Saturday, 30 December 2017

Top 10 cool things I saw in 2017

Carly Dyck scores a touchdown at Taylor Field in June.
    In 2017, the theme for my year might have been to enjoy the unexpected things when they come up.
    I enjoyed things that always seem to have an uplifting feel like covering games involving the Saskatoon Hilltops and Saskatoon Valkyries. Making it out for the Labour Day Classic weekend in Regina is always a fun time.
    Still, there were surprises. Making it to Prince Albert to see the Northern Bears sweep a Western regional playdown series to advance to the Esso Cup female midget AAA national championship tournament was one of those surprises.
    There were a few good surprises on the WHL playoff trail too.
    At times, it is a good thing if you can hold your sense of humour. That proved useful for me, when I interviewed Saskatoon Valkyries receiver Carly Dyck for a Saskatoon Express article.
    I met up with Dyck at the Starbucks in downtown Saskatoon after she completed working a shift at the Cactus Club CafĂ© in late March. We were talking about Dyck’s participation in the Women’s World Football Games and about her preparations for the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in June.
    During the talk, a street creature came in, bought a coffee, saw us and came up to us.
Valkyries receiver Carly Dyck powers her way through a tackle attempt.
    The street creature looks at me and says, “Hey you. Worry about your sports and stop flirting with this nice girl.”
    After those words, the street creature proceeded to walk out of the establishment.
    Dyck and I looked at each other and I think we laughed or chuckled. We both ended up apologizing, which was a classic Canadian response.
    On the Captain Obvious front, Dyck is like a 13 out of 10 in the looks department, so I am sure that added to everything. As a football player, she was way more explosive and powerful last season than her first five campaigns in the sport.
    Anyways, this blog has surpassed 260,000 total views, so I thank you all for stopping in. I did well enough that I was still able to make a few donations to a few post-secondary sports teams in the province.
    Now without further ado, here are the memories.

10. Carter catch links new Mosaic with Rider Nation

Duron Carter (#89) makes a crazy TD grad for the Roughriders.
    The true first live forever moment at new Mosaic Stadium came when the Saskatchewan Roughriders most jovial personality linked the team’s new park to the fans.
    The 2017 season marked the first CFL campaign the Roughriders played out of their new park after leaving historic Taylor Field, which was the club’s long time home stomping grounds. During one exhibition game and two regular season games, it is safe to say people were still really digesting the “newness” aspect of the facility.
    On July 29, one play made the new park home for Rider Nation. Shortly before halftime of a clash against the Toronto Argonauts, Roughriders star receiver Duron Carter made a spectacular one-handed 18-yard touchdown catch that tied the contest up at 17-17.
    Carter proceeded to give the ball off to 12-year-old lifelong supporter Paige Hansen for a priceless “Mosaic Moment.” Paige and her mom, Michelle, have been going to games for years, and they know a number of the players. They got to know Carter, who was in his first season with the team, during training camp in Saskatoon.
Duron Carter (#89) had an all-star year for the Roughriders.
    After the Roughriders wrapped up their 38-27 victory over the Argonauts, who would eventually win the Grey Cup in 2017, Carter signed the touchdown catch ball for Paige. In the days following that game, the backstory about Paige surviving cancer at age four and that she had been an ambassador for both the Children’s Wish Foundation and Canadian Cancer Society came out. That made the story even that much more special.
    The Roughriders also had a whole host of new players that joined the team in 2016 and 2017, and this “Mosaic Moment” created a link between the current Roughriders players and the fans.
    Carter finished that game making nine catches for 131 yards and scored two touchdowns before a sellout crowd of 33,350 spectators. He would go on to be named a CFL all-star at receiver, and he would standout at playing on special teams and at defensive back as the campaign moved on.
    The moment he gave his highlight touchdown catch ball to Paige made new Mosaic Stadium truly feel like it was now the home of Rider Nation.

9. Riot down Valkyries in Taylor Field’s last call

Carmen Agar rumbles home for a Riot touchdown at Taylor Field.
    Before being torn down, iconic Taylor Field had a swan song in 2017 being the host site for the home games of the Regina Riot of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League.
    As a result, the last ever competitive tackle football game played at the legendary home of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders was held on June 4, when the Riot hosted the WWCFL Prairie Conference championship game against the defending WWCFL champion Saskatoon Valkyries. The two teams played a stellar match that was claimed by the Riot 34-24.
    The game clinching play came with the Riot holding a 28-18 lead with under four minutes to play in the fourth quarter, when the Valkyries had the ball and were driving. Veteran Riot defensive back Courtney Tafelmeyer intercepted Valkyries quarterback Alex Eyolfson and zig zagged down the sideline 62 yards for a touchdown to put the hosts up 34-18 with 3:41 to play.
Alex Eyolfson (#15) fires a pass downfield for the Valkyries.
    Valkyries running back Samantha Matheson scored the final touchdown ever at Taylor Field running the ball in from two yards out with 15 seconds to play.
    The Riot moved on to win the WWCFL title in a 53-0 romp over the Calgary Rage on June 10 in Saskatoon.
    While the final football game at Taylor Field was great, I remember the day being a bit surreal. Originally, it was thought a U Sports playoff match in November of 2016, where the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds downed the University of Regina Rams 40-34, would be the final competitive tackle football game ever at Taylor Field.
    With new Mosaic Stadium undergoing the final touches of construction and marketing brain trusts wanting the first game there in 2017 to be a Roughriders game, Taylor Field had a stay of execution. I was at that Rams playoff loss in November of 2016, and I didn’t think I would be at Taylor Field for another football game.
The Riot celebrate the final victory by any football team at Taylor Field.
    I was at the Roughriders final game ever at Taylor Field held on October 29, 2016, and I raced to see if my north end zone seat was still signed, when I came for the 2017 WWCFL Prairie Final between the Riot and Valkyries.
    It was weird to go into the press boxes and see all the televisions had been ripped out already. I enjoyed being back at the park that holds so many lifelong memories and was close to my heart.
    With that said, I reminisced a little but not as much as I thought. Taylor Field was being manned by a skeleton crew now, and user groups were filtered in and out of the park quickly. You didn’t get to hang out and let memories soak in.
    Even with that in mind, it was nice to be part of Taylor Field’s final hurrah.

8. Hoops alum weekend a blast at U of R

Christina McCusker, right, hands the ball off to Avery Pearce.
    No matter where life takes me, it seems returns to the University of Regina are always a homecoming.
    On the last weekend of January, the University of Regina Cougars basketball teams held an alums gathering, and I was able to return for the festivities. It turned out to be a great weekend on all fronts.
    First, the scheduling worked out as the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team was in Regina on Friday night for the first part of a home-and-home series against the University of Regina Cougars women’s hockey team. With my young cousin Danielle Nogier suiting up for the Huskies side, I followed them down and stayed around for the hoops festivities on Saturday night.
Cymone (Bouchard) Bernauer passes the ball an alum shooting contest.
    At the hockey game on Friday night, I saw a lot familiar faces from my time in Regina. The Huskies pulled out a 2-1 victory in overtime on a goal by captain Lauren Zary. On a personal front, I got to chuckle being linking with the winning side on that front.
    On Saturday night at basketball, the Cougars women’s and men’s hoops teams came away with victories over the University of Calgary Dinos. The women’s side won 83-46, while the men’s squad pulled out a last-second 82-81 victory. For one night, I was linked with the winning side in instances there.
    Still, the biggest memory came from seeing a lot of old friends around the festivities of the game. I hand long visits with a few old friends who I have not done that with for seven years to a decade or more.
    While there was lots of talk of the days from my time in Regina when I was involved with the U of R’s athletic program from 1996 to 2001, there was a lot of catching up as well. It actually started to hit me a bit how much time has actually passed since I last lived in Regina in May of 2001.
The Cougars men’s basketball team celebrates a last second victory. 
    The night centred around remembering Crystal (Heisler) McGregor, who passed away from cancer in May of 2014. She played for the Cougars women’s basketball team in the late 1990s and early 2000s and was the point guard on the Cougars U Sports national championship team from 2000-01. A large number of people from her family attended the night’s festivities as well.
    It is still incredible how many lives McGregor touched in the Regina sports scene during her life. It was cool to see how the Cougars are teams from her era are still well remember in Regina as well.
    After the hoops games were finished, festivities spilled out into Regina’s night scene. They weren’t as energetic or as exciting as nights out in the old days, but it was still fun in a different way.
    The alum night at the U of R showed the importance of taking time to reconnect.

7. P.A. Northern Bears rally to get to Esso Cup

The Prince Albert Northern Bears celebrate their Western regional win.
    The Prince Albert Northern Bears proved that wild 1980s comebacks can still happen in the modern day of hockey.
    On April 1, the Bears pulled off one of their greatest moments ever before a crowd of 1,200 at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert in Game 2 of a female midget AAA Western regional playdown series. One night earlier, the Bears claimed the opening contest of the best-of-three set 6-4 against the Hartney, Man., based Westman Wildcats.
    The Wildcats led 6-3 in Game 2 with 13:24 to play in the third period, and it appeared the two clubs would have to play a series deciding Game 3 to determine who would advance to the Esso Cup female midget AAA national championship tournament being held April 23 to 29 in Morden, Man.
    Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby always loved the 1980s Edmonton Oilers, and the Bears proceeded to pull something out that belonged in the script book of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and company.
Brooklyn Anderson (#7) scored the series winning goal for the Bears.
    At the 7:38 mark of the third period, Bears captain Brooke Hobson, who played for Canada’s under-18 women’s team, potted her first tally of the contest to the cut the Wildcats lead to 6-4. With 7:54 to play in the third, Hobson scored her second goal of the contest on a point blast to trim the Wildcats edge to 6-5.
    The hosts’ momentum kept rolling from there. Working on a power play, Bears star forward Abby Soyko potted the equalizer to force a 6-6 tie.
    The Bears weren’t going to settle for going to overtime. With two minutes to play in the third, hard-working forward Brooklyn Anderson tipped home the point shot from rugged defender Jordan Ashe to put the Bears up 7-6. That 7-6 score held up as the final outcome allowing the Bears to sweep the series 2-0 and advance to the Esso Cup for the first time in team history.
    At any of the higher levels of hockey, big rallies like the one the Bears pulled off are actually few and far between these days.
    Wildcats star forward Ashton Bell, who was the captain of Canada’s under-18 women’s team, scored twice to pace her side, but her efforts were overshadowed by what the Bears pulled off.
The Bears Western regional celebration begins in earnest.
    Besides the rally, it was impressive to see the amount of support the Bears received in Prince Albert and how far women’s hockey as a whole had come.
    Way back in 2001, I covered the University of Regina Cougars women’s hockey team downing the University of Alberta Pandas 3-1 in Game 2 of that year’s best-of-three Canada West championship series to sweep the set 2-0. In the series clinching game, there might have been just under 200 spectators at Regina’s Exhibition Stadium to witness the Cougars victory.
    At that time, I never imagined 1,200 people would turn out to see a female midget AAA game, which was what happened when the Bears swept the Wildcats. The Bears posted a 2-3 record at Esso Cup and were unable to qualify for a semifinal game.
    Still, their comeback over the Wildcats will be something that is always remembered in “Hockey Town North.”

6. Willoughby powers Huskies sweep of Cougars

Kaitlin Willoughby, right, celebrates scoring one of her hat trick night goals.
    The post-season seems to be Kaitlin Willoughby’s time, and the star forward with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team added to her playoff legacy in 2017.
    In Feburary, the Huskies hosted their provincial rivals the University of Regina Cougars in a best-of-three Canada West quarter-final series. The Huskies finished fourth in the Canada West standings with a 15-10-3 record, while the Cougars were fifth with a 14-13-1 mark. U of R won three out of the four regular season clashes between the two clubs in the 2016-17 campaign and outscored the Huskies 7-3 in the process.
    I thought the Cougars would win this series on the basis they had more scoring depth than the Huskies. I felt the only way the Huskies would have a chance was if Willoughby outscored the Cougars four top forwards in Jaycee Magwood, Emma Waldenberger, Kylee Kupper and Kylie Gavelin. On the surface, that looked to be too much to ask from Willoughby.
    As it turned out Willoughby was up for the challenge. The Prince Albert, Sask., product netted a hat trick in Game 1 of the series held on Feb. 17 at the ancient Rutherford Rink to deliver the Huskies to a 4-3 victory.
Kaitlin Willoughby wires home a hat trick goal.
    She played at an all-world level and her final two goals of the contest rocketed past Cougars netminder Jane Kish. Willoughby, who stands 5-foot-6, didn’t shy away from the physical play winning a number of individual battles, and she knocked Cougars defender Krista Metz, who stands an imposing 5-foot-11, to the ice in the second period.
    Kori Herner ultimately netted the winning goal for the Huskies in Game 1, but Willoughby was the difference maker, who ensured the host side came out on top.
    In Game 2 on Feb. 18 at Rutherford, the Huskies entered the third period holding a 1-0 lead, but the Cougars came at the host side hard. At the 9:33 mark of the third, the visitors netted the equalizer to knot the score at 1-1 on their 13th shot of the period coming from the stick of Jolene Kirkpatrick.
Kaitlin Willoughby starts her drive on a series-winning goal rush.
    Willoughby swooped in to save the Huskies storming into the Cougars zone on a spectacular individual rush and wiring home a shot top corner on Kish to give the hosts a 2-1 lead with 3:35 to play in the third. The Huskies held on to turn that score into the final outcome to sweep the series 2-0.
Huskies fifth year veteran netminder Cassidy Hendricks had a stellar series as well turning away 28 shots in Game 1 and 31 shots in Game 2.
    The Huskies advanced to a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series in Vancouver, B.C., where they fell 2-1 to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds claimed a 3-1 victory in a series deciding Game 3, but had the Huskies pulled that contest out, they would have earned a berth in the U Sports national championship tournament.
    While the Huskies playoff run didn’t result in a trip to nationals, Willoughby added a couple of epic performances to her storied career.

5. Blades pay tribute to Gordon

Chris and Bruce Gordon embrace during a Blades pre-game ceremony.
    The Saskatoon Blades had one of their most emotional nights ever, when it came to paying tribute to one of the team’s most beloved former captains.
    On Sept. 22, the Blades tabbed their regular season opener at the SaskTel Centre as the night they would pay tribute to Bruce Gordon. Gordon came to the Blades in a trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers early in the 1980-81 campaign, and the grinding winger would become the club’s captain in 1981-82, which would be his final campaign in the major junior ranks.
    He moved on to build a distinguished 28-year career with the Saskatoon Police Service starting out on regular patrol, becoming a detective sergeant in the sex crimes unit and then to major crimes. Gordon became well-known for cracking cases that appeared to be unsolvable.
    At age 50, he retired from policing to study law at the University of Saskatchewan with the goal to become a defence lawyer. Gordon graduated from law school last spring, but on June 8, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. On June 29, a special ceremony was held at the Court of Queen’s Bench in Saskatoon to call the 54-year-old to the bar.
Bruce Gordon shakes hands with current Blades captain Evan Fiala.
    This ceremony is traditionally held in autumn, but an exception was made in Gordon’s case to hold the ceremony earlier due to his cancer diagnosis.
    Due to the impact Gordon had on the community, the Blades drew 7,460 spectators to the tribute night they held for him. Pretty much everyone was in their seats for the pre-game ceremony.
Gordon was accompanied to the ice with his wife, Chris, son, James, and daughter, Jillian Bodnar. 
    When Gordon appeared, the crowd immediately rose to their feet to deliver a warm standing ovation.
    A total of eight former teammates turned out including Brian Skrudland, who had a lengthy career in the NHL. Also on hand was former Blades coach and general manager Daryl Lubiniecki and former Blades owner Jack Brodsky.
    Winnipeg Jets play-by-play voice Dennis Beyak was the Blades assistant general manager during Gordon’s years, and he returned to Saskatoon emcee the pre-game ceremony.
    Inspector Patrick Nogier, who was a former WHL goalie, delivered a heartfelt speech on behalf of the Saskatoon Police Service.
Bruce Gordon (#21) receives a framed jersey.
    Gordon’s family was presented with a framed jersey and a “Be Like Bruce” banner was unveiled in the rafters of the SaskTel Centre.
    During his WHL playing days, Gordon was never the most talented player on the ice, but he stood out due to his hard work, determination and his ability to step in and protect his teammates. In 112 regular season games with the Blades, Gordon collected 17 goals, 53 assists and 552 penalty minutes.
    The Blades played hard against the visiting Swift Current Broncos in the contest that followed the pre-game ceremony. The hosts held a 2-1 lead going into the third period but fell 5-2.
    Little did anyone know, that tribute night would be Gordon’s final public hurrah. He passed away a week later on Sept. 29.
    Huge credit goes to the Blades organization for orchestrating a golden moment that would be the last memory the community of Saskatoon would have of Gordon in life.

4. Labour Day Classic weekend in Regina provides a blast

The Labour Day party is on at Wayne’s World.
    The Labour Day Classic weekend in Regina never fails when it comes to providing a time for fun.
    Once again, I was in Regina for the party pretty much that weekend. I do admit age is catching up to me a bit. I had fun, but I definitely wasn’t the ball of energy that felt indestructible like past years.
    I felt like I took things in moderation, but the weekend was enjoyable.
    Actually, I started my weekend by covering the University of Regina Rams home opener on Friday, Sept. 1, where they downed the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds 36-20 before a crowd of about 3,000 at new Mosaic Stadium. To my surprise, the 2000 Rams that made the Vanier Cup falling to the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees 42-39 were honoured at halftime, and I ended up taking part in those festivities.
    The 2000-01 U Sports season was the last campaign I was hooked in helping the University of Regina athletic teams with media involvement. With the Rams in 2000, I ended up running patterns as a receiver on the scout team as injuries piled up during the regular season.
QB Kevin Glenn (#5) threw three touchdown passes for the Roughriders.
    Those guys are my buds and it was great to see them again and walk out to midfield before the appreciative gathering.
    The players, coaches and staffers that made it for those festivities came out with their families. When highlights were shown from the 2000 season on the big screen, it was fun seeing the children get excited seeing what their dads used to do, and the fathers got a kick seeing the excitement from their kids. The gathering was low key, but it was great to visit with everyone again.
    That set an upbeat tone to enjoy the usual festivities with the Saskatchewan Roughriders annual CFL clash with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Of course, this year marked the first time the Labour Day Classic would be held at new Mosaic Stadium.
    Saturday, Sept. 2, included a stop at fanfest at Mosaic, a nice dinner at the Keg that included an appearance by the Bombers mascots and cheerleaders and partying with supporters from both sides at Gabbo’s Nightclub and doing the annual toast to remember the late legendary Bombers head coach and general manager Cal Murphy, who I was privileged to become friends with.
Labour Day weekend began with a reunion of the 2000 U of Regina Rams.
    Seeing the regulars that come out from Winnipeg to support the Bombers is one of the best things about the Labour Day Classic.
    On game day on Sunday, Sept. 3, it was fun to see Bombers fans continued to gather at Wayne’s World for a pre-game party, which is located across the street from the Roughriders old long time home in Taylor Field. Taylor Field was still standing during the Labour Day Classic weekend. There seemed to be more people there than ever and the fun included a live band.
    The game was a great one for the Roughriders, which meant I got to scream my lungs out. Before a sellout crowd of 33,350, they stormed out to a 34-16 lead at halftime and cruised to a 38-24 victory.
Roughriders quarterback Kevin Glenn completed 26-of-36 passes for 386 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Saskatchewan pass catchers Bakari Grant, Naaman Roosevelt and Duron Carter all surpassed 100 yards in receiving. Roughriders defensive back Ed Gainey had a pair of interceptions. The post-game victory celebrations were, of course, a blast.
This photo I took of Duron Carter went viral on Twitter.
    The drive home to Saskatoon on Monday, Sept. 4, provided an unexpected epilogue. News came out regarding a couple of mishaps involving Bombers fans. One of them spat on Carter during pre-game intros and another tried to rip off the head of Roughriders mascot Gainer the Gopher, when he circled the stadium after a touchdown.
    Those incidents came out after a tweeted a photo of Carter high-fiving fans in the south end zone during pre-game intros, and he responded with a tweet saying what happened to him, which went viral. Overall, all of that got way overblown during a period of 36 hours, because traditionally, the fans of the Roughriders and Bombers have gotten along really well during the Labour Day Classic weekend. Often, a romantic relationship will develop for the weekend.
    I was oblivious to the fan mishaps that happened at the game until the next morning. In the overall scheme of things, they weren’t that bad and provide colourful stories to tell in future years.

3. Thunderbirds win WHL title – It’s True, it’s True

Alexander True (#16) fires home the WHL championship winning goal.
    Now this was really an unexpected curveball that turned out to be a great surprise.
    For the second time in my life, I got to interview someone scoring an overtime goal to win the WHL Championship series. On May 14, 2007, I was at The Arena in Medicine Hat when Brennan Bosch scored his double overtime winning goal to deliver the Tigers to a 3-2 victory in a series deciding Game 7 of that year’s WHL Championship set over the visiting Vancouver Giants before a sellout crowd of 4,006 spectators.
    That goal will go down as one of the most famous markers in the history of the WHL Championship series. I interviewed Bosch one-on-one after the game, which I covered during my 10-year run at the Medicine Hat News.
Alexander True celebrates his OT winner.
    Fast forward 10 years to the day on May 14, 2017, and close to the same situation plays out again. Game 6 of the WHL Championship series was being held at the Brandt Centre in Regina with the host Pats taking on the Seattle Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds were leading the best-of-seven set 3-2 and were looking to close the series out.
    It appeared the Pats were going to force a series deciding Game 7, when speedy winger Austin Wagner, who was playing with an injured shoulder, scored to give his side a 3-1 lead with 6:48 to play in the third period. The sellout crowd of 6,484 spectators at the Brandt Centre were jumping with anticipation of a Pats victory minus the healthy contingent of Thunderbirds supporters.
    The joy for the host supporters was short-lived.
    Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar scored for the Thunderbirds to force a 3-3 tie and overtime. Kolesar netted the equalizer with 2:54 to play in the third.
    At the 12:36 mark of overtime, Alexander True, who was the Thunderbirds 19-year-old import centre from Copenhagen, Denmark, broke down the right wing, fired a shot on Pats netminder Tyler Brown, followed the rebound and popped home the WHL championship winning goal for Seattle. The Thunderbird took the game 4-3 and the series 4-2.
    I covered that contest for my blog, and due to the budget cut current era of the mainstream media, I focused on covering the Thunderbirds story for this game.
Seattle RW Keegan Kolesar (#28) tries to slip by Regina D Connor Hobbs.
    It felt like all the mainstream outlets represented at the game were from Regina, and no one was doing a Thunderbirds focused story outside of a side piece on their players that were born in Saskatchewan.
    It seemed staffers creating content for the WHL website were the only ones concentrating on doing a story centred on the Thunderbirds winning their first league championship in team history.
    Earlier in that series, I did a column about how Thunderbirds defenceman Ethan Bear was followed by a huge number of supporters from his hometown Ochapowace First Nation located in Saskatchewan. That is still one my top 10 most viewed posts. That increased my motivation to write a Thunderbirds centred story.
Thunderbirds defenceman Ethan Bear holds up the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    I ended up interviewing True one-on-one about his goal exactly 10 years to the day after I interviewed Bosch about his WHL title winning goal for the Tigers. After the Thunderbirds victory, I proceeded to interview Bear and Seattle general manager and then part owner Russ Farwell.
    Farwell is a legendary figure in the WHL having built the Tigers Memorial Cup championship teams in 1987 and 1988 as general manager.
    I had known him for a long time, and it was great to see him get the chance to experience a league championship with the Thunderbirds.
    I was on and totally focused in covering that contest when it happened. The next day it hit me with what I had just done and just how special that moment was.

2. The Regina Pats run through the WHL playoffs

Goalie Tyler Brown and Austin Wagner embrace after a Game 7 win.
    The Regina Pats run through the 2017 WHL playoffs was enjoyable on so many levels for me.
    It was a time where I both lived in the moment and also went on a complete nostalgia tour. Between the regular season and playoffs during the 2016-17 campaign I saw the Regina Pats play live more than any other hockey team.
    The Pats were the first WHL team I ever covered on a beat writer basis. I covered them for the last half of the 1999-2000 season for a website run by the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and Communications and for a short-lived sports reporting website called SportsRegina.com during the first half of the 2000-01 campaign.
    I arrived at the Brandt Centre for regular season games at first to do some features on players from Saskatoon who played for the Pats. As the Pats were going through their paces to finish first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 record, I knew I would be seeing them a lot more in that campaign.
Adam Brooks was the charismatic captain of the Pats.
    The Pats were rated first in the final CHL Top 10 rankings released on March 22 for the 2016-17 campaign, and they held that rating for much of the 2016-17 campaign.
    They had a roster that seemed stacked full of superheroes who you couldn’t help love. Captain Adam Brooks, Sam Steel, Austin Wagner, Dawson Leedahl, Nick Henry, Filip Ahl, Robbie Holmes, Braydon Buziak, Connor Hobbs, Chase Harrison, Josh Mahura, Sergey Zborovskiy and gutsy goalie Tyler Brown were all great players and great people off the ice.
    The Pats were guided by the steady and reassuring hand of head coach and general manager John Paddock, who has seen it all pretty much in hockey as a veteran bench boss and manager.
    There were still a few familiar faces kicking around the Brandt Centre including Rollie Bourassa, who was still dressing up as the Pats dog mascot K9 in his early 80s.
    During the Pats run, they had an all-in feeling to them that mirrored what I experienced covering the Medicine Hat Tigers winning the WHL title in the 2006-07 campaign while working for the Medicine Hat News. The parents and friends of the Pats players traveled to road destinations in large numbers, and I started to recognize them by their faces and got to know them casually.
Connor Hobbs was a beast on the back end for the Pats.
    It was great to see how invested they were in the run, and that brought back memories of the Tigers WHL championship season I covered.
    I made so many trips to Regina that I started to feel like a resident of that city again. I admit I received a handful of old emails from past acquaintances telling me they liked seeing me cover the Pats again, and those messages were delivered in a way that built the confidence.
    Other old memories flowed back into my head, when I got to go out socializing after games. Some new acquaintances helped build the confidence too on those nights out.
    Still, it looked for a time the run would stall, when the Swift Current Broncos took a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven second round series. When the Broncos led 3-1 at home in Game 6, I thought the Pats were done. They rallied for a 5-3 victory to force a series deciding Game 7 in Regina.
    Before one of 26 sellout crowds of 6,484 spectators at the Brandt Centre, the Pats romped to a 5-1 victory in Game 7 to mark the first time the world’s oldest major junior franchise ever overcame a 3-1 series deficit.
    The Pats were advancing to the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series for the first time since 1993.
The Pats were backed by a regiment during the 2016-17 campaign.
    I remember the rink attendant at the end of the Game 7 victory over the Broncos telling me to get out on the ice to shoot pictures. The rink staff at the Brandt Centre was always friendly.
    I saw all the fans just going bonkers in a joyful celebration. I always imagined Regina getting behind the Pats in a big way, but the moment was better than what my imagination created.
    The Pats of course made it to the WHL Championship series for the first time since 1984 dropping that best-of-seven set 4-2 to the Seattle Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds claimed Game 6 with a 4-3 overtime victory in Regina.
    During that playoff push, the Regina rallied behind the Pats in similar fashion to backing the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders in a Grey Cup championship campaign. In my life, it felt like I would never see the Pats go on a long playoff run, and when they did, the experience of that run in real life outweighed anything from a dream.

1. Hilltops run to a fourth straight CJFL title

The Hilltops enjoy a fourth straight CJFL title. (Photo courtesy Bonnie Bitz)
    It is always a joy when Saskatoon Hilltops football season rolls around, and 2017 was a special historic season for the venerable Canadian Junior Football League club.
    On Nov. 11, the Hilltops traveled to Windsor, Ont., and dismantled the host AKO Fratmen 56-11 in the CJFL title game – the Canadian Bowl. The win capped a campaign where the Hilltops posted an 11-1 overall record.
    They accomplished a number of firsts with their championship win over Windsor. The Hilltops became the first team to win four straight CJFL championships, the first team to win seven CJFL titles over an eight year span and the first club to win 20 total CJFL crowns.
Hilltops LB Cameron Schnitzler makes a tackle in the snow and cold.
    It also felt like the season went by faster than any other football season has in my life. One moment the Hilltops are playing in their annual alumni game in early August, and all of a sudden it was November and they were winning the Canadian Bowl. A week after the Canadian Bowl victory, the Hilltops held their team banquet for a final gathering for a club that has a tight family feel.
    While the end result of the Hilltops campaign brings the obvious upbeat memory, the journey through the season to get to that point created many other great memories. In order to not overthink the quest to win four straight CJFL championships, the Hilltops set about just focusing on what came up that day as the season progressed.
    The key in getting to Windsor for that historic win for the Hilltops was just doing all the things that had made the team successful in past campaigns. The players and coaches just focused on getting better as the season progressed and enjoy all the little stories that get built as the season went on.
Hilltops RB Logan Fischer (#21) tears downfield at new Mosaic Stadium.
    The campaign began on Aug. 12, when the Hilltops played their first game ever at new Mosaic Stadium in Regina. Scoring 21 points off turnovers, the Hilltops downed the host Thunder 37-20.
    Following the game, the Hilltops players visited with the mass amount of family and friends that lined the west side stands of the facility. While they had success in the opener, head coach Tom Sargeant wasn’t pleased with a number of aspects of his team’s play including missed tackles and penalties.
    The players respected where that message was coming from and worked to avoid complacency.
    The biggest heartbreak of the season on the field came on Sept. 9, when the Hilltops and Thunder went at it at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. The Thunder erased a 20-6 halftime deficit and pulled out a 29-26 comeback victory. Before that game, the Hilltops had won six straight clashes between the two sides including the regular season and playoffs.
Safety James Vause returns an interception in the PFC Final.
    That loss just sharpened the Hilltops focus for the rest of the campaign. Still there were lots of fun times joking around before and after practice and visiting with family after games at home or on the road.
    On a personal note, I enjoyed helping out with the team’s game program as my blog entries were used for content.
    As the campaign progressed, fourth-year quarterback Jordan Walls showed he was ready for the role of starter after backing up Jared Andreychuk during the three previous seasons. Fifth-year veterans like Logan Fischer, Ryan Turple, Cameron Schnitzler, Tom Schnitzler and Luke Melnyk all had standout campaigns. Third-year veterans Adam Machart, Garth Knittig and Riley Pickett all took on more prominent roles.
    The big wins soon followed.
    A 38-28 victory over a tough Huskies side in Edmonton to close the regular season gave the Hilltops first place in the Prairie Football Conference. The Huskies were 7-0 going into that contest.
DT Garth Knittng (#59) scores a major in the PFC Final.
    In a PFC semifinal match at SMF Field, the Hilltops withstood a late rally by the Winnipeg Rifles to pull out a 28-21 win. Knittig, who is a defensive tackle, scored a late touchdown as a fullback to seal a 36-24 victory over the Thunder in the PFC Final.
    As times, the celebrations after playoff wins were short as the majority of the Hilltops players had to concentrate on their studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
    The Hilltops kept their focus as the post-season march continued. They hammered the Nanaimo, B.C., based Vancouver Island Raiders 48-0 at SFM Field to advance to and ultimately win the Canadian Bowl.
    When the season ended, it was common to see the younger players thank and hug graduating fifth-year players for being good mentors.
    Once again, the Hilltops closed out another successful chapter in their history, which also included playing out of their original clubhouse building for the final time.
Me hanging with Hilltops OL Patrick Arno, right, and the Canadian Bowl.
    In 2018, the team will start writing another chapter playing out of a new state of the art clubhouse that neighboured the old one.
    It is safe to assume more great memories will be made.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.
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Thursday, 28 December 2017

Paterson hatty powers Blades comeback win over Raiders

Josh Paterson (#61)  enjoys his hat trick goal with Chase Wouters.
    PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – Josh Paterson admitted it is pretty fun when his Saskatoon Blades can ruin the Raiders parade in Prince Albert.
    The 18-year-old right-winger said his team can hear the heckles of the Raiders fans behind their bench in “Hockey Town North,” and that the Blades players know all about the Art Hauser Centre tradition of playing the Guess Who’s “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” any time an elite Saskatoon based hockey team loses in the building. 
    On Thursday night, the Blades had the last laugh erasing a 3-1 deficit after the first period to pull out a 6-4 victory to disappoint most of the 2,312 spectators in attendance.
    Paterson was pleased his side could silence the hecklers and put the playing of “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon” on ice.
    “It makes it pretty extra sweet just to stick it to them,” said Paterson, who had his first career hat trick and an assist in the win. “They are our rivals right up the road, and we like to beat them every time we can.”
    During the first period of Thursday’s clash, it appeared to would be an early New Year’s Eve party night for the Raiders and their fans. 
Josh Paterson had an assist to go with his three goals.
    The hosts jumped out to a 3-1 lead with goals coming from Parker Kelly, Eric Pearce and Carson Miller. Paterson’s first goal of the night provided the lone reply for the Blades.
    The Raiders shelled Blades 16-year-old goalie Nolan Maier holding a 21-12 edge in the shots on goal department in the opening 20 minutes. Maier made a number of big stops to keep his side in the game.
    The Blades found traction at the 4:12 mark of the second period, when centre Chase Wouters knocked home a pass from linemate Braylon Shmyr from across the front of the Prince Albert goal to cut the Raiders lead to 3-2.
    At that point, Prince Albert had chances to pull ahead further, but Maier made robbery stops on Raiders wingers Cole Fonstad and Brett Leason to keep the Blades deficit at one goal.
Braylon Shmyr had two goals and two assists for the Blades.
    With 2:07 to play in the second, Paterson scored from in close for his second goal of the night to force a 3-3 tie.
    Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid said the way the second period unfolded played a big factor in the final outcome of the contest.
    “They got that one to make it 3-2, and then we had a bunch of chances to go up 4-2,” said Habscheid. “I thought their goaltender was real good tonight.
    “We couldn’t make it 4-2, and then they tied it. We kind of made a couple of mistakes. They cashed in on them.
    “We had chances, and we didn’t cash in on them. I thought that was the difference.”
    Paterson tucked in his hat trick marker from right in front of the Prince Albert goal at the 3:28 mark of the third to put the Blades ahead 4-3. The Raiders proceeded to have a big chances to get the equalizer, but overage centre Devon Skoleski was stoned on a golden scoring opportunity by Maier.
    With 5:59 to play in the third, Paterson burst down the right wing and fed a pass across the front of the Prince Albert goal, which was knocked home by Shmyr to give the Blades a 5-3 edge.
Parker Kelly had the Raiders first goal on Thursday.
    Leason scored with 1:42 to play in the third to create some drama, but Shmyr sealed the victory with an empty-net goal with 45.6 seconds to play.
    Shmyr had two assists to go along with his two goals, while Wouters had three assists to go along with his tally. The line of Shmyr, Wouters and Paterson combined for 12 points on the night.
    Blades head coach Dean Brockman said his coaching staff got the message across to their players that their effort in the first period wasn’t good, and they needed to play with more energy the rest of the way. The Blades players found another gear after that point.
    “It was the biggest game of the year, and we have to find a way to claw back,” said Brockman. “After that (first intermission meeting), I thought our guys found ways to do things right.
    “When you find ways to do things right, you are probably going to win games.”
    Ian Scott turned away 33 of 38 shots to take the setback in goal for the Raiders. Maier turned away 38 shots to win his sixth straight start for the Blades.
Nolan Maier made 38 stops in goal for the Blades.
    Habscheid said the Blades young netminder deserves high marks for his effort.
    “He (Maier) doesn’t get out of position,” said Habscheid. “He’s always in position.
    “If you are going to beat him, you have to beat him. He doesn’t beat himself. He just stays in position.
    “He is square, and he competes. He’s played well for them.”
    Paterson enjoyed netting his first hat trick, but hewas more excited about how his side played as a whole.
    “I thought we had a great all around team effort,” said Paterson. “Maier was outstanding in the nets.
    “Everyone else contributed really well.”
    Combined with Wednesday 4-2 victory over the Raiders in Saskatoon, the Blades improved to 17-17-2-1 to hold one of the two wildcards spots in the WHL’s Eastern Conference with 37 points.
The Blades and Raiders engage in a scrum.
    The Memorial Cup hosting Regina Pats hold the other wildcard position posting a 17-18-3 record for 37 points in the standings.
    The Pats defeated the Brandon Wheat Kings 5-4 in Regina on Thursday night.
    The Raiders fell to 13-16-5-2 to sit four points back of both the Blades and the Pats.
    Prince Albert has one game in hand on Saskatoon and two games in hand on Regina.
    Raiders 17-year-old left-winger Justin Nachbaur was given a major for cross-checking and a game misconduct in the first period, and those infractions will automatically be reviewed by the WHL office for a possible suspension.
    Blades captain Evan Fiala went down late in the third period after getting hit in the face with the puck on a Raiders shot attempt.
The Blades celebrate their win over the Raiders.
    The overager won’t miss any action.
    “He (Fiala) was getting stitches when I looked in,” said Brockman. “He is a pretty tough competitor.”
    On the milestone front, Shmyr has now scored exactly 200 regular season points in his WHL career coming on 91 goals and 109 assists. The Calgary product has played 265 career regular season games split between the Brandon Wheat Kings and the Blades.
    Russian import defenceman Mark Rubinchik appeared in his 100th career WHL regular season game all with the Blades.
    The Raiders return to action on Saturday, when they host the Pats at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre.
    The Blades return to action on Saturday, when they travel to Swift Current to take on the Broncos (26-8-2).
    The Broncos fell 8-2 to the Warriors in Moose Jaw on Thursday night.

Hebig signs NHL deal with Oilers

Cameron Hebig signed an NHL contract with the Edmonton Oilers.
    The Blades celebrated some excitement on Thursday morning before the traveled to Prince Albert for their clash with the Raiders.
    Overage centre and Saskatoon product Cameron Hebig signed a three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Edmonton Oilers. Hebig, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185 pounds, leads the Blades in scoring with 28 goals and 23 assists.
    In 233 career regular season games with the Blades, Hebig has 85 goals and 101 assists. He missed all of last season with an upper body injury that was never clearly diagnosed.
    Hebig came into the current campaign with the goal of getting himself back on the radar of NHL scouts. On Thursday, he received a big reward for his efforts, and the news was appreciated by his teammates.
    A large number of the Blades players retweeted the news of Hebig’s NHL contract signing on Twitter.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.
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Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Defensive defenceman Caller basks in rare moment of offensive glory with Blades

Jackson Caller (#52) celebrates scoring a goal for the Blades.
    Defensive defenceman Jackson Caller wasn’t going to miss out on his chance for offensive glory.
    Just 62 seconds after his Saskatoon Blades took a 3-2 lead in the second period over the visiting Prince Albert Raiders on Wednesday night at the SaskTel Centre, Caller’s eyes got big on a rush into the Prince Albert zone. Forwards Josh Paterson and Braylon Shmyr burst into the Raiders end down the right wing creating a lane for Caller to pinch into the zone and sit open on the left side of the Prince Albert net.
    The Kamloops, B.C., product moved into that spot and tapped home a perfect feed across the face of the Raiders goal to give the Blades a 4-2 lead before 3,395 spectators. That score held up as the final outcome in the first game for both sides since returning from the WHL’s Christmas break.
Jackson Caller is known more for his defence.
    “It was a great play by Patty (Josh Paterson) and Shmyrsy (Braylon Shmyr) to get up there, and I just saw an opening down in the low end there,” said Caller. “I just found the backdoor and luckily enough it came to me.
    “I was just thinking put the puck in the net, just get it in for sure.”
    Offensive forays are not Caller’s forte. His tally against the Raiders was only his second goal of the season and of his WHL career. The 18-year-old sophomore, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 189 pounds, is better known as a stay at home defensive defenceman.
    He was pleased his decision to drive to the Raiders net resulted in a key insurance goal.
    “It was pretty awesome,” said Caller, who has nine assists and is a minus-one in the plus-minus department in 35 games this season. “To get the 4-2 lead it put a little bit of a cushion on their guys. It was a good way to finish.”
    Caller’s creativity in the offensive end was something that Blades head coach Dean Brockman was in favour of.
    “(Defencemen) have to jump into the rush and make things happen,” said Brockman. “That is the way the game is played now, and we need more guys to do that and read the play.”
Cameron Hebig scored twice for the Blades.
    Caller’s goal put the exclamation point on what was a solid night for the Blades. For much of the contest, the Blades got the puck in deep and forechecked the Raiders hard creating a number of turnovers.
    Raiders 18-year-old star goalie Ian Scott made 38 saves to give his side a chance to pull the contest out.
    The Blades jumped ahead 2-0 before the halfway point of the first period, when Paterson tipped home a point shot from Russian import defenceman Mark Rubinchik and star overage centre Cameron Hebig tucked home a power-play marker with a shot from the front of the Prince Albert goal.
    The Raiders pulled even at 2-2 scoring two goals in a 38 second span before the first intermission rolled around. Brett Leason, an 18-year-old right-winger, netted the Raiders first goal of the surge on the power play, while overage centre Devon Skoleski scored on a breakaway.
    Skoleski’s shot actually hit the post of the Saskatoon goal, deflected off Blades netminder Nolan Maier into the Saskatoon cage.
    At the 12:16 mark of the second, the Raiders turned the puck over in their own zone to Blades winger Gage Ramsay. Ramsay set up Hebig for his second of night with a backdoor pass to give the hosts a 3-2 lead.
Ian Scott makes one of his 38 saves for the Raiders.
    Caller added an insurance marker a short time later. Shmyr finished the night with three assists.
    “I thought our guys played as good as they could,” said Brockman. “When you have all that time off and you only get a little bit of skate, it is tough sledding, and they persevered.”
    The Raiders came with a big surge of pressure in the final two minutes of the third, which saw 18-year-old right-winger Parker Kelly ring a shot off the post. The visitors weren’t able to get any pucks past Maier.
    Maier turned away 20 shots to pick up the win goal, and the 16-year-old puck stopper has won his last five straight starts for the Blades.
    The Blades improved to 16-17-2-1, while the Raiders fell to 13-15-5-2.
Braylon Shmyr had three assists for the Blades.
    Saskatoon’s victory was dampened by the fact 16-year-old standout forward Kirby Dach left the game with an injury. Brockman said Dach was taken off the ice as a precaution with an upper body injury and he was still being evaluated.
    The bench boss was pleased to see his team get goals from the likes of Paterson and Caller to compliment the offensive output created by offensive stars like Hebig and Shmyr. Brockman really liked Paterson’s play on Wednesday night.
    “That was one of his (Paterson’s) best games of the year,” said Brockman. “He was pretty persistent on the puck and did a lot of really good things.
Blades D Mark Rubinchik (#6) checks Raiders RW Brett Leason (#20).
    “We need contributions from everybody, and they did it.”
    The Blades and Raiders go at it again on Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert to complete the home-and-home set.
    “We just have to keep doing the same thing and not get too high,” said Caller. “It (the Art Hauser Centre) is a smaller rink for sure.
    “You have to be a little bit more quicker with the puck out there. I am just looking forward to it tomorrow.”

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