Friday, 25 December 2015

Gardiner relishes Raiders rise

Reid Gardiner celebrates after scoring a goal for the Raiders.
    Reid Gardiner is having a lot more fun playing in the WHL this season.
    Now in his fourth full season with the Prince Albert Raiders, the 19-year-old right-winger has enjoyed the fact his club is battling amongst the league’s best. As the league wrapped up play to go into the Christmas break, the Raiders have surprised posting a 20-11-2-1 record to sit two points back of the Brandon Wheat Kings (21-11-1-2) for first in the WHL’s East Division and fifth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    Actually, the Raiders, who have relied on a strong work ethic and an attention to detail, are only five points shy of first place in the Eastern Conference trailing another surprise team in the Lethbridge Hurricanes (24-11).
    When the season started, the Raiders, who missed the playoffs last season with a 31-37-2-2 mark, were expected to battle for a playoff spot at best. At times, they have sat first overall in the Eastern Conference and the East Division. First place in the East Division was supposed to be conceded to the Wheat Kings, so Gardiner is pretty pleased his team is in the mix.
    “It is obviously a lot more fun,” said Gardiner. “Nobody likes losing obviously. It is not very fun.
    “To kind of be in the top five or six in the east is a pretty good feeling for our group. I think we have a good group. We’ve got a close team, and that has helped kind of propel us kind up in the standings.”
    The Humboldt, Sask., product, who has always had good offensive skill, is also having what might be his best campaign in the league. Having appeared in all of the Raiders 34 games, he has posted 20 goals, 26 assists and so far a career best plus-15 in the plus-minus department.
    In his first two seasons, the Raiders had decent records posting a 37-28-3-4 mark in 2012-13 and a 35-32-3-2 record in 2013-14, when the club needed to down the Red Deer Rebels in a tiebreaking game to make the post-season. The Green, White and Gold were swept out of the post-season in both of those campaigns.
    Gardiner said there has been a better overall atmosphere with the team this season compared to past campaigns that he played with the club.
    “I think just changing the culture of our group and the overall attitude of playing in Prince Albert,” said Gardiner, who is the Raiders scoring leader. “I think back in the late 80s and early 90s it was a kind of a dynasty like team.
    “P.A. is a hockey town. I think lots of guys had a sour taste in their mouths coming into this year after not making playoffs last year. Everybody made a point of working hard over the summer and coming in with the right attitude. Things have worked out thus far.”
Reid Gardiner (#19) breaks up ice with Raiders teammate Vojtech Budik.
    Part of the atmosphere change occurred after Marc Habscheid took over as the team’s head coach about a third of the way into last season, when the Raiders relieved Cory Clouston of those duties. Coming to Prince Albert, Habscheid has a lengthy resume of being a star coach who is best remember for guiding the Kelowna Rockets to a WHL title in 2003 and a Memorial Cup championship as the tournament’s host squad the following campaign. He also guided Canada’s world junior team in 2002-03 as head coach.
    Habscheid said the key to his the Raiders strong start so far is the fact the players have stayed focused on the present.
    “In this league, it is a day to day thing,” said Habscheid. “You look at it overall, and you never want to be satisfied.
    “There are ebbs and flows throughout the season, and you just have to look at realistically and not get too high or too low. Overall, we are OK.”
    The Raiders signed Habscheid to a four year contract extension in the off-season and brought in Curtis Hunt, who was a former player on the clubs 1984-85 Memorial Cup championship  team, as general manager on a four-year contract after former GM Bruno Campese and the club mutually parted ways.
    Habscheid and Hunt have combined with associate coach Dave Manson, who was also a player on the Raiders Memorial Cup winner and a veteran coach with the club, to make the Art Hauser Centre a good place to be for the players. Habscheid, who is a former player with the Saskatoon Blades, and Manson also had lengthy playing careers in the NHL.
    Gardiner said the additions of Habscheid and Hunt have been big for the team.
    “They are willing to put their time in with us and make us better people and players,” said Gardiner. “It is definitely a benefit to us to have former players coaching us, and being a general manager for sure.
    “I think it was a smart move by the organization to sign Marc Habscheid for another four years and Curtis Hunt for four years.”
    The Raiders return to action on Sunday, when they host their archrivals the Blades at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.

Blades aim to make second half waves

Right-winger Ryan Graham, right, sets a screen in the offensive zone.
    Connor Gay wanted to maintain a balance of enjoying family time while still having some focus on hockey.
    The overage right-winger wants to push his Saskatoon Blades back into the post-season after a two-year absence. The Blades finished last in the entire WHL each of the past two campaigns after hosting the Memorial Cup in 2013. After the 2013 Memorial Cup wrapped up, the Blades have been going through an extensive rebuild phase.
    They went into the Christmas break of the current campaign with a 13-17-3 record to sit ninth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and two points back of the Edmonton Oil Kings (14-19-3) of the conference’s final playoff berth with three games in hand.
    Gay was pretty aware of the opportunity that was before his club.
    “You have to keep it in the back of your mind,” said Gay, who has 11 goals and 22 assists in 31 games. “If you totally let go from it, you are not going to have a very good start of the second half.
    “It is a time to relax. It is time to let go and have some fun, obviously. You have to be able to come back in the second half and be ready for a tough second half of the season.”
    After jumping out to a 7-4-3 start, the Blades hit a slide starting on Nov. 15. They proceeded to go 3-12 from that date before winning three of their last four contests before the Christmas break.
    With the Blades having the youngest roster in the league, a November skid could have been expected, because that is the time the grind of the season kicks in. That grind is always a challenge for any young player to adjust to.
    Often during the losing stretch, the Blades would give the first goal and not be able to rally.
With that in mind, Saskatoon gained a nice boost after rallying from a 2-0 deficit to beat the league leading and defending WHL champion Kelowna Rockets 5-3 in the last contest before the break on Dec. 19.
    “We didn’t allow it to affect us,” said Blades head coach and general manager Bob Woods. “I thought our older guys kind of took charge and led by example.”
    Gay was happy to see the down stretch come to an end, and he can’t wait to get the second half going.
    “It is definitely frustrating to find a way out of it,” said Gay. “Right now, it is going well.
“We need to have a good Christmas break, have some fun, but when we get back on Boxing Day it is time to get back to work.”

Merry Christmas to everyone

    I hope all the readers out there have a Merry Christmas and a happy new year, and I also a big thank-you to you all for stopping by here to read my posts.
    I hope everyone was able to spend some quality time with friends and family. I have been able to enjoy a couple of sizable family gatherings in the Saskatoon area.
    While it has been for me to live in a centre with a large number of family members, I do miss being in Medicine Hat for the holiday season having lived there for 10 years from 2004 to 2014. One of the highlights was always attending the late night Christmas Eve mass at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church. It always felt like those nights were magical.
    Wherever you are, I hope you all were able to enjoy the annual traditions you partake in over the holiday season. Have a great one.

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