Sunday, 29 July 2018

The curious case of the Saskatchewan Roughriders

CFL team’s season could go in many directions

QB Brandon Bridge (#16) calls a play in the huddle for the Roughriders.
    REGINA - The Saskatchewan Roughriders are a 3-3 middle of the pack team like their record says.
    Over their first six outings, they have often been a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of squad being at their best and at their worst in the same game regardless if they win or lose. Saturday’s 34-22 setback to the 6-0 Calgary Stampeders at Mosaic Stadium proved to be another example of that trend for the Green and White.
    The Roughriders were at their best on the defensive side of the ball. They limited the powerful Stampeders offence to just 242 total yards for the entire game.
Terry Williams, left, celebrates a punt return TD with Richard Sindani.
    Veteran star defensive end Charleston Hughes, who spent his first 10 CFL campaigns with the Stampeders, is still a beast at age 34. He recorded two sacks for the Roughriders and leads the entire CFL with eight sacks.
    Defensive lineman Tobi Antigha, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 223 pounds, proved he is a heck of an athlete. Dropping into pass coverage, he collected his second interception of the season in the second quarter of Saturday’s game. This time, he returned the ball back 52 yards to the end zone for a pick-six.
    On defence, a myriad of players proved they can continually get the job done like Samuel Eguavoen, Ed Gainey, Mike Edem, Eddie Steele, Zach Evans, Jovon Johnson and Willie Jefferson. Duron Carter, who is normally a receiver on offence, is improving each game since being inserted at defensive back full time in Week 2.
Eric Rogers (#15) reacts to scoring a touchdown for the Stampeders.
    Place kicker Brett Lauther had a monster game on Saturday hitting all five of his field goal attempts including a monster shot from 56 yards out shortly before the end of the first half. The Truno, N.S., product also connected from 35, 48, 32 and 47 yards out.
    The Roughriders were at their worst in the first quarter of Saturday’s game making a bunch of gaffs to fall behind 24-0.
    The surge started early in that frame, when Roughriders running back Marcus Thigpen fumbled the ball away. It took the Stampeders just one play to score, when star quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell hit receiver Marken Michel on a deep corner route for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
The Roughriders celebrate Tobi Antigha’s pick-six.
    After Rene Paredes booted a 52-yard field goal to put the Stampeders up 10-0, the visitors went ahead 17-0 when Terry Williams returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown.
    The bleeding didn’t stop there for the Roughriders. Running back Jerome Messam fumbled the ball away, and the Stampeders recovered it at the Saskatchewan 40.
    Calgary drove that distance in four plays to score another touchdown, when Mitchell hit receiver Eric Rogers with a 15-yard scoring toss.
    The Roughriders offence was not a pretty sight gaining just 247 yards on the night, fumbling the ball away a total of four times and turning the ball over on downs once.
Charleston Hughes hit the big screen with a couple of sack celebrations.
    Thanks to a defensive score and four field goals, the Roughriders were able to trim the Stampeders lead to 24-19 with 5:20 to play in the third quarter. One of those field goals came after Williams fumbled away a punt return.
    Saskatchewan’s offence couldn’t sustain any drives or make any big plays to create some much needed major scores. Running back Tre Mason had the longest play from scrimmage for the Roughriders with an 18-yard run.
    Roughriders quarterback Brandon Bridge fulfilled the role of game manager completing 19-of-29 passes for 147 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, and he wasn’t responsible for any of Saskatchewan’s four fumbles. The Saskatchewan coaching staff didn’t call any plays which would allow Bridge to stretch the field.
Rider Nation signals a first down for the hosts at Mosaic Stadium.
    The breaks didn’t go the Roughriders way either. With the Stampeders holding a 24-19 lead, the Roughriders had an interception from defensive back Crezdon Butler negated by a tough illegal contact on the receiver penalty on Johnson that could have gone either way.
    On the ensuing play after Butler’s interception was taken away, Mitchell hit receiver DeVaris Daniels with a 15-yard touchdown toss to put the Stampeders up 31-19.
    To make things worse on Saturday, the Roughriders couldn’t deliver a win before a sellout crowd of 33,350 – most of whom wanted to see the host side defeat one of their biggest rivals outside of a few pockets of Stampeders supporters.
Mascot Gainer the Gopher circles the field.
    Over the first third of their regular season schedule, the Roughriders have hit equal parts of the spectrum of being good and bad. Despite their inconsistencies, they could possibly be 5-1.
    Back on June 30, the Roughriders dropped a 23-17 decision to the Montreal Alouettes, who are 1-5 on the campaign. That was a game that slipped away.
    On Saturday, the Stampeders did not look indestructible like they have at points in the past decade and appeared very beatable. That contest in the end was another that got away from Saskatchewan.
    The Roughriders defence has found its groove. The Roughriders offence looks to be hurt by the fact the deck might have been shuffled too much from last season.
    Bakari Grant, Rob Bagg and Nic Demski, who missed a lengthy stretch due to injury, were all regular receivers last season, and all are no longer with the team. Carter, who had 1,043 yards receiving last season for the Roughriders, has been used sparingly on offence.
    The Roughriders offensive line has had struggles but is getting better. Saskatchewan could draw from the steady influence of veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn last season, but he is now with the Edmonton Eskimos.
QB Bo Levi Mitchell and the Stampeders were opportunistic.
    On the injury front, the Roughriders are due to get defensive back Nick Marshall back off the six-game injured list after he sits out one more contest. Starting quarterback Zach Collaros has spent four contests on the six-game injured list with a concussion.
    When both return, the Roughrider deck will be shuffled in a way that might help the offence. Both will be missing, when the Roughriders travel to Edmonton to face the Eskimos (4-2) this coming Thursday.
    At the moment, the Roughriders are an average team in the CFL. They still can potentially be really good, really bad or finish out the regular season at 9-9.
    They are at a crossroads, and no one can predict with certainty how they will finish.

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Saturday, 28 July 2018

Roughriders’ Bridge is still the great Canadian QB hope

Brandon Bridge (#16) fires a pass downfield for the Roughriders.
    If you’re a Canadian quarterback, you likely have your figures crossed for Brandon Bridge.
    The 26-year-old Toronto, Ont., product is still the biggest hope of proving to management and coaches in the CFL that a Canadian can be the starting quarterback in the league. Since the legendary Russ Jackson led the Ottawa Rough Riders to a Grey Cup title in his final game in 1969, the CFL has been looking for the next great Canadian star starting quarterback.
    Bridge came into the 2018 campaign riding a lot of momentum from his performance with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the 2017 season.
    Last season, Bridge won his one start and came off the bench in numerous other contests completing 92-of-138 passes for 1,236 yards, 10 touchdown passes and four interceptions. He also ran the ball 20 times for 127 yards and scored one major.
    During last year’s 25-21 Eastern Final loss to the eventual Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts, Bridge came off the bench for the Roughriders completing 11-of-21 passes for 141 yards and one touchdown.
    Last December, Bridge signed a one-year contract to remain with the Roughriders. At the time, it appeared he might be the favourite to be the club’s starting quarterback.
Brandon Bridge (#16) calls a play in the huddle.
    That changed in early January when the Roughriders made a trade with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to acquire veteran starter Zach Collaros and signed him to a restructured contract.
    Collaros guided the Roughriders to a 27-19 victory in their regular season opener on June 15 against the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts at Mosaic Stadium. In a 40-17 drubbing in Week 2 at the hands of the Redblacks in Ottawa on June 21, Collaros was lost after sustaining a concussion injury and was placed on the six-game injured list.
    Due to that development, Bridge gained the opportunity to lead the Roughriders as the starting quarterback over a sizable sustained period of time.
    In the three games that followed, Bridge did indeed start each contest, but he was often rotated with another young signal caller in David Watford, who is a 25-year-old product from Hampton, Virginia.
    The results for Bridge were mixed. He showed brilliance at times, but his inexperience also came to the surface as well.
    So far in 2018, Bridge has completed 49-of-75 passes for 522 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. On the ground, he has carried the ball 16 times for 79 yards.
Brandon Bridge (#16) calls signals at the line of scrimmage.
    The Roughriders fell in Bridge’s first start of the season 23-17 to the lowly Montreal Alouettes at Mosaic Stadium on June 30. Saskatchewan proceeded to pull out an 18-13 win in Bridge’s second start on July 5 at Mosaic Stadium against the Tiger-Cats.
    Those two clubs went at it again on July 19 in Hamilton, and the Roughriders pulled out a 31-20 victory in Bridge’s third start of the campaign.
    Adding difficulty to the evaluation of Bridge is the fact the Roughriders offensive line has been suspect for most of the first five games. There is a fear things could really go down in that department if Canadian veterans in guard Brendon LaBatte or centre Dan Clark are ever lost to injury.
    Evaluation of Bridge also has to take into account he is working with some new receivers. Rob Bagg and Bakari Grant were both regular receivers in 2017 and are no longer with the Roughriders this season. Star receiver Duron Carter has mainly been employed by the Roughriders on defence due to injuries and lack of personnel in the defensive backfield.
    Still, there are signs Bridge is finding his groove. He guided the game-winning 77-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter that allowed the Roughriders to beat the Tiger-Cats by five points on July 5.
    During Saskatchewan’s win in Hamilton on July 19, Bridge took the bulk of the snaps under centre completing 17-of-22 passes for 165 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. He ran the ball five times for 17 yards.
    These are the signs of growth you want to see from the young inexperience quarterback.
    Tonight, Bridge faces his biggest test. He leads the 3-2 Roughriders against the undefeated 5-0 Calgary Stampeders, who have won 10 or more games a season since the start of the 2008 campaign. 
The Roughriders need to protect Brandon Bridge (#16) in the pocket.
    The two sides go at it at 7 p.m. local time at a sold out Mosaic Stadium.
    The Roughriders defence has played lights out, and that has bought the club’s offensive time to get on track.
    Bridge will have an opportunity to make another step forward. If the Roughriders stumble, he will likely have to more chances to guide the team after the Saturday’s clash with the Stampeders before Collaros is scheduled to come off the injured list.
    The CFL may still get its Canadian star quarterback, but the path in that journey will have its bumps.

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Friday, 27 July 2018

Long snapper Crawford gets big praise by Tiger-Cats head coach

Medicine Hat product earned his way to CFL veteran status

Aaron Crawford (#47) blocks on special teams for the Tiger-Cats in 2016.
    Aaron Crawford had to earn everything that came his way in the sport of football, so it was nice to hear the veteran long snapper receive some high praise from a seasoned 65-year-old career coach.
    Crawford has been with the Tiger-Cats since 2013. During a 41-36 loss on Oct. 27, 2017 against the Redblacks in Ottawa, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in his left knee. He was forced to miss the Tiger-Cats final contest of that campaign.
    On top of that serious injury, Crawford’s contract expired following the conclusion of the 2017 CFL season. There was no certainty the Medicine Hat, Alta., product would be back for a sixth campaign with the Tiger-Cats.
    Instead of returning home to Medicine Hat, the 31-year-old remained in Hamilton to have reconstructive surgery on his knee, and he did his rehab there as well. After officially becoming a free agent in February, the Tiger-Cats continued to allow Crawford to access their facilities and their training staff.
    On Monday, Crawford, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 263 pounds, was resigned to the Tiger-Cats active roster. Hamilton cut St. Albert, Alta., product Tanner Doll to make room for Crawford. Doll suited up for the Tiger-Cats as their long snapper for four regular season games to start the 2018 campaign.
    Crawford is set to hit the field for the Tiger-Cats (2-3) for a clash against the Redblacks (3-2) at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton on Saturday. The contest will be a battle for first place in the East Division.    
    Tiger-Cats head coach June Jones, who has coached in various roles for about the last 35 years mostly in the NFL and major college football in the United States, offered up a big compliment to Crawford during his media conference on Wednesday.
    “Last year, I thought he was the best (long) snapper I’ve ever had at any level,” said Jones. “He is as good as they are.”
    Jones joined the Tiger-Cats in early August of last year and was named their head coach before they embarked on their final 10 games of the 2017 regular season. Considering Jones only saw Crawford perform for a relatively short period of time, his assessment has to be considered really high praise.
Aaron Crawford (#47) sets up for a long snap for the Tiger-Cats.
    Jones reflected on the fact Crawford finished the game he suffered his injury in and even made a special teams tackle. It was originally thought Crawford sprained his knee.
    On the business side of things, Jones said it was tough to allow Crawford’s contract to expire as the Tiger-Cats took the wait and see approach with regards to the veteran’s rehabilitation. Crawford appeared in 17 regular season games in 2017 making five special teams tackles.
    “That was the first time I’ve ever cut a guy that didn’t deserve to be cut,” said Jones. “He did everything right. He even went down and made a tackle.”
    Perseverance has been the word that has defined Crawford through his entire football career. He never followed the straightest line in joining the Tiger-Cats.
    He dreamed of playing in the CFL growing up in Medicine Hat. During his high school years in “The Gas City,” Crawford was a star for the Crescent Height High School Vikings football team being named the club’s rookie of the year in 2003 and a captain in 2004.
    He excelled as a linebacker, which opened doors in the post-secondary ranks. He bounced around the Canadian Junior Football League playing for three teams in four years.
    Crawford was a member of the Chilliwack Valley Huskers in British Columbia in 2005, suited up for the Regina Thunder in 2006 and 2007, and finished playing in B.C. for the then Victoria Rebels in 2008, who are now known as the Westshore Rebels.
    In a game on Oct. 1, 2006, Crawford returned to a fumble 107 yards for a touchdown to help the Thunder down the Winnipeg Rifles 38-21 at Taylor Field in Regina.
    While he was playing in the CJFL, Crawford dressed for the now defunct Medicine Hat Marauders senior tackle football team for the 2005 and 2006 Alberta Football League seasons.
    After toiling for the Rebels, Crawford moved to the U Sports ranks playing for the Saint Mary’s University Huskies in Halifax, N.S., in 2009 and 2011. With the Huskies, Crawford began to master the craft of being a long snapper having previously filled that role in his one season with the Rebels.
    Crawford continued to bounce around to different football homes, when he joined the CFL. In the 2012 CFL Draft, he was selected in the sixth round and 40th overall by the Toronto Argonauts.
    The Argonauts cut Crawford following their training camp that year, but he resurfaced signing on to the practice roster of the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Oct. 3, 2012.
    The Roughriders released Crawford during their training camp in 2013. He proceeded to join the practice roster of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for a cup of coffee stretch starting July 22, 2013 and ending Aug. 4, 2013.
Aaron Crawford (#47) sets into a block after a long snap.
    From there, Crawford signed with the Tiger-Cats on Aug. 21, 2013 and made his CFL regular season debut on Aug. 24, 2013 in a home game against the Blue Bombers.
    Thanks to the fact he never took “no” for an answer, Crawford has appeared in 67 career regular season games for the Tiger-Cats making 19 special teams tackles and one defensive tackle.
    With the latest efforts Crawford made to recover from his knee injury, Jones felt he had to give the veteran a chance to play.
    “I kind of have a thing you can’t lose your job via injury, and I thought Aaron was one of the best snappers I have ever been around and he is a little bigger body in there,” said Jones. “I was hoping he was going to be ready for training camp, and he wanted to come.”
    Thanks to this latest chapter Crawford wrote in his story of perseverance, he will continue to live his football dream.

Longevity the hallmark of Fantuz’s CFL career

An Andy Fantuz card from 2007.
    Considering how starved CFL teams are for Canadian receivers and Canadian talent, maybe Andy Fantuz could have played another season or two.
    On July 19, Fantuz announced his official retirement from the CFL. The announcement came shortly before his two former team in the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats collided in Hamilton. The Roughriders took that encounter 31-20.
    The 34-year-old from Chatman, Ont., hadn’t been active with any team this season. He played six campaigns with the Roughriders from 2006 to 2011 and six seasons with the Tiger-Cats from 2012-2017.
    What might be the most amazing thing about Fantuz was how good he was in the later stages of his career. In 2016, he appeared in 17 regular season games with the Tigers-Cats hauling in a career high 101 passes for 1,059 yards and five touchdowns.
    He was the East Division nominee for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Canadian award, which ultimately went that season to Calgary Stampeders running back Jerome Messam.
    Fantuz, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 218 pounds, wasn’t able to finish the 2016 season tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees in a game on Oct. 28 of that year against the Edmonton Eskimos.
    He returned late in the 2017 season appearing in three contests catching six passes for 55 yards.
Overall, Fantuz will go down as one of the CFL’s all-time greats appearing in 148 regular season games catching 637 passes for 8,363 yards and 44 touchdowns. He came to the CFL as a highly touted prospect from the University of Western Ontario Mustangs in the U Sports ranks and lived up to expectations.
An Andy Fantuz card from 2010.
    His statistics could have been greater had he not missed significant time due to injury in the 2008, 2015 and 2017 campaigns. Fantuz was limited to four regular season appearances with the Roughriders in 2011 returning to the team late after trying to land a spot on the roster of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
    One of Fantuz’s most memorable moments came in the 2007 Grey Cup in Toronto, where he scored on rumbling 29-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter to help the Roughriders edge the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 23-19. He had four catches for 70 yards in that contest to be named the game’s most valuable Canadian player.
    He appeared in the Grey Cup with the Roughriders in 2009 and 2010 and with the Tiger-Cats in 2013 and 2014, but he was on the losing end of the scoreboard in each of those outings.
    Fantuz’s best regular season with the Roughriders came in 2010, when he appeared in all of the team’s 18 regular season games catching 87 passes for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns. He took home honours as the CFL’s most outstanding Canadian player and was named a CFL all-Canadian all-star.
    Throughout his 12 seasons in the league, Fantuz was always a high performer.

Back in the Express with Duchene family, other notes

The Duchene family is deeply connected into the sport of football.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a feature story on the Duchene family, who are very active in the sport of football.
    Michelle and Eric Duchene first met in the 1999 U Sports campaign, when Eric was a rookie defensive back with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team and Michelle was one of the team’s trainers. They began dating three years later, got married and now have two children in daughters Jada, 12, and Halle, 10.
    Michelle and Eric both play touch football, and Michelle is the general manager of the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League. Jada and Halle play flag football.
The story on the family’s involvement with football can be round right here.
  • Forward Ashley de Sousa Martins was named to Canada’s under-18 women’s basketball team on Thursday. She players her high school hoops with Saskatoon’s Aden Bowman Collegiate. The Canadian squad is slated to play at the FIBA under-18 Women’s America Championship, which runs Aug. 1-7 in Mexico City, Mexico. Guard Kaitlin Jockims, who plays Saskatoon’s Centennial Collegiate, was cut from Canada’s final 12-player roster. Martins has committed to playing for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team when her high school days are done.
  • The National Lacrosse League Cup will make an appearance at the party in the park before Saturday’s Saskatchewan Roughriders game. The National Lacrosse League champion Saskatchewan Rush are bring the NLL’s championship trophy to the tailgate party in the park, which begins at 4 p.m. Fans can have their picture taken with the National Lacrosse League Cup. The Roughriders (3-2) are slated to take on the Calgary Stampeders (5-0) in a CFL regular season clash slated for 7 p.m.
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Thursday, 26 July 2018

Stampeders star QB Mitchell is great for the CFL

Signal caller entertains mixing it up with Roughriders fans

Stampeders QB Bo Levi Mitchell is one of the best players in the CFL.
    Saskatchewan Roughriders fans may want to sit down before they read the following line.
    Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is great for the CFL.
    He might be even better for the CFL when he is exchanging beaks with Roughriders fans. It is too bad he deleted his Twitter account during the off-season. The Katy, Texas, product was good at using that social media platform to get Rider Nation all worked up.
    Last season after Roughriders receiver/defensive back Duron Carter returned a Mitchell interception for a touchdown, Saskatchewan play-by-play voice Rod Pedersen made his famous “Bo Levi, shut your mouth” call. Saskatchewan won that contest 30-7 on Oct. 20, 2017 in Calgary.
Stamps QB Bo Levi Mitchell,  left, escapes a Roughriders pass rush in 2016.
    On Saturday, Mitchell, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 198 pounds, will once again likely exchange barbs with his favourite opposing fanbase as the Stampeders (5-0) travel to Mosaic Stadium to take on the Saskatchewan Roughriders (3-2) at 7 p.m. The Roughriders announced on Wednesday the game was sold out, and tickets on the team’s verified resale channel are starting at $73.
    Mitchell, who hasn’t missed a start this season, was playing things cool in front of the media in Calgary on Thursday saying a knee he injured in a 27-3 victory over the Redblacks in Ottawa on July 12 feels great.
Stamps QB Bo Levi Mitchell, centre, burst into the open field in 2016.
    Here is hoping he is saving some verbal jabs for the pre-game press conferences and scrums that will be held in Regina on Friday.
    Even if Mitchell keeps his mouth shut, Rider Nation will likely give him a welcome worthy of a wrestling heel worthy of Ric Flair or the late Nick Bockwinkel in their “bad guy” primes.
    Like Flair or Bockwinkel in wrestling, Mitchell, who turned 28-years-old in March, will likely become a baby face for Rider Nation the longer he keeps playing in the CFL at a high level. Heck, you might like Mitchell right now, if you are a Roughriders supporter. You just don’t want to say it.
    Fans that spend a lot of time getting their “hate on” for a player on an opposing team doing research for heckles, making signs or creative props usually deep down find they actually like that player.
Bo Levi Mitchell gets set in the pocket in 2016.
    You would be hard pressed to see a Roughriders fan say they hate defensive end Charleston Hughes now that he plays for Saskatchewan. Hughes used to be a target for taunts from Roughriders fans, when he suited up for the Stampeders.
    Part of the reason you get your hate for Mitchell if you are a fan of the “green and white” is because he is a good player. Actually, Mitchell might be one of the best in the entire CFL.
    Now in his seventh campaign in the league, Mitchell has a 61-10-2 record in the regular season as a starting quarterback, and he has completed 1,592 of 2,428 career pass attempts for 20,679 yards, 124 touchdown passes and 48 interceptions in regular season play.
    Mitchell was named the CFL’s most outstanding player in 2016.
    He has guided the Stampeders into the Grey Cup game on three occasions winning in 2014 and falling in 2016 and 2017. The haters will likely take glee in the two title game losses.
Bo Levi Mitchell fires a pass downfield in 2016.
    Had the Stampeders won those latter two Grey Cup appearances, Mitchell would be the CFL’s version of Tom Brady of the NFL’s New England Patriots.
    While Brady makes much more money in the NFL than Mitchell does in the CFL, the Stampeders signal caller has a pretty good life.
    Mitchell met his wife, Madison, while attending Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wash., and playing for the Eagles football team. Madison would become the captain of the school’s cheerleading team.
    They make their home year round in Calgary, are involved with many charitable endeavours there and have a baby daughter named Ele. They are one really great looking family.
    It feels like if you sat down and talked to Mitchell, it would be really tough to actually hate him.
The veteran pivot will dish out respectful complements to opponents too, which another fact that shouldn’t be forgotten.
    During the current campaign, Mitchell is playing out the final year of his contract with the Stampeders. If he continues to have the success he has had, the NFL could come calling.
Bo Levi Mitchell, centre, knows how to escape trouble.
    Like former CFL star quarterbacks of the past like Warren Moon, Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia, Mitchell is ready for that step.
    For present day, Mitchell, who has a radio show in Calgary, is an established star in the CFL. The colour he can bring with his gift for the gab adds interest to the circuit and to games that involve the Stampeders.
    The antics that could occur on Saturday will likely have more of a fun twist to them.
    Besides the colour, Mitchell has been a leader on the field and in the community for the Stampeders.
    He is one of those guys you want to be an ambassador for your league.

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Sunday, 22 July 2018

Impressive facelift for Gordie Howe Sports Complex continues

Kelsey Murphy (#85) jets upfield at SMF Field in 2017.
    The Gordie Howe Sports Complex seems to be busy at all hours these days.
    While athletes and sports groups utilized the facilities in the evenings and nights from Monday to Friday and all day Saturday and Sunday, construction crews are busy working on numerous improvements during the day from Monday to Friday.
    The most noticeable site on the complex is the rise of a new multi-sport indoor athletic performance and training centre that neighbors Gordie Howe Kinsmen Arena. The walls are up on the building, and workers will likely be working on the inside of the structure during winter.
    The press boxes for Saskatoon Minor Football Field are near completion as the football season approaches for the Saskatoon Hilltops, who have won the last four straight Canadian Junior Football League titles.
    The stands at Cairns Field have been demolished. In their place, the base structure is currently being set up for a new multi-sport centre.
    You can also see the outlines of the new track being built at the new track and field facility. The long and triple jump pits have been completed.
    Another outdoor a field turf field is being constructed for football, two infields for baseball and an overflow parking lot, which will be located west of SMF Field.
The new training centre being built at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex.
    It is amazing to see all the improvements that are being made to Saskatoon’s long time sports park. It almost becomes a challenge to keep track of them all.
    The improvements have been overseen by the Friends of the Bowl Foundation, which is a not-for-profit corporation whose mission is to improve the facilities and amenities at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex. The Friends of the Bowl Foundation has initial roots dating back to 2011 when discussions were held about improving what was then known as the Gordie Howe Bowl football facility.
    The first focus was refurbishing Gordie Howe Bowl, which was an eyesore. The refurbishment began on that facility in 2014, and it was renamed Saskatoon Minor Football Field.
The Gordie Howe Softball Diamond sees a lot of use.
    If the renovation and improvements happened just to SMF Field, the work of the Friends of the Bowl Foundation could be deemed a success. That fundraising entity had built such momentum that wheels went into motion on improving the rest of the Gordie Howe Sports Complex.
    When the master plan for the complex is complete, a total of $62-million will be put into renovating and improving the complex. The fundraising efforts have been ongoing since Friends of the Bowl started and $42-million has been raised towards the ultimate final goal.
    Positive momentum keeps building as improvements and renovations quickly occur after large chunks of funds are raised. Saskatoon is going to end up with a sports complex that could end up being the envy of Western Canada.
    Chairperson Bryan Kosteroski and board member Johnny Marciniuk have been the faces of the volunteer board of directors for the Friends of the Bowl Foundation, and they have played a huge part in providing leadership to this big picture project.
A sign touting the work at the Gordie Howe Sports Complex.
    In the end, all the volunteers and everyone who has donated and will donate to make the final vision of the Gordie Howe Sports Complex a reality can take a bow and be owed a big thanks from the rest of the citizens of Saskatoon. There might not be a way to show gratitude for what has taken place.
    If you want to contribute a donation to continue the efforts to refurbish the Gordie Howe Sports Complex, you can do so by clicking here.

Saskatoon falls to champ Novi Sad in 3x3 semis, other notes

Team Saskatoon guard Steve Sir gives a thumbs up to the hometown crowd.
    It seemed like Team Saskatoon was going to ride the hometown crowd to victory against a tougher field at this year’s FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters tournament stop in “the Bridge City.”
    On Saturday, Team Saskatoon posted a 2-0 record in pool play before a jam packed and vocal group of home supporters on an outdoor court set up at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and 21st Street entering Sunday’s playoff round.
    In Sunday’s playoff round, Team Saskatoon downed Minnesota 3Ball 14-12 to set up a date with powerhouse Novi Sad from Serbia, who top the FIBA 3x3 World Tour rankings. During that semifinal encounter, Team Saskatoon put up a valiant fight, but Novi Sad was as good as advertised pulling out a 21-15 victory.
Michael Lieffers, middle, drives the lane for Team Saskatoon.
    Last year when Saskatoon hosted a FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters tournament for the first time, the local squad made the event’s championship game falling 21-14 to Team Ljubljana from Slovenia.
    Novi Sad proceeded to advance to the event’s championship game in an all-Serbian clash against Liman and prevailed 20-18. 
    Liman guard Aleksandar Ratkov fired up a two-point shot from behind the arch in the final seconds looking to force overtime, but the attempt was off target giving victory for Novi Sad.
    Both teams were back by sizable pro-Serbian contingents. Novi Sad took home US$30,000 for the win, while Liman took home US$20,000 for second place.
Team Saskatoon point guard Michael Linklater, left, sizes up a defender.
    While Team Saskatoon was unable to make the final like it did last year when a FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters tournament was held in town for the first time, they made their home supporters proud.   
    Made up of University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s basketball team grads Michael Linklater, Michael Lieffers and Nolan Brudehl and Edmonton, Alta., product Steve Sir, the Team Saskatoon foursome showed they will be a force once again on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour.
    They are pushing to represent Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Toyko, Japan, when 3x3 basketball will make its debut in the games.
    Linklater, Lieffers and Brudehl are best remembered locally for helping the Huskies win their first and to date only U Sports national men’s basketball title in 2010.
Novi Sad’s Dusan Bulut dishes off a pass in Sunday’s final.
    Even though Team Saskatoon wasn’t able to make the title came at their hometown FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters tournament stop, the event was a huge success. A large beer gardens were added to this year’s event, and they were packed on Saturday’s opening day of competition.
    The stands for the tournament’s championship game were packed, which was big considering the local squad was eliminated in the semifinal round.
    Saskatoon is schedule to host another FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters tournament next year, and it will be an event a large number of people in town will have circled on their calendar.
    With Sunday’s tournament win, Novi Sad has won 13 titles at FIBA 3x3 World Tour events. Dejan Majstorovic led Novi Sad with eight points in the championship final, and he was the tournament’s top scorer with 35 points.
Novi Sad enjoys the spoils of a tournament championship win.
    Majstorovic’s teammate Dusan Bulut had five points in the final and was voted the event’s MVP.
Kalamazoo, Mich., U.S.A., product Doug Anderson won the dunk contest and claimed US$2,500. Lazar Rasic claimed the shootout contest and took home US$500.
  • On Sunday in Calgary, Team Saskatchewan won the gold medal game of the Football Canada Cup 31-26 against host Team Alberta. This marked the first time Saskatchewan has won the Football Canada Cup since it was established back in 1995.
  • Saskatoon products in guard Kaitlin Jockims and forward Ashley de Sousa Martins are currently attending tryouts for Canada’s under-18 women’s basketball team at York University on Toronto, Ont. Jockims played out of Saskatoon’s Centennial Collegiate and de Sousa Martins suits up for Saskatoon’s Aden Bowman Collegiate. Jockims is a standout winger for the defending Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League champion Saskatoon Stars. The tryouts run through to Saturday. The players that make the team will represent Canada at the FIBA under-18 Women’s America Championship, which runs Aug. 1-7 in Mexico City, Mexico.
  • Kaitlin Willoughby, who is an alumnae of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team, has been invited along with 19 other players to be part of the U Sports all-star team that will take part in Hockey Canada’s Summer Showcase, which runs Aug. 2-11 in Calgary, Alta. Last season in her final U Sports campaign, Willoughby led the Huskies in scoring with nine goals and 10 assists in 26 regular season games. She posted a career high a plus-10 in the plus-minus department. Willoughby is the second all-time leading scorer in the history of the Huskies women’s team with 111 points. The U Sports all-stars will play two games against Hockey Canada’s National Development women’s team and two games against Japan’s national women’s team. This marks the third straight summer Willoughby will be taking part in a camp run under Hockey Canada’s umbrella.
  • On July 16, the family of Lethbridge Hurricanes forward Ryan Vandervlis, who was badly burned in a campfire accident on June 15, was moved from intensive care to the burn unit at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, Alta. Doctors are optimistic he will make a full recovery. Hurricanes captain Jordy Bellerive and Hurricanes alum Matt Alfaro, who plays for the University of Calgary Dinos, were also hurt in the accident. They were released from hospital before the end of June.
  • Jim Pedersen, who was a long time scout with the NHL’s Dallas Stars, passed away on Saturday. The news of Pedersen’s passing was confirmed by his family on Sunday. Pedersen, who was 81-years-old, left a positive impact on Saskatchewan’s hockey scene. His funeral is set for Friday at 2 p.m. at the Milestone Memorial Centre.
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Saturday, 21 July 2018

FIBA 3x3 World Tour keeps Huskies alums in the game

Nolan Brudehl fires up a shot from downtown.
    A year ago, they received a well-deserved heroes’ welcome.
    Way back on March 21, 2010, Michael Linklater, Michael Lieffers and Nolan Brudehl helped the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s basketball team down the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds 91-81 for the U Sports national title at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. That marked the first time and to date the only time the Huskies have captured a national title in men’s basketball.
    That contest was the last time that trio played together as members of the Huskies as Linklater exhausted his U Sports eligibility. Back on that day when the Huskies were crowned national champions, no one would suspect that trio would be playing together seven to eight years down the road.
Michael Lieffers looks to dish off the ball.
    In 2012, Linklater and Lieffers began playing in three-versus-three basketball tournaments and quickly qualified for the FIBA 3x3 World Tour. Brudehl joined his former Huskies teammates on the circuit in 2015. Last year, they rounded out their four-player team adding Steve Sir, who is a star outside sharpshooter from Edmonton, Alta.
    Playing on the FIBA tour as Team Saskatoon, the players built a following from “The Bridge City,” who tracked their every move.
    A year ago, the foursome of Linklater, Lieffers, Brudehl and Sir finally got to play in front of a home crowd as downtown Saskatoon hosted a FIBA 3x3 World Tour Saskatoon Masters tournament. For the Huskies grads, it marked the first time they played together as a unit in Saskatoon since that 2009-10 U Sports national title campaign.
    When Team Saskatoon hit the court for the two-day event at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and 21st Street, the two sections of stands that were brought in from the SaskTel Centre that could seat 1,000 spectators were filled, and an overflow crowd of people circled the half court.
The local fans backed Team Saskatoon last year.
    The cheers the local team received were deafening and special all at the same time. For the trio of former Huskies, the cheers were a flashback to their days playing at the Physical Activity Complex on the grounds of the University of Saskatchewan.
    The cheers carried the feelings of a thank you for the accomplishments the players brought to the city in the past. There was a feeling that it was great to see them playing in a competitive environment again and there was a will by the fans to help push the players on to greater heights in the present and future.
Steve Sir (#3) drives the lane for Team Saskatoon.
    It seemed like the feeling of attachment and support for the players was stronger than it had ever been.
    Team Saskatoon didn’t disappoint.
    They won four straight games to qualify for the tournament’s championship final. During that run, they claimed an electric 14-13 overtime victory over Team Hamilton to close the first day of competition.
    In the final, Team Saskatoon fell to 21-14 to Team Ljubljana from Slovenia.
Michael Linklater (#4) goes for a shot from beyond the arch.
    While Team Saskatoon wasn’t able to pull out a win in the final, their local follows got to see firsthand that the four players on the squad found an outlet to continue their playing careers after university. For the trio that played for the Huskies, it is normal for players that graduate from the U Sports ranks to transition to a phase of life as a non-athlete.
    A handful of grads might play in Canada’s national team system or professionally.
    Today, Team Saskatoon gets to live that experience of being the home favourites once again. Saskatoon again hosts a FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters basketball tournament with action slated to start at 12 p.m.
    Team Saskatoon faces Team Montreal at 3:15 p.m. and Team Riga from Latvia at 5 p.m.
    The tournament concludes on Sunday with all the playoff games. The action starts at 12 p.m. and the championship final is slated for 4:15 p.m.
Team Saskatoon plans to deliver thrills for the hometown supporters.
    The field at this year’s tournament is expected to be harder than last year’s event. The players on Team Saskatoon will be hard pressed to repeat their magic from a year ago.
    With the backing of a supportive and vocal hometown crowd, the local squad might ride that wave of enthusiasm to victory in Sunday’s championship final.

    If you want to follow the exploits of Team Saskatoon now and after Saskatoon’s FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters tournament wraps up, you can follow Linklaters Instagram account at michael_linklater or his Twitter account @MrLinklater.
    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to
    If you like what you see here, you might want to donate to the cause to keep independent media like this blog going. Should you choose to help out, feel free to click on the DONATE button in the upper right corner. Thank you for stopping in.

Friday, 20 July 2018

WHL loses one of its “good guys” as Blades’ Fantillo retires

Caleb Fantillo announced he is leaving major junior hockey.
    For all those that play in the WHL, they will face the fact that their days of hitting the ice will come to an end, but when the departure is a “good guy” like Saskatoon Blades right-winger Caleb Fantillo, a bit of sadness lingers for a while.
    On Wednesday, Fantillo announced via Twitter he was retiring from junior hockey. The 20-year-old Coquitlam, B.C., product was eligible to return for an overage campaign.
    During a WHL career that was split between the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Blades, Fantillo, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 183 pounds, established a reputation of being a high energy forward. Blades fans saw that trait quickly, when Fantillo arrived in Saskatoon via a trade on Oct. 13, 2016.
    He wasn’t afraid to go anywhere on the ice, and he was feisty in battling for the puck. For opponents, Fantillo became one of those pest types because he worked hard in a feisty way.
Blades LW Caleb Fantillo, right, takes a shot from Tigers G Michael Bullion.
    Even if you delivered a physical shot or said something to Fantillo, he wouldn’t go away. 
    He always gave the best he could on any given night.
    Thanks to those efforts, Fantillo was named the Blades fan choice award winner for the 2016-17 campaign. Last season, Fantillo shared the Blades community minded award with captain Evan Fiala.
    Unfortunately, injures piled up for Fantillo over the past two seasons due to the high intensity style he played. Between his time with the Tigers and Blades in 2016-17, Fantillo appeared in 55 regular season games collecting five goals and six assists.
    He was limited to 38 regular season games this past campaign due to injuries, where he managed to put up seven goals and three assists. His goal total was a career high for one season.
Blades LW Caleb Fantillo (#39) battles for the puck in the offensive zone.
    As a 17-year-old rookie with the Tigers in 2015-16, Fantillo dressed for 63 regular season games posting six goals and six assists. He netted a goal in a standings tiebreaker game, which the Tigers dropped by a 6-4 margin to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
    Thanks to being in and out of the lineup because of the injury bug, Fantillo never really had the chance to reach his full potential on the offensive side of the game.
    During his final campaign in the midget AAA ranks with the Vancouver North East Chiefs in 2014-15, Fantillo piled up 35 goals, 26 assists and 114 penalty minutes in 38 regular season games.
Caleb Fantillo makes a cut with the puck in the offensive zone.
    He was called up to play two WHL regular season games with the Tigers that season and recorded his first assist in the major junior ranks.
    Fantillo was always an upbeat personality and a fan favourite during his time in the WHL. He was a great representative for the Blades at community events, and he was key in keeping the mood in the dressing room light and fun.
    When he returned from injury, it was easy to pull for him to do well. You hoped he would hit a gusher in offensive statistics, because he is a good guy.
    At the WHL level, it seemed like great offensive seasons just weren’t destined to happen for Fantillo due to things out of his control.
Caleb Fantillo celebrates scoring a goal for the Blades.
    It isn’t the first time something like that happened to a hockey player, and it won’t be the last time either.
    Going forward, the Blades are slated to head into training camp with four returning players set to battle for three overage spots in forwards Max Gerlach, Brad Goethals and Gage Ramsay along with defenceman Dawson Davidson.
    Fantillo will focus on his future moving away from playing in the major junior ranks. The Blades stated in a release on Thursday that Fantillo plans to get a jump start on a career in the health and fitness industry.
    Over the past two seasons, Fantillo experienced a lot of bad luck on the ice. He is due and deserves to encounter some good luck in his post-playing WHL days.

Blades make a couple of July deals

Tyler Lees has been traded to the Royals.
    The Saskatoon Blades haven’t been totally in summer holiday mode tinkering with their roster making a couple of trades in July.
    On Thursday, the Blades dealt 18-year-old winger Tyler Lees to the Victoria Royals for a conditional seventh round pick in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft. Last season, Lees, who is from Regina, Sask., appeared in 32 regular season games in his rookie WHL campaign collecting two goals and one assist.
    It was likely the Blades made this deal, because they felt Lees wouldn’t have a big role in the team’s forward group going into the future. The deal allows Lees to get a look from another WHL club.
    On July 12, the Blades acquired rugged 19-year-old left-winger Riley McKay from the Spokane Chiefs in exchange for a fourth round selection in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft and a seventh round selection in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft.
    McKay, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 215 pounds, appeared in 62 games last season collecting four goals, nine assists and a league leading 152 minutes in penalties. During his rookie campaign with the Chiefs in 2016-17, McKay appeared in 51 regular season games collecting three goals, six assists and 123 minutes in penalties.
    McKay’s addition gives the Blades a much needed boost in the toughness department. Saskatoon lost a big part of its physical edge with the graduation of captain Evan Fiala.
    There are still a lot of teams in the WHL that play a physical and heavy game. McKay’s presence will help create more open ice for the Blades high-end forwards in Kirby Dach, Eric Florchuk, Max Gerlach and Josh Paterson.
    While Dach made waves as a 16-year-old rookie last season, he was on the receiving end of a lot of physical abuse from opponents often behind the play. A lot of the extra attention Dach received was geared to get him off his game.
    Besides playing tough, McKay did put up points coming up through the minor hockey ranks in his younger years, so the Swan River, Man., product does have the potential to possibly score a little more in the WHL than he has in the past.
    Also on the Blades front, the team announced on Monday prospect forward Colton Dach, who is Kirby’s younger brother, and defenceman Charlie Wright were among 35 players named to Hockey Alberta’s shortlist roster for the 2019 Canada Winter Games, which run Feb. 15 to March 3, 2019 in Red Deer, Alta.
    The Blades selected Colton Dach in the first round and sixth overall in the WHL Bantam Draft held in May. Saskatoon picked Wright in that same Bantam Draft in the fourth round and 70th overall.
    On Monday, the Blades and Saskatoon Media Group announced a four-year contract extension that will see the Saskatoon Media Group remain the official Blades radio broadcast rights holder. The radio broadcasts will transition from 92.9 The BULL FM to 98 COOL FM.
    Les Lazaruk will enter his 25th season as the Blades play-by-play voice. When the Blades travel to Swift Current to open the 2018-19 regular season against the Broncos, Lazaruk will call his 1,800th game that night.
    In another development, Maclean Nelson recently rejoined the Blades office staff as an account executive. Nelson was with the Blades from 2011 to 2016 and held the role of manager of communication and community relations at the end of that stint. He was a pretty upbeat guy to have around the rink.
    Time will tell if Nelson will reprise his role of in-game host, where he went by the alias of “Ricky McGinty.”

Express cover story with Kalika

    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a cover story on Shantel Kalika, who is set to become the first female driver from Saskatchewan to race in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series.
    The 28-year-old Prince Albert, Sask., product is in her eight season of racing and calls Saskatoon’s Wyant Group Raceway her home track. She is set to make her NASCAR debut, when the Pinty’s Series makes its annual stop in “The Bridge City.”
    The two-day race event is set for this coming Tuesday and Wednesday. The action on Tuesday, which starts at 7 p.m., features 75-lap main event races for the local pro truck class and the sportsman class and heat races for the super late model class.
    Wednesday’s action, which starts at 6 p.m., includes two 125-lap NASCAR races as well as a feature race from the local super late model class, which is expected to run 75 laps. The annual Pinty’s Series stop is the Super Bowl event on the yearly calendar for the Wyant Group Raceway.
    The Pinty’s Series is a minor league circuit that prepares drivers to compete one day at NASCAR’s top level – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
    Kalika has experienced her share of success at the Wyant Group Raceway. She raced in the local pro truck class during her first seven seasons and won the class points championship in 2016.
    Besides winning the points title, Kalika was named the fan favourite driver in 2014 and 2015.
    Kalika’s presence in the NASCAR races is sure to give an added buzz from a local interest standpoint.
    The cover story on Kalika can be found by clicking right here.

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