebrates his goal with his Hurricanes teammates.
    REGINA – These Lethbridge Hurricanes will never say die.
    If there is any team out of the four remaining in the WHL playoffs that could fold tent with every excuse in the book, it is the Hurricanes. During the post-season, Lethbridge has been riddled with injuries causing star players like captain Tyler Wong and Giorgio Estephan to log a huge amount of minutes per game. There are times it seems like netminder Stuart Skinner is seeing more rubber than a dead skunk on the Trans-Canada Highway.
    In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Hurricanes won back-to-back seven game series over the Red Deer Rebels and Medicine Hat Tigers respectively overcoming four elimination games. When the Hurricanes hit the ice for Game 1 of the WHL Eastern Conference championship series on Friday night in Regina, they were playing their 15th game in 28 days.
Pats W Dawson Leedahl knocks Canes captain Tyler Wong off the puck.
    To make things more challenging, the host Regina Pats finished first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 record, and they topped the final Canadian Hockey League top ten rankings released back on March 22.
    When the dust settled on Friday, the Hurricanes players left the Brandt Centre ice surface happily saluting their small contingent of fans in the northeast corner of the building that were able to get tickets in the sellout crowd of 6,484. The visitors came away with a 3-1 victory to lead the best-of-seven series 1-0.
    Forget the pre-series barbs that were traded between Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock and Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt. Paddock claimed Wong jumped a foot in the air when he hit people. Anholt countered the Pats players took run at their opponents.
Goalie Stuart Skinner dives to cover a loose puck for the Hurricanes.
    All that talk is traditional playoff smoke, where each side tries to plant a seed in the heads of the officials and media to gain an advantage. When the puck drops, you still have to play the game.
    In Friday’s win, the Hurricanes did use smart tactics to defend against the Pats keeping them to the outside and clogging up lanes through the centre ice zone, but they won mainly because of heart. Anholt loves his teams that have heart, and he has to have that trademark proud grin going, when his club hits the ice.
    Regina’s biggest downfall was the fact they didn’t score a lot more early, when they blasted out of the gates to start the contest. Just 70 seconds in, speedy winger Austin Wagner scored on a breakaway to give the hosts a 1-0 edge.
    From there, the Pats controlled the first period outshooting the Hurricanes 14-8. However, that is also the problem when you play the Hurricanes. You might have them down, but they will take advantage of the slightest breaks to turn things around.
Hurricanes D Igor Merezhko checks Pats C Wyatt Sloboshan.
    Signs of that started to happen late in the first, when the visitors fired three shots in close during a short time span, but the Pats stayed ahead thanks to netminder Tyler Brown making a stop each time.
    At the start of the second period, the Pats still appeared to have control but things changed at the 13:23 mark of the frame that sent a shock through the 21st sellout crowd between the regular season and playoffs at the Brandt Centre. A Pats defensive zone turnover resulted in Estephan wiring home a shot from the slot to tie things up at 1-1.
    Early in the third, the Hurricanes gained only their second power-play chance of the contest. During the man advantage, a net scramble ensued in front of the Pats net, and Hurricanes forward Jordy Bellerive knocked home a loose puck to put the visitors up 2-1.
Pats captain Adam Brooks darts up ice on a third period rush.
    Shortly before the midway point of the frame, Wagner appeared to have netted the equalizer for the Pats when he went into the Hurricanes zone battling Hurricanes defenceman Brennan Riddle on a rush. The pair went crashing into the goal along with the puck.
    On replays, Wagner gave Skinner a bump going into the goal before the puck crossed the line, which would negate the tally due to contact with the netminder. The goal was officially waved off due to the net being dislodged before the puck crossed the goal-line.
    Still, the Hurricanes did whatever they needed to do to protect their slim lead. Wong would take a shot deep in the offensive zone and race back to deflect a Pats chance away in the defensive zone.
Hurricanes D Brennan Riddle takes Pats W Nick Henry into the boards.
    Pats captain Adam Brooks played for the first time after missing five games with a knee injury, which included dressing and not playing in the last three contests in that stint. He saw limited ice time through the first two periods. With the Pats down in the third, he saw increased ice time with regular linemates Wagner and Filip Ahl.
    Late in the third, Brooks had a beauty chance to score from in front of the Lethbridge goal, but he was turned away by Skinner.
    Skinner used all of his 6-foot-4 frame to play big in the Hurricanes goal, and he made the acrobatic diving stop when he needed to. In total, he made 36 saves on the night.
    The Hurricanes iced the win with an effort play. With 1:22 to play in the third and Brown pulled for an extra attacker for the Pats, Estephan stole the puck from Pats forward Nick Henry deep in the left corner of the Regina zone and popped in an empty-net goal to round out the 3-1 final.
The Hurricanes celebrate their Game 1 win over the Pats.
    Brown stopped 22-of-24 shots fired his way taking the loss in goal for the Pats.
    The Hurricanes came out with the win on Friday, because they made more effort plays than the Pats did. You keep wondering when the Lethbridge players will run out of gas, but they just don’t. Even with returning forwards Zak Zborosky and Zane Franklin from injury, the Hurricanes still dressed associate players Dylan Cozens and Shawn Harke.
    The line of Wong, Estephan and Egor Babenko still played a lot, but their efforts never diminished as the game went on.
    When the Hurricanes and Pats meet in Game 2 on Saturday in Regina (7 p.m. local time, Brandt Centre), it will be the Hurricanes 16th game in 29 days.
    Will this be the game they hit the wall, or will they just keep going like the Energizer Bunny?
    The Pats learned one thing on Friday that the slightest little letdown against Lethbridge can be costly.

Regina sports media a good group

    During my travels through various WHL centres, I have often renewed ties with old friends and acquaintances that work for mainstream media outlets, which has been fun.
    At all my stops, everyone has been good. Due to the Pats doing so well this season, I have made a number of trips to Regina, and I am impressed with how well everyone from the Regina sports media scene seems to get along. You could tell there is a good vibe between all the reporters.
    It is also cool to see a large number of them out at Pats games. Due to cuts in mainstream media outlets throughout Canada, you don’t normally see this. Regina is an exception mainly due to the fact the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders call that centre home, but regardless, it is still nice to see larger numbers of media members from mainstream outlets out at Pats games.
    Anyways on trips to Regina, it has been cool to interact with Rob Vanstone and Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post, Bianca Millions from CTV and Arielle Zerr from CJME, who are all the mainstays. I also get to see Rod Pedersen of CKRM and Warren Woods of CJME on a somewhat regular basis too.
    I hope the upbeat vibe that is there can continue well into the future.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Conference finals berths finally come for Pats and ‘Canes fans

A young Pats fan holds up a Sam Steel big head.
    There had to be a time when fans of the Regina Pats and Lethbridge Hurricanes had to wonder if their teams would ever make a long playoff run again.
    This year, those runs finally happened. The Pats and Hurricanes have advanced through the first two rounds of the WHL’s post-season to qualify for the league’s final four.
    To make things even more compelling, they will face each other in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship series that begins on Friday in Regina (7 p.m. local time, Brandt Centre).
    Both teams have storied pasts when it comes to the post-season, but those times seem like a distant memory. The Pats last qualified for the Eastern Conference championship series back in 1993, and the Hurricanes haven’t been that far in the post-season since 2008, when they made the WHL championship series and fell to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs.
Members of the “Canes Train” have been loud and proud all season.
    When the Pats and Hurricanes won their respective WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series, the way the players on each team poured off their bench to celebrate made it obvious they knew they accomplished something significant.
    Over the past two seasons, the fan bases in Regina and Lethbridge got behind their respective teams in a big way as both clubs experienced resurgences. While excitement was high, the idea of either the Pats or Hurricanes making a long playoff run had to be foreign one.
    During the past 15 seasons, long playoff runs seemed to be reserved for teams like the Brandon Wheat Kings, Kelowna Rockets, Medicine Hat Tigers and Portland Winterhawks, who all had many extended post-season forays over that time. There had to be doubt that the Pats or Hurricanes could ever belong with those upper echelon clubs.
Sam Steel has been all-world good for the Pats.
    For the Pats, they did have high finishes in the regular season standings since 1993, but would be bounced mostly in the first round of the playoffs and the odd time the second round.
    When the 2012-13 season came to an end, they had missed qualifying for the post-season for the fourth time in five years.
    While they have a storied past being the oldest major junior team in the world and having won three Memorial Cups, they were often mentioned in passing in recent times as one of those other teams that are out there.
    In Late April of 2014, Russ and Diane Parker sold the club to Queen City Sports and Entertainment headed by Regina businessman Anthony Marquart to signal change.
    In August of 2014, the Pats hired veteran bench boss John Paddock as head coach, and he later took on the duties of general manager.
    The Pats advanced to the second round of the post-season in 2015 and 2016, and fan interest started to build.
    In 2016-17, they finished first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 mark and were rated as the top team in the final Canadian Hockey League rankings that came out on March 22.
    Regina also topped the CHL top 10 ranking for much of the 2016-17 campaign. When the Swift Current Broncos led the Pats 3-1 in a best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series, Regina fans had to worry if the second round would be where Regina’s run would end again.
Tyler Wong has done it all for the Hurricanes.
    The Pats rallied back to take that series with Swift Current 4-3, which marked the first time in team history Regina erased a 3-1 series deficit.
    A berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series gave the Pats’ top spot in the CHL top 10 rankings street cred.
    For the Hurricanes, they bottomed out hard after making the WHL championship series in 2008.
    Lethbridge made the second round of the 2009 post-season and proceeded to miss the playoffs for six straight years after that.
    Following the 2013-14 campaign when the Hurricanes finished last in the entire WHL with a 12-55-2-3 record, it seemed there was a death watch surrounding the team. There were times the Hurricanes existence in Lethbridge was questioned.
    Before the 2014-15 campaign started, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel, when the club hired Peter Anholt as an assistant general manager.
    Those that followed the league for an extended period of time knew that this would be an inspired move.
    About half way through the 2014-15 season, the Hurricanes board of directors named the veteran bench boss the team’s head coach and general manager. The Hurricanes finished second last in the league with a 20-44-5-3 mark, but they were no longer pushovers under Anholt’s guidance.
Austin Wagner (#27) has scored goals at key times for the Pats.
    Still, there was talk that the community-owned team should be sold.
    However, golden hockey days in Lethbridge soon arrived. Anholt made a brilliant decision to hire Brent Kisio as the club’s new head coach before the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
    Kisio, who was 32-years-old when he joined the Hurricanes, had spent eight seasons with the Calgary Hitmen mainly as an assistant coach and finished his tenure in Calgary as an associate coach and assistant general manager.
    Under Kisio’s guidance, the Hurricanes rocketed up to finish first in the WHL’s Central Division in 2015-16 with a 46-24-1-1 record. They fell in a best-of-seven first round series to the Pats 4-1.
    This season the Hurricanes again were one of the league’s top clubs posting a 44-21-4-3 record.
    During the playoffs, they showed they might be the WHL club that has the most heart. Despite being plagued by numerous injuries, the Hurricanes rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round to eliminate the Red Deer Rebels 4-3.
Giorgio Estephan has been a standout for the Hurricanes.
    Lethbridge proceeded to take out the Medicine Hat Tigers in another gutty seven-game series to earn a berth in the conference finals.
    Hurricanes overage captain Tyler Wong forever became a team legend, when he scored the overtime winner short-handed in Game 7 against the Tigers in Medicine Hat on Tuesday to deliver the Hurricanes a 5-4 victory.
    As the Hurricanes hit stride, fans in Lethbridge jumped on the “Canes Train” and flooded the Enmax Centre and neighbouring opposition city rinks when their team played there. Hockey glory days are back in Lethbridge.
    Now as the Pats and Hurricanes get set to battle in the Eastern Conference championship, fans get to watch two clubs that feature stars that appear to be almost superheroes.
    The Pats have centre Sam Steel, who topped the WHL in regular season scoring with 50 goals and 81 assists, to lead their side. Regina’s roster is filled with stars like speedy winger Austin Wagner, defenceman Connor Hobbs and netminder Tyler Brown.
    The “Pats Regiment” is hopeful heart and soul captain Adam Brooks might return to action from his knee injury at some point in the series.
Connor Hobbs provides an offensive kick from the back end for the Pats.
    Wong is the Hurricanes larger than life hero taking the club’s fan favourite award in each of his five seasons with the team. The Cochrane product topped the Hurricanes in scoring with 51 goals and 58 assists.
    Lethbridge compliments Wong with a number of other stars including centre Giorgio Estephan, defenceman Brennan Menell and netminder Stuart Skinner.
    If both teams were healthy, this series would have the potential to go to overtime in Game 7.
    While the Pats haven’t been able to utilize Brooks and centre Jake Leschyshyn is out for the entire post-season with a knee injury, the Hurricanes are still way more hurt on the injury front.
    In the final two games of the series with over the Tigers, the Hurricanes scratched five regulars including forwards Matt Alfaro, Zak Zborosky, Ryan Vandervlis and Zane Franklin along with rearguard Calen Addison.
Stuart Skinner has been spectacular in goal for the Hurricanes.
    The Hurricanes dressed three associate players in their Game 7 win over Medicine Hat.
    Due to the Hurricanes injuries, the Pats are the favourites in this series. With that said, it wouldn’t be surprising for the Hurricanes extend the set to five or six games with their heart.
    For the fans on both sides, the Pats and Hurricanes runs have been successful no matter what happens after puck drop in Game 1 on Friday.
    Everything will be about enjoying a moment that about three years ago looked to be impossible.

Back in the Express with Burris

    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week having written a catch up piece with recently retired star CFL quarterback Henry Burris.
    On May 4, Burris will be the special guest speaker for this year’s Houghton Boston Dogs’ Breakfast, which starts at 7 a.m. at Prairieland Park. Since guiding the Ottawa Redblacks to a 39-33 upset overtime victory over the Calgary Stampeders in last November’s Grey Cup, Burris had settled into a life of being a co-host of CTV Morning Live, and he has enjoyed being a hockey dad.
    One thing I didn’t include was asking Burris how tight he was with veteran Regina Leader-Post columnist Rob Vanstone. Burris played with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2000 and 2003 and 2004, which allowed a friendship to grow.
    “Rob (Vanstone) was always a fan of mine before I even came to Saskatchewan it felt like,” said Burris over the phone from Ottawa. “When him and I first met, we just started talking and getting to know each other just everything just took off.
    “I’m looking forward to seeing him soon. We have to sit down and talk about business, but more so just catch up.
    “I’m looking forward to getting out there and catching up with a good gentleman like him (Vanstone) and just thanking him personally for everything that he has done for me in my career. Hopefully, we can continue to do things together.”
    Burris will also be in Regina on May 26 as the guest speaker for the Regina Thunder’s Dinner of Champions to be held at the Regina Delta hotel.
    My Express story on Burris can be found right here.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Northern Bears should let it loose and roll at Esso Cup

Prince Albert enters nationals with tonnes of pluses to lean on

The Prince Albert Northern Bears should play with no fear at Esso Cup.
    When the Prince Albert Northern Bears hit the ice at Esso Cup, they should skate like they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
    The Bears open play at the female midget AAA national championship tournament on Morden, Man., on Sunday, when they take on the host Pembina Valley Hawks, who are also the Manitoba champs.
    Prince Albert has been in a holding pattern since sweeping a best-of-three Western regional playdown series at the Art Hauser Centre against the Hartney, Man., based Westman Wildcats on April 1. The Bears are heading to the national championship tournament for the first time in team history.
    Pembina Valley clinched the Manitoba title on March 19, and they since participated in a pair of exhibition games against a pair of junior women’s teams that are based out of Winnipeg. The last of those was held on April 14 in Morden, Man., where the Hawks thumped the Manitoba Blizzard 6-0.
    The Esso Cup contains a field of six teams from across Canada. They play each other in a round robin, and the top four teams advance to the playoff round. The semifinals are held on April 28, and the bronze and gold medal games are both slated for April 29.
Brooke Hobson is the Bears fearless leader.
    At last year’s Esso Cup in Weyburn, the Brantford Ice Cats romped over the Express du Richelieu 10-3 in the championship final.
    All the teams at Esso Cup are good, and the squads at this year’s event won’t know how they stack up against each other until they start playing each other.
    Last year, the field was even as all the teams that made the playoff round sported 3-2 records. Out of the 19 games played over seven days, nine were decided by one goal and six had two-goal spreads. In the preliminary round, the Express downed the Ice Cats 5-4 in a contest that required a tiebreaking shootout.
    When the Bears take the ice at this year’s Esso Cup in Morden, Man., they should just go out and rock and roll with no fear. Prince Albert built a 22-6 regular season record and a perfect 11-0 in the post-season by flying at opponents with four lines that all have speed. They also have a solid group of defenders and two goalies that can help transition play up ice or shut things down in the defensive zone.
    The Bears, who are riding a 15-game winning streak, have many huge positives that are on their side. The biggest intangible is their culture is really good.
    When you see the players interact with each other at practice, in games or away from the rink, the family feeling is strong. You can tell the players care for each other a lot, and that aspect alone will win you a lot of games.
    Head coach Jeff Willoughby and his staff done a tremendous job in creating an atmosphere that allows their players to succeed.
    The Bears players are all good and have all contributed to their team’s success. All have grown immensely over the 2016-17 season.
Abby Soyko topped the Bears in regular season scoring.
    In captain Brooke Hobson, you might not find a better leader anywhere. The 17-year-old defender, who was a member of Canada’s under-18 national team, has the maturity of an adult. When you talk to her, you don’t realize you are talking to someone who is 17.
    She also has the right type of confidence in herself and her team. On top of all that, Hobson, who had 11 goals and nine assists in 24 regular season games, is invested emotionally in the Bears program having played five full seasons with the team. The skilled rearguard will move on to play with the Northeastern University Huskies women’s team in Boston, Mass., in the fall.
    The forward line of Kate Ball, Camryn Amundson and Jasper Desmarais have a chemistry that is second to none. Ball finished second in team scoring with 15 goals and 15 assists in 28 regular season games, Amundson was third in team scoring with 13 goals and 14 assists in 27 regular season games, while Desmarais was fourth with nine goals and 15 assists in 26 regular season games.
    Prince Albert product Abby Soyko, who is a 15-year-old forward, topped the Bears in scoring with 18 goals and 13 assists.
Centre Kate Ball piled up the points on a high-scoring line.
    While opponents will focus on shutting down the Bears visible top scorers, you never know when anyone else on the roster could hurt you. The best example of that is underage 14-year-old forward Brooklyn Anderson. The Shellbrook product had four goals and nine assists in 27 regular season games, but she came through with points at key times in the post-season.
    In the Western regional series clinching game, Anderson tipped home a point shot from defender Jordan Ashe with two minutes to play to break a 6-6 tie and deliver the Bears to a 7-6 victory over the Wildcats. The Bears were down 6-3 in that contest in the third period before they rallied back for victory.
    The Bears also have a great double punch in goal with Brooklyn Elek and Ryan Fontaine, and both have rotated starts throughout the regular season and post-season. As teams that make the playoff round will play seven games in seven days at Esso Cup, it is huge asset to have to goalies that can carry the load and rotate starts through the event.
The Bears hope to celebrate a number goals at Esso Cup.
    When the run ends, the Bears will graduate Hobson and Elek along with forwards Ireland South and Sierra Parenteau. A national championship win would create the ultimate high to leave on.
    With that said, you never know how strong the rest of the field could be.
    Still, the Bears have had a highlight filled season. Sweeping away the Saskatoon Stars in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League championship series was one highlight, because the Stars had won the SFMAAAHL title the two previous seasons.
    The other highlights were playing in front of an estimated crowd of 1,000 in Prince Albert in their Game 1 win at the Western regional and an estimated crowd of 1,200 in their Game 2 win. Those attendance figures are almost unheard of for female midget AAA hockey.
    They bested the crowds of just under 800 that attended each of the three games of the 2014 Canada West women’s hockey final at the Rutherford Rink, when the University of Saskatchewan Huskies downed the U of Regina Cougars 2-1 in a best-of-three set.
    The Bears have already accomplished a lot, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did go all the way.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.