Monday, 29 September 2014

Huskies gut one out

Jared Janotta (#21) loses a last second winning catch.
            It was a game where neither side was really happy with the end result.
            On Saturday at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies downed the University of Regina Rams 21-16 in a Canada West regular season game. The victorious Huskies improved to 3-1, but it was pretty obvious on the field their intensity level was lacking.
           While they won, they looked a lot more intense and a lot more polished offensively in their previous game falling 38-24 at home to the University of Calgary Dinos on Sept. 19. The Dinos have won the last six straight Canada West titles, and Dogs entered that contest as major underdogs.
            The Huskies came away from that tilt with the Dinos feeling good about the potential they could have. All of a sudden the match with the Rams, who fell to 1-3 on Saturday, was a trap game.

            The Rams led 13-11 at halftime and were on the better end of the scoreboard for most of the second half. It was their game for the taking.
            The Huskies went up 21-16 with 1:53 to play in the fourth quarter, when quarterback Drew Burko hit running back Shane Buchanan on a five-yard pass.
            After that score, the Rams had two possessions offensively. On the second possession, it looked like Rams first-year quarterback Noah Picton was going to have his first Joe Montana-like moment with the team.
            He drove his squad 80 yards downfield to the Huskies 17. Picton then threw what appeared was going to be a game-winning touchdown strike to Jared Janotta in the end zone. The ball bounced off Janotta’s hands and into the mitts of Huskies defensive back Keegan Arnyek for a game-saving interception.
            The Rams, who fell to 1-3, came away unhappy a victory which they should have had eluded their grasp. The Huskies weren’t satisfied, because the level of their play dropped from the loss to the Dinos.
            In order to have a good season, teams will have to pull out the odd victory in a game where the effort was lacklustre. The Huskies still found a way to win, so that has to ultimately be seen as a good sign for them.
            This coming Saturday, the Dogs return home to Griffiths Stadium to host the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds for a 7 p.m. start. The Vanier Cup will be on display at the pre-game from 5:30 to 6:45 p.m., and fans can have their picture taken with the CIS championship trophy.
            In an interesting development on Monday, the Huskies found out they were tied for first in the Canada West Conference. The Dinos fell to 3-1, when their regular season opening win over the University of Alberta Golden Bears was ruled a 1-0 win by the Golden Bears due to the fact the Dinos used two academically ineligible players.
            U of C holds the tiebreaker in the standings due to their win over the Huskies. The Dinos originally won the overturned contest against the Golden Bears 71-3 on Sept. 5.


Goaltending, defence paved the way for Dogs

            Goaltending and defence are expected to be the strengths of the Huskies men’s hockey team, and that proved to be true in the first weekend of the Canada West regular season play.
            The Huskies blanked the University of Regina Cougars 2-0 at the ancient Rutherford Rink in Saskatoon on Friday and then downed the Cougars 4-2 on Saturday in Regina.
            In Friday’s win, fifth year netminder Ryan Holfeld stopped 34 shots for the shutout, and the law student made every save look easy even the difficult ones. Former Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year Jordon Cooke turned away 31 shots in Saturday’s win.
            U of S graduated their top four leading scorers from a season ago in Derek Hulak, Kenton Dulle, Andrew Bailey and Brennan Bosch along with Ryan McDonald, who was part of a three-way tie for seventh in team scoring. All of them are outstanding individuals, who also all had strong WHL backgrounds. Their departure does leave a big hole.
            Some of the newcomers showed some interesting potential. In the 2-0 win, Rhyse Dieno, who piled up points with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, had a nice breakaway goal.
            Michael Sofillas, a former member of the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, scored a goal in each win and was flying around the rink.
            The Huskies were also 4-for-9 on the power play on the weekend. If success continues in that area, it will further boost the Huskies’ offence.
            The Dogs return to action this coming Friday and Saturday hosting the Thunderbirds at 7 p.m. each night at the Rutherford Rink.
            The women’s hockey team opens their regular season schedule this weekend traveling to Vancouver to take on the Thunderbirds this Friday and Saturday.


NHL game kind of a dud

The Oilers and Blackhawks face off at the Credit Union Centre.

             NHL exhibition game. Meh.
            On Sunday, the building known until Wednesday as the Credit Union Centre played host to a pre-season NHL contest between the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago skated away with a 5-0 victory and 10,760 spectators saw both side ice rosters were only about half their players spent time in the show last season.
            On Monday, the Oilers actually sent five players that appeared in Sunday’s loss to their American Hockey League affiliate the Oklahoma City Barons. With so many non-NHL players on the ice, it seemed like those in the building weren’t all that enthusiastic about what transpired. There was cheering, but there wasn’t as much cheering as you would expect.
            After checking the video, the quality of the Blackhawks’ goals looked better than they first seemed, as they scored on a number of tipped chances. Kris Versteeg’s tally was the best one as he scored after being sent in alone on goal on a pass from Bryan Bickell to put the Hawks up 5-0 late in the third.
            With that said, spectators paid between $59.50 to $112 per ticket including fees to attend Sunday’s match. In all honestly, those in attendance didn’t get their monies worth. In case you were wondering, attendance was announced in the building at 10,303 before being adjusted on the scoresheet at the end of the contest.

Hilltops roll off third straight win

             For those that made it to the Saskatoon Minor Football Field on Sunday, they saw an entertaining performance from the Saskatoon Hilltops.
            The Hilltops rolled off their third straight victory downing the Winnipeg Rifles 48-23. The hosts piled up 242 yards through the air and 150 yards on the ground.
            Unfortunately, only 808 spectators turned out for this contest. Attendance took a double hit, as the NHL exhibition game between the Oilers and Blackhawks was to start almost immediately after the Hilltops game ended. It was also overcast outside and the temperature was around 10 C, so that likely help keep people away as well.
            All of that was too bad, because the Hilltops are a fun team to watch.
            With the win, Saskatoon improved to 4-2 and tied the defending CJFL champion Regina Thunder for first in the Prairie Football Conference. The Thunder fell 20-13 at home to the Calgary Colts on Sunday.
            Regina holds the tiebreaker in the standings having swept the two head-to-head matches with Saskatoon.           

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

An appreciation for CIS men’s hockey and the Huskies

Huskies goaltender and law student Ryan Holfeld in action.
            In Canada, it can be called the forgotten circuit or a hidden treasure on the ice.
            The Canadian Interuniversity Sport men’s hockey league will showcase arguably some of the best hockey at a non-professional level in the country. For a nation that considers the sport of hockey as No. 1, the men’s game at the university level will draw little attention nationally until the University Cup championship tournament takes place.
            In some pockets of the country, it gains big attention on campus when the league’s various conference playoffs hit the ice.
            On Friday, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies begin another regular season hosting their provincial rivals the University of Regina Cougars at the ancient Rutherford Rink for a 7 p.m. faceoff locally.
            The Huskies get fairly good support as about 800 to 1,000 people pack their small home barn for regular season contests. They also get fairly good coverage from the Saskatoon media outlets, who are pretty much calling this the season of change with 11 departures from last year’s squad.
            While the Huskies will contain a whole host of new players, you can beat they will be entertaining to watch.
            See players in the CIS ranks are usually made up of graduates from mainly the major junior game and also the junior A levels. The Huskies are made up of players from the Western Hockey League major junior circuit and also the junior A leagues in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
            Every season, the junior levels of hockey in Canada graduate a huge amount of talented players, who are still looking for opportunities to play. As maybe only about three players on any major junior team on any given season will have the chance to play in an NHL regular season game, you are usually looking at about 20 guys on each team that won’t make the show.
            When junior ends, players have to decide if it is worth pursuing contacts in minor professional circles like the American Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and Central Hockey League or pursuing a backup plan.
            The reality of professional hockey is it is a business. You might play two or three seasons in the minor professional ranks and be done with playing the game at a competitive level. For that matter, there are numerous players that play out their three-year NHL entry-level contracts in the minor professional ranks and end up calling it a career.
            With that in mind, a lot of players choose to play on a Canadian university team and get their degree. The dream of playing professionally isn’t totally dead, but you are taking steps to move on in life.
            For those that join the CIS ranks, they are told the level of play won’t be a step down from what they experienced in junior. They are told to expect it to be on the same level of what they experienced in junior or even a step up.
The step up comes from the fact the players are smarter, as the veterans have the benefit of experience in the university classroom behind them, and they are also more mature given the fact they are older. Actually, it is pretty common for CIS rookies to encounter veterans who are on the path to marriage in their personal lives.
            The one thing the CIS level doesn’t have are the superstars from the major junior ranks that are first round selections in the NHL Entry Draft like Jordan Eberle, Tyler Ennis, Emerson Etem and Nikita Scherbak.
            Skilled players do go through CIS. Last year, Derek Hulak completed a four-year career with the Huskies being named the Canada West MVP, a CIS first team all-Canadian and the CIS tournament MVP.
            He proceeded to join the Texas Stars of the AHL and helped them with the Calder Cup as league champions. Hulak is back with the Stars this season with an AHL deal. Before joining the Huskies, he was a standout scorer and captain with his hometown WHL team the Saskatoon Blades.
            The Huskies former captain Brennan Bosch is best known in hockey circles for scoring the Game 7 double overtime winning goal that deliver a WHL title to the Medicine Hat Tigers in 2007. He moved on from playing on a potent scoring line with Ennis to a successful five-year career with the Huskies. Bosch graduated as the team’s captain and also with his degree in pharmacy.
            Current Huskies fifth-year forward Craig McCallum was the leading scorer for the Prince Albert Raiders in his final WHL campaign. Huskies rookie forward Rhyse Dieno averaged over a point a game in his final two WHL seasons with the Red Deer Rebels.
            Fifth-year standout goaltender Ryan Holfeld has stolen a few games in his time for the Huskies and posted a .918 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average last season. In the classroom, this former member of the WHL’s Tigers is kept busy with his studies in law.
            With Holfeld on the verge of exhausting his eligibility, the Huskies were able to recruit Jordon Cooke, who was the named the CHL’s goalie of the year last season as a member of the Kelowna Rockets.
            The team is loaded with good character guys like Sean and Kyle Aschim, Connor Cox, Matt Delahey, Kendall McFaull and Matthew Spafford and the names can go on from there.
            When these players are done at the CIS level, you would like to see them get another professional shot. They are usually around the age of 25 by that time, and their maturity level is high enough that you don’t have to worry about them away from the ice.
            With that said, it is money well spent to see these players perform in the CIS league.

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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Roughriders win and 33,427 people lose their minds

Members of Rider Nation celebrate Sunday's Roughriders win
            It is amazing how a win can cure all for a short time.
            Heading into Sunday’s game at Mosaic Stadium with the Ottawa Redblacks, the faithful that make up Rider Nation weren’t sure what would happen to their Saskatchewan Roughriders. With starting quarterback Darian Durant out with an elbow injury for an extended time, Rider Priders weren’t sure what would happen to their team.
            Understudy Tino Sunseri looked like he lacked confidence and appeared visibly nervous in a 28-3 road loss to the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton back on Sept. 14, which marked the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, product’s CFL first start.
            Against the Redblacks, the Roughriders fell behind 22-10 at halftime, and the score would have been more lopsided had Weston Dressler not returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown for the hosts.
            Saskatchewan came to life in the second half and eventually forced the game to go to overtime tied up at 32-32. The equalizing score came when Sunseri, who looked a lot more confident in his second start, led a two-minute drill 78-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a one-yard run by running back Anthony Allen and a diving two-point convert reception by Dressler.
            Chris Milo kicked a 22-yard field goal for the Riders in their second possession of the shootout style overtime format.
            On Ottawa’s ensuing possession, Roughriders linebacker Brian Peters blocked a 38-yard field goal attempt by Redblacks kicker Brett Maher to preserve a 35-32 win and send the sellout crowd of 33,427 into hysteria.
            At that moment, the fans in the stands were jumping up and down, cheering and hugging the neighbours that sat beside them even if they didn’t know them. They were just happy the Roughriders won at that point in time regardless of how they team got to the end result.
            For a short time, the team’s troubles were forgotten.

Dressler is a beast

            So how fun is it to watch Weston Dressler play football?
            Rider Nation got a real treat on Sunday from the veteran slotback during the Saskatchewan Roughriders 35-32 overtime win over the Ottawa Redblacks at Mosaic Stadium.
            Late in the second quarter, Dressler gave the Roughriders a spark with a 78-yard punt return touchdown. He easily topped that with two plays in the second half.
            Early in the fourth quarter, the Bismarck, North Dakota, product caught a seven-yard crossing pass and turned the play into a 60-yard receiving touchdown, where he spun and ducked out of numerous tackle attempts going down the left sideline. It was arguably the most spectacular play in the CFL this season.
            In order to force overtime, Dressler made a diving catch for a two-point convert late in the fourth quarter to cause a 32-32 tie.
            On the day, Dressler caught seven passes for 125 yards, returned five punts for 103 yards and one rushing attempt for five yards, scored two touchdowns and hauled in the two-point convert. 

Huskies close to a shocker

             The University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team shouldn’t worry too much about letting this one get away.
            On Friday at Griffiths Stadium, they were in position for most of the night to pull off a monster upset over the University of Calgary Dinos in a battle for first place in the Canada West Conference. The Huskies led 24-21 at halftime and were locked in a 24-24 draw for most of the second half.
            The Dinos, who have won the last six straight Canada West titles, scored two touchdowns in the final 3:31 of the fourth quarter to pull out a 38-24 victory.
            While most of the 5,801 engaged spectators were likely disappointed about the final outcome, they also spoke with pride about the effort their team put in against the powerful Dinos (3-0).
            The Huskies (2-1) have a lot to build off of in defeat. They might get another shot at the Dinos in the post-season. 

Blades still a work in progress 

            Some of the initial optimism with the Saskatoon Blades got tempered thanks to the Prince Albert Raiders.
            The Raiders swept the Blades in a home-and-home series that opened the WHL regular season for both teams. In the second of those losses on Saturday, the Blades fell at home 3-1 to the Raiders before 6,337 spectators at the building that is still known at the moment as the Credit Union Centre.
            The Blades had trouble busting through the trapping system that the Raiders utilized. Going 0-for-5 on the power play also didn’t help the cause for the host side.
            The effort was there from the Saskatoon side. The Raiders won because they the superior team, when it came to executing systems on the ice.
            With all that said, the Blades are still rebuilding from loading up to be the host team for the Memorial Cup in 2013 and loading up to try and make a long playoff run in 2011, when they finished first overall in the WHL.
            The rebuild could still be seen from a number of moves from Monday. The Blades dealt Nikita Scherbak, who was their leading scorer last season, to the Everett Silvertips in exchange for 1997-born goaltender Nik Amundrud, a first round selection in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft and a second round selection in the 2016 Bantam Draft.
            The deal helped Saskatoon recover some of the lost high end draft picks that were traded away in 2011 and 2013 and get a goaltending prospect who will get the chance to play now.
            The team also released overage goaltender Troy Trembley and 18-year-old defenceman Ross Hnidy. The double blue still have to make some cuts, when players return from NHL camps. Saskatoon is currently carrying 14 forwards, nine defencemen and three goaltenders. 

Hilltops roll 

            The Saskatoon Hilltops improved to 3-2 after posting a second straight blowout victory.
            On Sunday, they traveled to Calgary and bombed the Colts 47-19. Things were close for a bit as Saskatoon led 17-10 at halftime. Turnovers played a key as the Hilltops intercepted four Colts (1-4) passes and recovered one fumble from the host side. Saskatoon didn’t commit any turnovers.
            After two weeks on the road, the Hilltops return home to the newly renovated and named Saskatoon Minor Football Field this coming Sunday to take on the Winnipeg Rifles for a 1 p.m. kickoff. The Rifles also sport a 3-2 record after falling 43-20 last week to the defending CJFL champion Regina Thunder.

 The jinx was in Huskies women’s hockey team 

            Oops, that was a bit unintentional.
            It appears I gave the U of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team almost a mafia style kiss of death heading into the Mandi Schwartz Challenge tournament last weekend in Regina. The Huskies are the defending Canada West champs, who return most of their players from that squad. I wrote in this blog that it was perfectly fine to optimistic about their upcoming season.
            They then went winless in a pre-season tourney hosted by the University of Regina Cougars. According to the Cougars website, the Huskies fell 1-0 to the University of Manitoba Bisons, 2-0 to the York University Lions and 5-0 to the host Cougars, who fell to the Huskies in last season’s Canada West final.
            When one team gets played up in a blog like I wrote about the Huskies, that article usually finds its way into the dressing rooms of their future opponents and are used for motivation, especially given the fact not a whole lot of media coverage is given to Canadian Interuniversity Sport women’s hockey in Canada.
            Due to the media cuts that have come down in Canada, teams like the Huskies women’s hockey team won’t draw a whole lot of media coverage, even with having won a conference title, due to the fact resources media companies have are stretched thin. Those teams won’t get much of a spotlight until they go to a national championship type tournament.
I just wanted to give a little recognition to a great bunch of people, who have won a conference title. I still believe the Mandi Schwartz Challenge tourney will be a blip on the radar, and the Huskies will have a memorable year in the long run.

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Friday, 19 September 2014

A WHL legend rides again

Cheers to Rids as he enters his 45th season as the voice of the Tigers

Play-by-play man Bob Ridley at the wheel of the Medicine Hat Tigers' bus

            It is a site that has occurred for over four decades at the start of every Western Hockey League season, and if it was possible, it would be cool if it could go on forever.
            Tonight, the Medicine Hat Tigers will step on the ice to open their 45th regular season in franchise history. At the same time, Bob Ridley will step into the broadcast booth and begin his 45th season as the team’s play-by-play voice.
            Between the regular season and post-season, Ridley has called all but one of the Tigers games. After Medicine Hat was eliminated by the eventual Memorial Cup champion Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series in April, Ridley had called 3,545 of the Tigers games in the regular season and playoffs.
            That total includes calling 3,147 of the team’s 3,148 regular season games, all 378 of the club’s contests in the WHL playoffs and all 20 contests the team has played in the Memorial Cup tournament.
            Of course, the added kicker is the fact Ridley drove the team bus for almost all of that time outside of about a couple of years. On top of that, he also never made himself that big of deal, and took the accolades that came his way in a humble manner. In a reality, Ridley is a WHL legend and icon.
            It is almost impossible to imagine a media person working that many contests following around one team in this current day and age, and Ridley is set to build on those totals. To put his totals into perspective, you would have to cover five full regular seasons worth of games to even come close to Ridley’s WHL playoff total, and you would still be short of that by 18 contests.
            Besides having good fortune go your way in the work environment to get to that total, Ridley has never had any serious health problems that could threaten his ability to call games. Actually, his health is so good that you almost can’t imagine the day when he wouldn’t be calling Tigers games.
            The Tigers open their season by traveling to Lethbridge tonight to take on the Hurricanes to mark Ridley’s 3,546th game. On Saturday, the Tabbies return home to host the Hurricanes to start the 45th and final season for The Arena.
            That old barn that has seen a few legendary games including the Tigers’ Game 7 win of the WHL championship series, where Brennan Bosch scored the deciding goal in a 3-2 double overtime victory over the Vancouver Giants.
            It seems only fitting that Ridley will get call all the games in the final season of the Tigers long time home. When the team moves into what will be the newly built Medicine Hat Regional Event Centre before the start of next season, the press box will be named after him.
             During my 10 years in Medicine Hat, I regret I never got to visit with Ridley as much as I should have. Ridley was always so busy with his broadcast responsibilities, and I was always busy with my responsibilities working for the Medicine Hat News.
            We did get to visit after the odd game and the odd time in summer, when we were both on time off watching the Medicine Hat Mavericks of the Western Major Baseball League play at Athletic Park.
            During the team’s last playoff run, I also remember the two of us wandering the upper levels of Rexall Place in Edmonton being disappointed a few of the restaurants weren’t open for a pre-game meal just over an hour before puck drop. We both wondered if we got the game start time wrong, and we might have been at the rink a little too early. It makes for a good laugh now.
            I did make sure to treasure those visits I had with Rids, and I loved listening to the vast collection of stories he has to tell. To you Rids, my friend, here is hoping you collect a whole pile more stories in the Tigers 45th season, and it turns out to be another memorable and special campaign.
            I hope there are still many more seasons to come.
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