|Reid Gardiner gets set to snipe home a goal for the Raiders.|
PRINCE ALBERT - “The Song in Prince Albert is Go Raiders Go.”
A tune written in the early 1970s by country singer Russ Gurr still describes “Hockey Town North.” Thru good times and bad, you must never underestimate the passion the small northern Saskatchewan community has for its Raiders hockey club.
Team founder Reg Martsinkiw said when he would step into the Art Hauser Centre after a long absence he would immediately see at least 10 friends he hadn’t seen in some time, and his heart would warm from the reunion that ensued.
You step into the Raiders long-time home rink, and the diehards that have gone to games for decades since the team was formed in 1971 are there. Going into the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday during the Raiders 5-2 setback to the Kamloops Blazers you also encounter a number of young families. They are newcomers you didn’t see in the past that were among the 2,610 in attendance at a facility that seats 2,580.
In small centres like Prince Albert, circuits like the Western Hockey League matter. The importance of a franchise like the Raiders to Prince Albert is equal to the importance the Oilers are to Edmonton, the Flames are to Calgary and the Jets are to Winnipeg at the NHL level.
The Raiders have averaged 2,299 fans per game through 16 games this season in a centre with a population of just over 35,000. If the same sort of figure translated out for a centre the size of Saskatoon, the WHL Blades would need an arena that would seat close to 20,000 spectators to satisfy an equivalent amount of ticket purchases.
Raider diehards love to take shots at their big city rivals, so they often love to bring up the fact fans of the “Green and Gold” are more loyal than those of the “Double Blue.” It is no wonder another favourite song that will echo in the Art Hauser Centre is the Guess Who’s “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” after the Blades lose following a visit there.
Raider fans are proud of their team and its history. In their junior A era as a member of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, they were a dynasty winning four Centennial Cups as national champions in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982.
|Associate coach Dave Manson is a "heart and soul" Raider.|
Following the 1982 championship, the Raiders joined the WHL, and after their third season in the major junior ranks in May of 1985, they claimed junior hockey’s ultimate prize in the Memorial Cup. All of that success came under the club’s legendary head coach and general manager Terry Simpson.
Little Prince Albert proved it could stand out nationally, and the Raiders were the centre of that pride. During those years, the Raiders established a reputation for being a rough and tumble team, but not a bully team. They were a hard working group that played physical, with passion and heart.
They are also viewed as one of those franchises where honour mattered, and that is exemplified in associate coach Dave Manson, who was a physical blue-liner on the 1985 Memorial Cup winner and went on to a long career in the NHL.
In Manson, Prince Albertans see a local product that represents everything good about the city in being honest, genuine, hard-working and tough, and he is super at being sociable with everyone in town. His No. 4 will fittingly be retired in a pre-game ceremony on February 12 in the new year.
While being known for their toughness, the Raiders also had their pretty aspect seen in players like Mike Modano, who went on to a legendary career in the NHL. They could also make all those picturesque perfect plays you could watch again and again on video highlights.
Following 1985, the Raiders would continue to make a number of other lengthy forays into the post-season. In 1995, they were a win away from returning to the Memorial Cup tournament dropping Game 7 of the WHL’s Eastern Conference final to the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Blazers, who were the tournament hosts that year, won the Western Conference and ultimately claimed the WHL and Memorial Cup titles.
The last great venture the Raiders made into the post-season came in 2005, and it has become known locally in Prince Albert as “The Run.”
|Rearguard Jesse Lees gets set to drive a shot on goal for the Raiders.|
That Raider team was filled with a roster of characters who had character like Rejean Beauchemin, Dane Byers, Kyle Chipchura, Jeremy Colliton, Luke Fritshaw, Mike Gauthier, Mike Hellyer, Rick Kozak, Jeff May, Brett Novak, Brent Ottmann, Caine Pearpoint, Evan Schafer, Chris Schlenker and Aki Seitsonen. On top of that, they brought back good dressing room glue guy Justin Cruse, who was traded away early in the season to allow the club to get down to three overage players, before playoffs as an assistant coach.
That group was a genuine bunch that was as comfortable interacting in various social situations in the community as they were playing on the ice.
Hilarious one-liners often filled dressing room and bus conversations and the sense of humour those players had was shared with the community, which made them feel that much more human.
They eliminated the Blades and the Medicine Hat Tigers before bowing out in a tough seven game Eastern Conference final series to the Wheat Kings.
Fans in Prince Albert can still see images of Chipchura’s big plays, Schlenker’s huge hits and Beauchemin’s acrobatic one arm save against Kieran Block of the Tigers, which was a TSN highlight of the night.
If you saw video and pictures of the crowd the Winnipeg Jets had during their NHL playoffs games last season, the Art Hauser Centre was a smaller version of that in 2005. Opponents were playing against the Raiders and their fans, and it felt like you were battling against a crusade. The fans were out to support “their boys” and the passion and warmth was evident.
Back then, it was thought that run would spark another golden age for Raider hockey. That ultimately didn’t come to pass.
Since 2005, the Raiders have missed the post-season five times excluding 2009, when they faced the Edmonton Oil Kings in a standings tiebreaking game, and have only posted a winning record twice.
|Austin Glover brings the puck up ice for the Raiders.|
For the Raiders fans, the pride took a hit, and sometimes the passion manifested itself in over the top criticism of management, players and staff.
Another blow to the psyche came last season, when the Raiders were forced to trade star forward Leon Draisaitl to the Kelowna Rockets, when he was assigned back to the major junior ranks by the NHL’s Oilers. Some took that chain events to mean that little Prince Albert – a place where junior hockey matters – was going to be relegated to some sort of second tier outpost in the major junior ranks.
Even as that went down, the winds of change were starting to blow. The Raiders brought in standout veteran bench boss Marc Habscheid as head coach halfway through last season and signed him through the end of the 2018-19 campaign in the off-season.
Also in the off-season, they brought in Curtis Hunt, who played defence on the 1985 Memorial Cup winner, as general manager on a four-year contract. Hunt had been the head coach and general manager of the Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season, and he is a solid hockey person who has coached nine seasons in the WHL between the Moose Jaw Warriors and Regina Pats.
The North Battleford product is a perfect fit to oversee the operations of the Raiders, and he should always have a role in some form in the WHL.
With Kelly Guard, who was a former goaltending star with the Rockets, on board as an assistant coach, Terry Lange as a strength and conditioning coach and Mark Odnokon on as a skills coach, the Raiders are sound in both the coaching and front office ranks.
Still, expectations were not high going into this season, but the Raiders have bolted out to an 18-10-2-1 start to sit second in the WHL’s East Division. They have gone through short stretches where they have sat on top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Even in Saturday’s loss to the Blazers, the Raiders compete level was high. They led 1-0 and 2-1. When the Blazers went up 3-2 early in the third, the Raiders mounted a huge push back that forced Kamloops netminder Connor Ingram make a number of huge saves. The Blazers netted their insurance goal off a turnover during a short stretch of four-on-four play.
The fans at the Art Hauser Centre were engaged, and the cheers were the loudest every time the Raiders threw a big hit. The spectators weren’t in the neighbour of being as loud as those playoff crowds in 2005, but you get the feeling they could jump back up to that level.
|Raiders captain Tim Vanstone celebrates a goal by his team.|
At the moment, there are skeptics saying that the Raiders are overachieving. They might not remain near the top of the standings, but making playoffs would still be judged a success.
With that in mind, Simpson, when pressed, will admit he had some teams that overachieved and did some great things.
Habscheid is a star coach, who can help players and teams overachieve. If the Raiders keep bringing a strong work ethic and playing with lots of passion and heart, they just might do some great things again.
If the players keep displaying those traits, the fans will be there in a big way, and opposing teams might want to think twice about what post-season visits to the Art Hauser Centre will be like. In a small centre, it seems like everyone has to be “all in” to make a major junior franchise work, and while there may be disagreements in the community, citizens in Prince Albert have always rallied around the Raiders.
For the fans, the dream will always be alive like in 1985.
They are just waiting for the moment and the stage to show Canada once again that the song in Prince Albert is and will always be “Go Raiders Go.”
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