Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The curious case of the Saskatoon Blades

The Blades celebrate a goal earlier this season.
            A heartbreaker.
            On Saturday at the SaskTel Centre, the Saskatoon Blades were locked in a 4-4 draw with the visiting Regina Pats. In the dying seconds of the third period, Pats winger Braden Christoffer goes end-to-end, dekes through three Blades and slips home the winning goal with 3.3 seconds to play in the frame.
            The goal gave Regina a 5-4 victory, while the Blades had lost their 10th in a row. For the 4,552 spectators in attendance at the Sasktel Centre, the last-second setback was the last vision they have of the Blades going into the WHL Christmas break.
            The Blades officially skated into a nine-day rest period with an 11th loss in a row falling 5-2 to the Broncos in Swift Current on Wednesday. At 7-25-2-1, Saskatoon sits last in the entire WHL with 17 points.
            Heartbreaking losses have been a theme for the Blades this season. Despite playing in a number of tight contests, there is a feeling they will find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
            The struggles for the Saskatoon franchise at this point in time are expected. The Blades basically sold the farm dealing away a number of high draft selections to acquire talented older players to gear up as the host squad for the 2013 Memorial Cup.
            Besides having to recover from that campaign, the Blades are still feeling the effects of trying to lock in for a long post-season run in 2011. Before the WHL’s trade deadline in that campaign, they acquired Brayden Schenn in a blockbuster deal with the Brandon Wheat Kings, which saw another pile of draft picks get sacrificed.
            Saskatoon finished first overall in the WHL, but would bow out in the second round of the playoffs being swept away by the eventual league champion Kootenay Ice.
            A day after Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss to Regina, the Blades continued the rebuild trying to restock their supply of high WHL Bantam Draft picks. They sent 18-year-old defenceman Nelson Nogier, who was their only NHL drafted player, 18-year-old right-winger Austin Adamson to the Red Deer Rebels in exchange for 17-year-old winger Mason McCarty, a first round selection in the 2016 Bantam Draft and a second round selection in the 2015 Bantam Draft.
            Thanks to that move, the Blades have four first round picks over the next two Bantam Drafts. At the time of the 2013 WHL trade deadline, the Blades did not hold any first round selections for the next three Bantam Drafts they were to enter. They didn’t have any first or second round picks in their system from the three previous Bantam Drafts from that point in time.
The Blades work to hold off the Regina Pats.
            When Edmonton product Mike Priestner bought the Blades from Jack Brodsky before the start of the 2013-14 campaign, it was beyond an understatement to say the cupboard was bare. Realistic supporters of the hockey club knew there were going to be rough times ahead for an extended period.
            Since the end of the 2013 Memorial Cup tournament in Saskatoon, those that have been part of the team’s management have to be given credit for building a stockpile of first round Bantam Draft pick for the next two years.
            On the ice this season, the team has been more competitive than its last place record would indicate. They are not getting hammered like 7-1 on the scoreboard on a regular basis. They have actually had a realistic shot at victory in most of their games dropping 12 contests by two or fewer goals.
Before the start of the campaign, Bob Woods was brought in as the team’s new head coach and general manager, and he came to the club along with new assistant coach Dean Brockman. With the roster they have, the Blades might actually be overachieving.
            It is fair to say the Saskatoon roster contains a number of players who shouldn’t be in the WHL. Those players ended up in the league due to the fact the Blades are in an unprecedented serious rebuilding state.
            If a dynamic first line scoring trio was part of the Bridge City Bunch, it might have actually been possible to sneak into the post-season. It wouldn’t be a given, but it would have been close.
            With the struggles, the Blades have averaged 4,229 spectators per game. That figure is has to be considered quite respectable considering the club’s lack of victories. When the team was 7-52-11-2 in the 2003-04 campaign, average attendance was 3,361 spectators for home games.
            The fans that do go to the games seem patient. When the Blades are trying their hardest like they did in the loss to Regina, the faithful in the stands were into the game. The Sasktel Centre, which traditionally lacks an atmosphere, felt electric at times in that contest.
            When Priestner bought the Blades, he brought in son, Colin, to be the managing partner and Steve Hogle to be the president an alternate governor from the Alberta capital. Since arriving in Saskatoon, they have all put in a good effort to be part of the community.
            Before the first home game of the regular season, the team gave donations to a number of local charities and sports organizations during pre-game ceremonies. Colin and his wife, Alanna, have appeared at a few charitable functions.
Last act as a Blade. Nelson Nogier gives his stick to a fan.
            Hogle, who had a long career at CTV in Edmonton, is always meeting and visiting fans in the concourse of the Sasktel Centre during game days. On a day to day basis, he does a stellar job in representing the team, which makes you want to go to games.
            The cynics are still there. On a recent poll regarding the Blades conducted by, the response that received the most votes regarded being fed up all together with the team going back to when the club wasn’t able to make any long runs in post-season appearances from 2009 to 2013.
            Over that five year span, the Blades were eliminated from the playoffs three times in the first round and twice in the second round despite finishing first in the East Division three times. The toughest pills to swallow were the second round exit in 2011, when the Blades were 56-13-1-2 in the regular season, and the first round exit in 2013 as the Memorial Cup host.
            The new owners and management of the team seem to have the best intentions to rebuild the Blades and run the team the right way. If they can put a winner in the rink one day, it is possible to image people turning out at the Sasktel Centre in droves.
            It just won’t happen this season and that vision might likely be at least three seasons down the road. For the moment, all of the team’s fans need to give the new regime a real opportunity to rebuild the team.

Follow “Taking Note” for everything WHL

            While I covered the WHL for 15 seasons, I tend to shy away from writing full blog entries about the league.
            I believe coverage of the league has fallen as a whole over the last five years due to budget cuts in the Canadian media industry, especially in Western Canada. Even with the drop in coverage, the league as a whole does get better coverage than most other minor sport bodies do. In relative terms, there are a lot of people out there talking about the league.
            One blog stands above all others, when it comes to keep tabs on the WHL. That would be “Taking Note” written by former Regina Leader-Post and late Kamloops Daily News sports editor Gregg Drinnan. He keeps tabs on that league with a passion that is unmatched by anyone else, and he also acts as a conscience on tough topics like concussion injuries.
            If you want to know what the hot topic is of the day for the league, you definitely have to check out Drinnan’s blog at

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