Thursday, 14 December 2017

Blades’ Hajek expects to play sizable role with Czech world junior team

Libor Hajek is at the Czech Republic’s world junior training camp.
    A new head coach likely equals a new opportunity for Saskatoon Blades defenceman Libor Hajek, when it comes to cracking the Czech world junior team.
    Hajek departed from Saskatoon early Wednesday morning for the training camp of the Czech Republic’s world junior team, which is being held in Niagara Falls, Ont. The 19-year-old was cut from the Czech Republic’s world junior team roster last season, but he is optimistic about having a good role with the squad this season under new head coach Filip Pesan.
    “I talk with the coaches, and I’m probably going to be more leader there,” said Hajek, who had eight goals and 16 assists in 32 regular season games with the Blades in the current campaign. “This is my last year for playing world juniors, so I’ll be a leader and show my experience from the NHL (and) from Canadian Hockey League.”
    Hajek, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 210 pounds, has deep roots with hockey in his home country. Like many Canadians, Hajek took up hockey at an early age, and his biggest influence in helping him along was his father, David.
    “I was like four-years-old,” said Hajek, who is in his third full season with the Blades. “My dad just play hockey, and he was a hockey player.
    “He just put me on ice pushing a chair. He is like my biggest coach in my life. He still is watching my every game.
Libor Hajek has had a strong season with the Blades.
    “We always talk about the game after the game. He is like the best for me. He is like my best coach.”
    Hajek said he grew up watching good hockey in his local area and enjoyed playing for HC Kometa Brno.
    He relished playing for the Czech Republic’s national team at the under-16, under-17 and under-18 levels. One of his biggest disappointments was failing to make the Czech world junior team last season.
    “It was kind of sad,” said Hajek. “I didn’t make the team there. It was kind of frustrating, mad.”
    At last season’s world juniors held in Montreal and Toronto, the Czech team posted a 1-1-2 record in round robin play suffering overtime losses to Switzerland and Denmark. The Czech team’s run at the tournament ended with a 5-3 setback to Canada.
    The performance of the Czech team was met with disappointment. As a result, Pesan was installed to replace Jakub Petr as the head coach of the Czech team for the upcoming world juniors, which begin Dec. 26 in Buffalo, New York. The Czech Republic opens the tournament against Russia.
    Hajek said there was excitement back in the Czech Republic hockey circles now that Pesan is the head coach of the world junior team, and the skilled two-way rearguard’s hopes to be with the team were heightened.
    “It is always my pleasure to play for the Czech national team,” said Hajek. “Hopefully this year we’ll make (it) better.” 
Libor Hajek works the point on the power play for the Blades.
    Blades head coach Dean Brockman would love to see Hajek crack the Czech world junior roster.
    “He (Hajek) wants to play his best right now and kind of peak towards that event,” said Brockman. “We certainly think he has a real good chance to make it, but you never know.”
    Hajek, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round and 37th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, believes he handled being cut from the Czech Republic world junior team in a mature manner. He focused on his return to the Blades, and for his efforts, he signed a three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Lightning last March.
    “I just play harder and better here in Saskatoon, and it helps,” said Hajek. “I went home to take some rest. I played better here (in Saskatoon).”

Kubic back in the fold to create crease dilemma

Goalie Ryan Kubic has returned from injury for the Blades.
    Veteran 19-year-old goalie Ryan Kubic is back in the Saskatoon Blades fold, and his return has created a good problem for the team.
    Kubic last started a game for the Blades on Nov. 18, when he turned away 31-of-36 shots in a 6-3 setback against the Warriors in Moose Jaw. The St. Andrews, Man., product was forced out of the team’s lineup after that game due to a knee injury.
    On Tuesday, Kubic returned to the Blades lineup, but he served as the backup goalie in the team’s clash with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The Blades went with the hot hand of 16-year-old Nolan Maier for a 10th straight start in goal, and he turned away 28 shots in a 5-3 victory.
    The Yorkton, Sask., product’s play has constantly improved every time he has been given a start in Saskatoon’s goal. With Maier playing at a high level, Blades head coach Dean Brockman plans to use both netminders in the team’s last three games before getting embarking on the WHL’s Christmas break.
    “Nolan (Maier) is on a little bit of a role here, but he is not going to be able to play all three,” said Brockman. “We will have a practice or two to decide on it.”
    Currently, the Blades have two 19-year-old forwards on their injury list in Gage Ramsay (groin, slated to return after Christmas break) and Caleb Fantillo (knee, 5-to-7 weeks).
    The Blades (13-16-2-1) travel to Regina on Friday to take on the Memorial Cup host Pats (16-15-2) at 7 p.m. at the Brandt Centre. On Saturday, the Blades return home to host the Kelowna Rockets (18-11-2-1) at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    On Sunday, the Blades host the Pats at 4 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre in their Secret Santa game. Fans are invited to bring a new unwrapped toy to the contest as a donation to the Secret Santa Foundation.

“Pats Regiment” feeling uneasy in Regina

Sam Steel and the Pats face doubters this season.
    If you follow social media or hear the noise from sports talk radio shows based in Regina, a number of fans of the Regina Pats, who are known as the “Pats Regiment,” are starting to feel really worried.
    The Pats host the 100th edition of the Memorial Cup from May 17-27, 2018, and the team is hovering around the .500 mark with a 16-15-2 record. At the moment, the Pats, who have six sellouts this season, hold the first wildcard position in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    If the Pats lose their last three outings in regulation before they go on their WHL Christmas break, it is possible they could be sitting out of a playoff position.
    Last season, the Pats had a dream campaign finishing first in the WHL’s regular season standings for the first time since 1974 with a 52-12-7-1 record. The 52 wins set a franchise record for the regular season.
    They were rated first in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 rankings for most of that campaign and topped the final ratings released on March 22.
    In the playoffs, the Pats made the WHL Championship series for the first time since 1984, but fell 4-2 in the best-of-seven set to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Thunderbirds import centre Alexander True scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the WHL title series to give his side a 4-3 victory in that contest.
    The Pats were a team that was built to have a special campaign last season. Going through a sizable turnover in key players including the loss of star overage captain Adam Brooks, the Pats should have been tagged for a reload or a rebuilding type season in the current campaign.
Josh Mahura was one of the standouts the Pats got back from the pros.
    With the Pats celebrating their 100th anniversary as an organization in 2017-18, they decided to make a bid for the 100th Memorial Cup. They were awarded that event on February 18.
    For Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock, he was really put in a bind, when it game to preparing the club’s roster to be a Memorial Cup host. The Pats were locked in to make their run through the 2017 playoffs.
    The host announcement came way after the WHL trade deadline of Jan. 10. Even if the announcement came before the trade deadline, you couldn’t see the Pats blowing up their chances to win it all in 2016-17 by dealing away players like Brooks and fellow overagers Dawson Leedahl and Chase Harrison to gain strong 1998 born players to prepare for the current campaign.
    In the Pats defence, Memorial Cup host squads are usually given favours from NHL squads, who like to see their drafted and signed prospects playing important games in May. The Pats have received almost no favours on that front outside of getting 19-year-old star centre Sam Steel and 19-year-old defenceman Josh Mahura back from the Anaheim Ducks.
    Steel, who was the WHL’s most valuable player and scoring champion last season, has been a target for fan criticism this season. The 19-year-old star centre has collected 14 goals, 21 assists and a plus-seven rating in 27 games, but he isn’t scoring at the same rate as last season.
    The Sherwood Park, Alta., product is at the training camp to try and make Canada’s world junior team along with Mahura, and some fans say Steel doesn’t deserve to make that squad.
    Regina could have had defenceman Connor Hobbs and left-winger Austin Wagner back for their overage seasons in theory. Hobbs, who is signed by the NHL’s Washington Capitals, is playing in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears.
    Wagner, who is signed by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, is playing for the AHL’s Ontario Reign.
At the WHL level, Hobbs was a star defenceman who stood out in the offensive and defensive zones, and Wagner had speed few could match in the major junior ranks.
Connor Hobbs was a player the Pats didn’t get back from the pros.
    The Pats had traded for the WHL rights of 19-year-old centre Tyson Jost, but he is playing in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche.
    If the Pats had Hobbs, Wagner and Jost, they would likely have seven to eight more wins. With that said, that trio was ready for the professional ranks.
    At the moment, the worry among fans in Regina is reminiscent of the worry that surrounded the Pats when they last hosted the Memorial Cup back in the 2000-01 campaign. In that season, the Pats were hovering around .500 near the WHL Christmas break before executing a number of deals before the WHL trade deadline.
    It might be tougher for the Pats to make a string of deals this time around, so it will be interesting to see what happens to the club over the next four weeks. The WHL trade deadline is slated for Jan. 10, 2018.

Watch out for the Blazers

Right-winger Garrett Pilon, right, has piled up the points for the Blazers.
    The Kamloops Blazers have done a stellar job to make their 0-9 start look like a fade memory.
    Since dropping their first nine straight games, the Blazers have gone 15-7-0-1 to hold the second wildcard playoff spot in the WHL’s Western Conference at 15-16-0-1. With the type of hockey the Blazers are playing, they might end up being a major threat to make a run when the WHL playoffs roll around.
    At the moment, the Blazers are showing they can play a skilled game on top of playing a hard hitting and physical game.
    Saskatoon product and star right-winger Garrett Pilon tops the Blazers in scoring with 17 goals and 23 assists. Power forward Jermaine Loewen, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 221 pounds, is a wrecking ball on the ice, but he can score as well. The 19-year-old has 13 goals and 11 assists in 26 appearances this season.
    The Blazers are also getting stellar goaltending from Las Vegas Golden Knights draft selection Dylan Ferguson.
    Blazers head coach Don Hay has 735 career regular season victories, and he is closing in on former Portland Winterhawks head coach Ken Hodge for the WHL record in career regular season victories at 742.
    If the Blazers keep up their pace from their last 23 games, Hay will become the WHL’s all-time leader in career regular season wins and should be a favourite to win the WHL’s coach of the year award.

Back in the Express with Epoch

Libby Epoch has rocked for the Huskies.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express with a story on Libby Epoch, who is the star point-guard of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team.
    Epoch, who stands 5-foot-7, is a 19-year-old product from Moose Jaw, Sask., who is in her second year with the Huskies. Besides playing for the Huskies, she has been part of Canada’s national team program and played for Canada at the U-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup last July in Italy winning a bronze medal.
    As a rookie, she helped the Huskies win the Canada West championship last season.
    This season, Epoch has helped the Huskies roar out to a 9-1 start to be rated sixth in the U Sports Top 10 rankings.
    Epoch has started in all of the Huskies 10 regular season games and is averaging 8.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
    The story on Epoch can be found here.

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