Friday, 31 May 2019

It just feels right – Tigers, Desjardins together again

Willie Desjardins pictured in the 2007 Memorial Cup game program.
    Would the Lethbridge Hurricanes ever try to get a Tim Hortons built next to the Canalta Centre in an attempt to make Willie Desjardins late for a practice or a game?
    The Hurricanes might not have put in that type of work to disrupt a rival, because the Tim Hortons pitfall is naturally present due to the lay of the land.
    A Tim Hortons sits on the east side of the Canalta Centre in the northern tip of Medicine Hat in the community of Crescent Heights. You can’t miss it when driving to the rink via that route.
    If you approach the Canalta Centre from the west via Redcliff, there is a Tim Hortons in your path. The famed donut and coffee chain has Desjardins boxed in.
    All joking aside, the Medicine Hat Tigers officially announced on Friday that Desjardins has returned to the team to become the club’s head coach and general manager once again.
    The Tigers parted ways with their former long time head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston on Thursday.
    Desjardins was the Tigers head coach from 2002 to 2010 and also held the role of general manager from 2005 to 2010. During that time, he compiled a 323-176-60 regular season record as Tigers head coach, and he guided the club to WHL titles in 2004 and 2007.
    When you saw the video of Desjardins during his introductory press conference on Friday, it felt right. It feels like Medicine Hat is the place he is meant to be in, and the Tigers are the team he is supposed to lead.
Pictures from the Tigers glory times under Willie Desjardins.
    The Tim Hortons joke actually comes from an episode during the 2005-06 season. The Tigers were in preparations leading up to a key regular season game with the Calgary Hitmen. The two clubs were battling for first place in the overall WHL standings.
    During a practice session at The Arena, Desjardins called a special team meeting for 2 p.m. the next day regarding this important game. No one knew about this meeting until Desjardins announced it.
    At the time, the Tigers usually arrived at The Arena for practice between 2:30 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. At 2:45 p.m. they would have a meeting that lasted about 15 minutes and the team hits the ice at 3 p.m.
    Anyways, the Tigers players and coaches arrive for this 2 p.m. meeting, and Desjardins is missing. Around 2:15 p.m., overage forward Tommy Maxwell calls Desjardins on his cell phone.
    Desjardins picks up right away and the two have a chat for 45 seconds. Maxwell asks Desjardins what he was up to.
    Desjardins said he was in line at the Tim Hortons located two blocks from The Arena buying a sandwich. Desjardins asked Maxwell what he was up to.
    Maxwell said he was in the Tigers dressing room with the team, and they were ready for this special 2 p.m. meeting and that everyone was waiting for him.
    A moment of silence passes. Desjardins lets loose with an explanative and said he would be right there.
    The Tigers team that season was full of great players who were characters that had character in captain Kris Russell, Derek Dorsett, Maxwell, Cam Barker, Matt Keetley, Jerrid Sauer, Kevin Undershute, Kieran Block, Daine Todd, Roman Psurny, Brett Robertson, David Schlemko, Gord Baldwin, Brennan Bosch and Tyler Ennis to name a few. For the next two weeks, you can envision them giving Desjardins the gears saying it was important to be on time in a humourous way.
Picture of another highlight from Willie Desjardins time with the Tigers.
    Anytime Desjardins would walk into a room, you could almost hear, “Hey, coach is late. That’s a fine.”
    Darren Helm of today’s age would engage in those jabs too, but he was more of a quiet type back then.
    Anyways, that episode with the Tim Hortons near The Arena seems to grow into a taller tale as the years pass. Desjardins was late for a special team meeting he called, because he made a Tim Hortons stop.
    Desjardins will dispute the amount of minutes he was actually late, but I think the union is there to agree it was at least 15 minutes. It is possible other details from that episode get exaggerated as time passes.
    Even in that small humourous spot in time, it was easy to see some of the factors that made Desjardins so successful.
    One is the fact the 62-year-old product of Climax, Sask., is able to get information across to his players. They did realize it was important to be on time for meetings or on the ice to be in spots at the right time when plays develop.
    Another thing it shows is Desjardins has humility. He recognizes he makes mistakes too, and all you can do is correct them and move forward.
    Desjardins knows when to allow the players to be themselves and when it is time to focus on work. He was comfortable enough to let players give him some light-hearted jabs and create some fun around the facility.
    He wasn’t one of those coaches that took himself so seriously that something like this wouldn’t be allowed.
    Still when it was time to focus on the task at hand, he was able to get that message across and everyone went to work.
A picture of another Tigers memory of Willie Desjardins’ era with the team.
    Above all, he always tried to ensure the rink was the best place to be. That atmosphere was one of the reasons everyone was on time for that special meeting but him. It just slipped his mind that day.
    The Tigers won a lot during Desjardins first run with the team.
    What made the journey so special during those years was the fact it was filled with so many of those fun stories. Everyone enjoyed the journey, and if they could have lived at The Arena, they would have.
    During that run, he became revered as the greatest coach the Tigers ever had. Desjardins was a great coach, but he was even a better human.
    He is a first rate person who had compassion and could help people in their toughest circumstances. Back in the 2009-10 season, the Tigers acquired power forward Cole Grbavac in a trade with the Kamloops Blazers.
    Grbavac was going through some troubles, and he needed to spend time away from the team. When he rejoined the club, he went forward at full speed.
    Grbavac never said what he was going through but said he was thankful Desjardins was present at that point in his life and he owed him so much. Grbavac would be the Tigers captain in his final season of major junior eligibility in 2011-12.
    In July of 2010, Desjardins left the Tigers to be an associate coach with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. A lot of thought went into the decision including the notion of staying with the Tigers and possibly having the longevity Brian Kilrea had in coaching the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s.
    Desjardins knew there was great value to remaining in junior and making a positive impact on players aged 16 to 20 making their way in life.
    It was these types of things that made Desjardins enduring to the community of Medicine Hat.
    It was those things that made people miss him and always created this longing that he would return.
Willie Desjardins pictured in the Medicine Hat News.
    When I was last in Medicine Hat in late March, it caught me off guard how many of my friends were out of work due to the energy sector economy being down. When you talked hockey, you could tell people there wanted him to come back and be the head coach and general manager of the Tigers.
    It was like Desjardins return would be this beacon of light and hope that better days were coming. People remembered that genuine and special type of humanity Desjardins possessed that most don’t have.
    It is easy to see on social media lines the fans in Medicine Hat received what they wanted. Desjardins is back.
    By the sounds of it, people who are just scraping by are now going to do what they can to put together money to buy tickets for Tigers games. Last season, the Tigers averaged 3,121 fans at the Canalta Centre, which seats 6,016 spectators.
    For many years, the Tigers soldout their old home rink The Arena at 4,006 spectators.
    As the Tigers enter their 50th season, Desjardins return provides hope. The dreams of brighter days and endless possibilities have returned to Medicine Hat.

Clouston had great run with Tigers facing difficult odds

Shaun Clouston is the Tigers all time leader in coaching victories.
    I still chuckle at the humours jabs sent my way from media colleagues on the WHL trail that I hired Shaun Clouston as the Medicine Hat Tigers head coach.
    The same goes for Brad McEwen, when he was hired to be the team’s general manager. Just to be clear, team owners Darrell and Brent Maser did in fact make those hires.
    In July of 2010, Willie Desjardins stepped down from holding both of those positions to become an associate coach with the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
    I thought back to those days, when Clouston parted ways with the Tigers on Thursday leaving behind the roles of head coach and general manager. McEwen left the team back in August of 2014.
    On Friday, Desjardins returned to the Tigers to be the team’s head coach and general manager once again.
    Desjardins vaulted to legendary status in Medicine Hat having guided the Tigers to WHL titles in 2004 and 2007. With the success Desjardins had back then, you always wondered when a sound opportunity would arise that he would make the jump to the NHL.
    When that day came, the Tigers were in position to fill the void. Clouston had joined the team before the start of the 2003-04 campaign as an assistant coach, and he was promoted to associate coach before the start of the 2005-06 season.
    He was set to take on the head coaching duties.
    McEwen was a Tigers head scout and had a successful track record as a WHL general manager. He was ready to fill that spot.
    After Desjardins stepped down, Clouston and McEwen took on the respective roles of head coach and general manager about three days later. I had known both for a lengthy stretch of time before they assumed those positions.
    At the time, I was the beat writer for the Medicine Hat News who covered the Tigers. Many media colleagues covering the WHL would joke saying I made those hires so I wouldn’t have to get used to someone new holding those roles that might not be media friendly.
    My media colleagues also joked that I wanted to ensure I kept covering playoff action in April. The presence of Clouston and McEwen would ensure the Tigers kept winning.
Shaun Clouston explains a point on the Tigers bench.
    Both were great guys, and I admit I wanted them to succeed. Good feelings aside, I was aware they were stepping into a tough situation following Desjardins.
    While it is a tough job to take a struggling team and make that club a winner, I believe it is even tougher to take over a winning program and keep the success coming.
    When you take over a winner, fans have a built in expectation that they want to see success now. In order to come out on even footing, Clouston and McEwen would have to guide the Tigers to a WHL championship and a Memorial Cup title.
    Anything short of that would be viewed as a disappointment.
    In following Desjardins, their position was similar to that of Steve Young when he had to succeed Joe Montana as quarterback of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, or Danny White when he had to follow Roger Staubach as quarterback of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
    The expectations for the successors in all cases were always going to be unfair to some degree.
    In August of 2012, Clouston added the duties as general manager to go with his duties as head coach. McEwen moved to the role of assistant general manager and took on duties as the club’s head scout. In August of 2014, McEwen left the Tigers to become a scout with the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
    Looking back to July of 2010, I was aware of what Clouston and McEwen could be in for. From my end, I wanted to ensure they received a fair chance.
    I wanted to make note of the noise when things didn’t go right but try not to let it affect how I graded the team’s performance.
    Of course, Clouston held the head coach role for nine seasons and was also the general manager for the last seven of those campaigns. In the NFL analogy, he mirrored what White did with the Cowboys by winning but not winning enough.
    White quarterbacked the Cowboys to three straight appearances in the NFC title game from 1980 to 1982, but the Cowboys were unable to advance to the Super Bowl negating any chance to win it.
    Clouston became the all-time leader in regular season head coaching wins with the Tigers. The 51-year-old product of Viking, Alta., put together a stellar 375-241-46 regular season coaching record.
Shaun Clouston tracks play in the defensive zone.
    Under his guidance, the Tigers advanced to the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series in 2011 and 2014, but the squad wasn’t able to earn a berth in the WHL final.
    I thought the Tigers had a great shot to potentially win the WHL title and advance to the Memorial Cup in 2010-11, which was the first campaign after Desjardins departed.
    The Tigers were plagued by injuries that season. In the 20 seasons I’ve covered the WHL, I had never seen a team deal with as many injuries as the Tigers did in 2010-11.
    I believe there were only three occasions, when they hit the ice with everyone on the roster being available to play. Some days it felt like Clouston came to the rink, asked Tigers athletic therapist Mikki Lanuk who was healthy and proceeded to make out the lines for that day.
    That campaign was one of Clouston’s best coaching performances as the Tigers managed to post the fifth best record in the WHL’s regular season at 46-18-4-4 despite all the injuries. Medicine Hat advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship series before being swept by the Kootenay Ice.
    The Tigers were in a great position to contend for the WHL title again in the 2016-17 campaign, when the club posted the second best regular season record in the league at 51-20-1.
    In the second round of the playoffs, the Tigers fell in a series-deciding Game 7 to their archrivals the Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-4 in overtime. Hurricanes captain Tyler Wong scoring the winner in extra time.
    Had the Tigers won that game, it might have given them a momentum shot to ultimately win the league title.
    As the years progressed, the vocal critics of Clouston came out of the woodworks in Medicine Hat because the Tigers didn’t win enough. With that said, there are a lot of teams in the WHL that wish they had the record the Tigers did with Clouston as head coach.
    It seemed the critics would harp heavily any time a player came up with a trade request for not getting enough ice time. Clouston handled all of those situations honestly saying exactly how they came up.
    The critics were silent when a large host of former players and current players congratulated Clouston when he became the Tigers all-time leader in regular season coaching victories. The number of players passing on congrats made the number of players looking for a trade look really small.
Shaun Clouston tracks play in the centre ice zone.
    Even when Clouston parted ways with the Tigers on Thursday, he received well wishes over social media lines from a number of former players.
    He cared about the players he coached and hoped he could help them become better people. I remember how tough it was when he traded Boston Leier in his overage year in 2013-14, which was the correct move to make at the time regarding roster composition.
    Leier was a favourite in the dressing room and amongst the team coaches and staffers, and I recall Clouston saying he didn’t feel good making that deal.
    Away from the rink, Clouston is a star father to his children. He cherishes time he could spend with them.
    If you couldn’t call him in the evenings due to his mobile phone being off, he was ensuring he set a boundary so he could focus on being dad.
    Clouston is a great hockey coach. The concept of being a unit of five in all three zones is something that is stuck in my head, because it was something he always went over with his players. A lot of his former players will recall various success factors or goals the team aimed to achieve game in and game out to pile up wins.
    He is also one of the most genuine persons I’ve come across in this world. We had some real good visits at Starbucks talking about all sorts of things in life.
    As for a bonus point, he was the head coach of the Tri-City Americans when they brought Shannon Szabados to training camp before the start of the 2002-03 campaign. I think it would be safe to say most WHL head coaches at that time would view bringing a female player to training camp as unthinkable.
    Szabados was in camp because she deserved to be there. Clouston was able to joke he was doing pretty good in goal one game due to the fact Carey Price and Szabados were his netminders.
    When the Tigers staffing changes were made during Desjardins departure in 2010, McEwen told me how coaches and managers do have expiry dates with teams even when they are successful.
    The Tigers put up a solid 35-27-4-2 record last season despite suffering some key injuries down the stretch. They fell 4-2 in a best-of-seven first round playoff series to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Shaun Clouston, middle, oversees the Tigers bench in the 2017 playoffs.
    Desjardins was a left a good hand to take the Tigers into their 50th anniversary season.
    After 16 seasons with the Tigers, Clouston hit his expiry date with the club. In this day and age in sports, to stay with one team for 16 seasons is an eternity.
    This door closed for Clouston, but you can bet others will open. He is too good of a coach and a person to stay out of the sport for long.
    If he wants to continue working in hockey, you can be sure something will materialize for him.

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Thursday, 30 May 2019

Blades welcome their future

Blades prospect Brandon Lisowsky, right, speaks with the media on Tuesday.
    The WHL Bantam Draft day provided the rare opportunity for Brandon Lisowsky to miss school for a good reason.
    Lisowsky monitored how the draft unfolded in Red Deer, Alta., on May 2 from his home in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
    He talked to Saskatoon Blades general manager Colin Priestner via Facetime the day before the draft. Priestner said the Blades would select the 15-year-old centre, if he was available when they picked.
    “I was sitting on my couch waiting,” said Lisowsky. “It probably was the biggest day of my life so far.”
    The Blades selected Lisowsky, who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 160 pounds, in the first round and ninth overall.
    He collected 61 goals and 48 assists for 109 points and a plus-48 rating in the plus-minus department in 53 regular season and tournament games with the Burnaby Winter Club Bantam Prep team last season. The Burnaby Winter Club program has a strong track record of producing players who are ready for the major junior ranks.
    On Tuesday, the Lisowsky was one of three draft selections the Blades signed to WHL standard player agreements along with forward Hayden Smith and netminder Ethan Chadwick, who is a Saskatoon product.
    “I’m super excited to be a Blade,” said Lisowsky. “I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.
    “To get drafted to the Blades, it is super exciting to sign. I can’t wait to get started in camp in August and see some new teammates. I am really excited.”
Blades prospect Hayden Smith, right, speaks to the media on Tuesday.
    Smith, who will turn 15-years-old in July, was selected by the Blades in the second round and 24th overall pick. The Chetwynd, B.C., product, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 152 pounds, collected 24 goals and 23 assists in 30 games with the Yale Hockey Academy Bantam Prep team in Abbotsford, B.C.
    “I’ve been working for this my whole life,” said Smith. “It is a great program, facilities, everything is fantastic.
    “They were one of my top picks for teams to go to. It was a very happy moment.”
    Smith describes himself as a fast skater, who works hard and likes to battle in the corners. He arrived in Saskatoon on Sunday and departed home late Tuesday night.
    After seeing the city and the facilities the Blades train out of, Smith said it added to his drive to try to make the team on a full-time basis for the 2020-21campaign, when he is first eligible to be a full-time player on the WHL circuit.
    “This is a big moment,” said Smith. “I’ve been working up to this for a while, three years.
    “Once you get to that milestone, it gives you the push to the next level. You want to make the team at 16.”
    Chadwick was selected by the Blades in the third round and 47th overall. The 15-year-old, who stands 5-foot-9 posted a 2.83 save percentage and a .920 save percentage in 22 regular season games with the Saskatoon Stallions bantam AA team.
    “I’ve always grown up watching the Blades,” said Chadwick. “I’ve always wanted to put on the jersey.
    “It has been wonderful. I’ve just always wanted to be a part of the team, and hopefully, I will go on the ice some day with all the teammates.”
Blades prospect Ethan Chadwick, right, speaks to the media on Tuesday.
    Chadwick’s family has billeted Blades players for a number of years. Some of his past adopted billet brothers from the team included centre Haydn Hopkins, netminder Troy Trombley, defencemen Nolan Reid and Jackson Caller.
    Chadwick said he always received advice from Trombley, who carried the load in goal for the Blades in 2013-14 campaign, and valued the tips of all the team’s players that lived with his family.
    “I’ve learned a lot of things from all my (billet brothers) in what it takes to get here, just the tips and tricks,” said Chadwick. “It is wonderful, because they’ve always taught me how hard it is to play here, and what kind of commitment it takes and how hard you have to work.”
    The Blades selected six forwards, five defencemen and two goaltenders in the Bantam Draft.
    Players coming into the WHL can join the league on a full-time basis in their 16-year-old seasons at the earliest. Players who are 15-year-olds have to play in the midget hockey ranks somewhere.
    The WHL Bantam Draft and the signing of the three players on Tuesday started an off-season that contained a lot of optimism for the Blades.
    Last season, the Blades finished fourth overall in the WHL with a 45-15-8 earning an honourable mention in the final CHL Top 10 rankings. They made the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-13 season and for the first time since Mike Priestner bought the team before the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
    In the playoffs, the Blades swept the Moose Jaw Warriors 4-0 in a best-of-seven first round series before falling to their archrivals and eventual WHL champions the Prince Albert Raiders in six games in the second round.
General manager Colin Priestner and the Blades had a great 2018-19 season.
    Colin Priestner, who is Mike’s son, has played a large role building the Blades roster taking on the role of general manager at the start of the 2016-17 campaign. Colin said it was nice to avoid the pitfalls of the five previous off-seasons, where the club had to deal with the fallout of missing the playoffs.
    “This is finally a great time to be a Blades fan,” said Priestner. “It is great time to be in the organization.
    “We’re seeing that in our ticket sales and our corporate sales. Everybody is kind of getting on board. What I am proud about is how we didn’t sell the future this year to get good.
    “We’re really interested in what we can do this year, and I think we have a great team and a lot of excitement. Now, we have to actually do it.

Dach at NHL Scouting Combine

Kirby Dach is at the NHL Scouting Combine.
    Saskatoon Blades star centre Kirby Dach is going through the paces of the NHL Scouting Combine.
    Dach, who is an 18-year-old centre, is one of 104 prospects attending the Scouting Combine, which began Monday and wraps up on Saturday in Buffalo, New York.
    The prospects undergo physical and medical assessments at the combine and are interviewed by interested teams.
    Blades general manager Colin Priestner said Dach went into the Scouting Combine at full health.
Dach injured one of his legs in Game 5 of the Blades second round playoffs series with the Prince Albert Raiders after coming together with Raiders star right-winger Brett Leason. Dach missed about 10 minutes of the Blades loss in Game 5 and played hurt in Saskatoon’s season ending loss in Game 6.
    The Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., product appeared in 62 regular season games with the Blades posting 25 goals and 48 assists for 73 points to go with a plus-15 rating in the plus-minus department. Dach added five goals and three assists in the Blades 10 post-season games.
    “He had an outstanding season and an unbelievable playoffs,” said Priestner. “He scored some highlight reel goals, competed two ways.
    “He is at the combine right now. He is going to impress people with how he speaks, how professional he is. You meet him in person, and he is 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds.
    “He is a guy that is just going to go up I think as the draft comes close. I am so proud of him and how far he has come.”
    Leason, who helped the Raiders win the WHL championship, is also one of the prospects taking part in the Scouting Combine.
    The NHL Entry Draft is set for June 21 to 22 in Vancouver, B.C.

Blades coaches get call from Hockey Canada

Blades HC Mitch Love, centre, is going to world juniors.
    Saskatoon Blades head coach Mitch Love and associate coach Ryan Marsh have earned assignments with Hockey Canada’s national team program.
    Earlier this month, Love was named an assistant coach for Canada’s team that will compete in the upcoming world juniors, which will be held Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, 2020 in Ostrava and Trinec in the Czech Republic.
    Dale Hunter, who is the owner, president and head coach of the OHL’s London Knights, will be the head coach of Canada’s world junior team. Andre Tourigny, who is the head coach and vice-president of hockey operations of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, will be another assistant coach with the Canada’s world junior team.
    On Monday, Marsh was named as an assistant coach for Team Canada White at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, which runs Nov. 2-9 in Medicine Hat, Alta., and Swift Current, Sask. Vancouver Giants head coach Michael Dyck will be the head coach for Team Canada White.
    Canada had three entries at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
    Last season marked the first campaign both Love and Marsh worked with the Blades. They guided the team to a fourth overall finish in the WHL regular season standings with a 45-15-8 record.
    Saskatoon advanced to the second round of the playoffs before falling in six games to the eventual WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders.
    Blades general manager Colin Priestner was pleased to see his two coaches get the call for these opportunities.
    “It is a great recruiting tool,” said Priestner. “There hundreds of kids in the Bantam Draft that we talked to, that is a pretty good selling point.
    “It is an exciting time for a young player to come into an organization with coaches that Hockey Canada at least feels are national level coaches. We are going to be short next year a little bit. We’re going to have at least two weeks when Marsh is away.
    “As soon as Marsh is back, we lose Mitch (Love) for a month.”
    When Love is away with Canada’s world junior team, Marsh will take over the head coach duties. Priestner is confident Marsh will do well in that role.
    “That is a bigger adjustment obviously when you’re head coach leaves,” said Priestner. “I’m very confident that Ryan Marsh as the associate coach is going to have a great run.
    “He has been dying for this opportunity in his own way to run a bench for a month. It is a great experience for him.”

Tigers, Clouston part ways

Shaun Clouston guiding the Tigers in his final game as HC and GM.
    Shaun Clouston’s era with the Medicine Hat Tigers has come to an end.
    On Thursday, the Tigers announced they have parted ways with their long time head coach and general manager. The 51-year-old product of Viking, Alta., joined the Tigers before the start of the 2003-04 season as an assistant coach.
    Clouston was promoted to associate coach before the start of the 2005-06 campaign.
    He became the Tigers head coach in the summer of 2010, when then head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins left to be an associate coach with the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
    Clouston has been the Tigers head coach and general manager since the start of the 2012-13 season.
    He is the Tigers all-time leader in regular season head coaching victories posting a 375-241-46 record behind the team’s bench.
    Gregg Drinnan, who is the dean when it comes to covering the WHL, has reported in his Taking Note blog that Desjardins is returning to the Tigers to be the club’s head coach and general manager once again. The Tigers have a press conference schedule for Friday morning.
    Desjardins was the interim head coach of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings this past season.
    The 62-year-old product of Climax, Sask., was with the Tigers from 2002-2010. Desjardins joined the team as head coach and took on the duties as general manager before the start of the 2005-06 campaign.
    He posted a 323-176-60 regular season record as the Tigers head coach and is the team’s second all-time leader in career victories. Desjardins guided the Tigers to WHL championship victories in 2004 and 2007, and Clouston was on both of those staffs.
    Over the nine seasons Clouston held the head coaching duties, the Tigers made the playoffs eight times and advanced to the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series in 2011 and 2014.
    Under Clouston, the Tigers appeared poised for a long playoff run after finishing second overall in the WHL’s regular season with a 51-20-1 record in 2016-17. In the second round of the playoffs, the Tigers fell in a series-deciding Game 7 to the Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-4 in overtime with Hurricanes captain Tyler Wong scoring the winner in extra time.
    On the surface, this appears to be one of those situations in sports where everyone’s lifespan with a team eventually runs out. Clouston spent 16 seasons with the Tigers, which is an eternity to spend with one sports team in this day and age.
    He was a first rate coach, and a number of his former players passed on well-wishes over Twitter.

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Monday, 27 May 2019

Raiders rise fun to witness

The Raiders raise the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions.
    The idea of a long and successful Prince Albert Raiders playoff run came to me during a visit to Swift Current just over a year ago.
    On May 13, 2018, I was on the ice surface of the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex in Swift Current interviewing members of the host Broncos about winning the team’s third WHL Championship. It was the first time the Broncos had won the league title since 1993.
    Swift Current had just blanked the Everett Silvertips 3-0 in Game 6 of the WHL Championship series to take the best-of-seven set 4-2. The Broncos built a 2-0 lead in the first period and were fairly clinical shutting down the Silvertips from that point onwards.
    The sellout crowd of 2,890 spectators rose to their feet cheering through the final three minutes of what appeared to be a decided contest. 
Dante Hannoun (#17) celebrates his famous OT winner for the WHL title.
    The certainty of the final outcome grew as the last few seconds ticked away.
    The cheers hit even bigger heights when Broncos left-winger Beck Malenstyn scored into an empty net with 6.4 seconds remaining in the third period to cement the 3-0 final.
    The Broncos erupted off their bench as the time in the third period expired. A euphoric joy filled the building that contained a special and unique good vibe you wished you could take with you in anything else you did for the rest of your life.
    While I was on the ice surrounded by fans that were trying to lift the roof off the building, I saw Broncos veterans in captain Glenn Gawdin, Tyler Steenbergen, Aleksi Heponiemi, Colby Sissons and Antyom Minulin celebrate the moment hugging teammates, Broncos coaches, Broncos staffers and family. A tonne of different pictures were taken on mobile phones to remember that moment.
Dante Hannoun will forever be a hero in Prince Albert.
    It was so good to be in that time and space that a thought crossed my mind.
    I thought, “It would be so great if this could happen next year in Prince Albert, so the Raiders and their fans can enjoy a moment like this.”
    Fast forward to this past May 13 - one year to the day from the Broncos league title celebration in Swift Current.
    The Raiders were hosting the Vancouver Giants in a series-deciding Game 7 of the WHL final. The game went into overtime with the two clubs locked in a 2-2 tie.
    With 1:35 remaining in overtime, Raiders standout overage centre Dante Hannoun took a feed from linemate Noah Gregor at the right side of the Vancouver net. Hannoun made a backdoor tap into an open cage to give the Raiders a thrilling 3-2 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 3,289 spectators at the 2,580 Art Hauser Centre.
    I couldn’t believe it. It happened.
    The Raiders were celebrating a WHL championship on home ice in front of their adoring fans.
Brett Leason had a breakout season for the Raiders.
    I saw this type of moment over a year ago, but it was on a scale that was just a little more grand than I envisioned due to the Raiders championship win coming on Hannoun’s overtime winner.
    You were digesting the suddenness of the victory that came on top of the joy that was felt in the building.
    Until the Raiders won the WHL title, the only person I told about the thought that came to my mind during the Broncos WHL championship victory celebrations in May of 2018 was Kim Jackson, who is the Raiders manager of team services and a long time friend.
    This season, the Raiders lived up to their romantic image of being the team of Mike Modano and Dave Manson - the franchise where honour still matters.
    At first, I didn’t want to write a self-serving style of piece for obvious reasons.
    I covered the Raiders as a beat writer from 2001 to 2004 with the Prince Albert Daily Herald, and I knew how special the link was between that hockey team and the community.
Ian Scott was the CHL goaltender of the year.
    As the days have gone on since Hannoun’s winner, I have reflected on how fun it was to see the Raiders rise to the point they could win the WHL title. It was too bad the Raiders, like the three WHL championship teams before them, went 0-3 at the Memorial Cup tournament and weren’t able to win the CHL title.
    The Raiders season was still a big success and developed excitement that hadn’t been seen in that area for some time.
    What took place this year wasn’t just something that happened in the 2018-19 season, but it was the culmination of the work that went on for the four or five previous seasons.
    During the 2016-17 campaign, I remembered watching the eight players that made up the core of this year’s team in Brayden Pachal, Sean Montgomery, Parker Kelly, Cole Fonstad, Spencer Moe, Zack Hayes, Max Martin and netminder Ian Scott take their lumps in a 21-44-5-2 season.
The Raiders faithful backed their team vocally.
    While the Raiders finished third last in the WHL, you could see that core group improve. You could tell they were playing with heart and really cared about the team and the community. I thought that group might do something special together in future seasons.
    When the possibility of the Raiders winning the WHL title popped in my head during the Broncos victory celebrations, the Raiders performance in the 2018 playoffs made me think the team could realistically have a run to great things.
    The Raiders put together a 32-27-9-4 regular season record in 2017-18 to be one of five clubs from an extremely tough East Division get into the WHL post-season.
Sean Montgomery takes a memorable spin with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    In the first round of the playoffs, Prince Albert faced the Moose Jaw Warriors, who finished first overall in the league with a 52-15-2-3 record.
    After four hard fought games, the Warriors held a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Raiders rallied back with two straight wins to force a series-deciding Game 7.
    In Game 7 of that series in Moose Jaw, the Raiders held leads of 2-0 and 3-2. The contest was tied 4-4 late in the third period when Brayden Burke scored the winner with 3:50 remaining in the third to give Moose Jaw a 5-4 victory.
    Had the Raiders won that game, many prognosticators would have pegged Prince Albert as a team to watch out for in 2018-19.
    In a 13-year period from 2006 to 2018, the Raiders had missed the playoffs seven times and were eliminated in the first round six times creating caution to expectations.
    It felt like Prince Albert could be in the mix to do good things playing out of the East Division along with the Saskatoon Blades and Brandon Wheat Kings. 
The Raiders players meet the fans returning home from the Memorial Cup.
    Since Brandon had experience by far the most success over the past 15 years between that trio of clubs, it seemed the Wheat Kings were a likely choice to finish first in the East Division.
    The Raiders would be able to go into the campaign under the radar. They didn’t stay there long.
    Prince Albert stormed out to a 26-1 start that included a team record 19 game winning streak. Brett Leason, a 19-year-old right-winger, broke out and hit star status leading the team in scoring with 36 goals and 53 assists for 89 points in 55 regular season games.
    Brett’s breakout was that much more special for me, because he is also the son of my long time bud Darryl Leason.
The Raiders celebrate a goal from Noah Gregor (#18).
    Gregor, who has a signed NHL entry-level contract with the San Jose Sharks, had his WHL rights acquired by the Raiders in the off-season from the Victoria Royals. When the Sharks returned Gregor to the junior ranks, he had an outstanding campaign netting 43 goals and 45 assists in 63 regular season games.
    Scott was spectacular posting a 38-8-3 record, a 1.83 goals against average, a .932 save percentage and eight shutouts in 49 regular season games. His goals against average, save percentage and shutout totals were all regular season club records, and he became the first Raiders netminder to be named the CHL goaltender of the year.
    Leason and Scott would suit up for Canada’s world junior team.
    Montgomery had a heartwarming farewell as he piled up a team record 345 career regular season games played with the Raiders. During the regular season, Montgomery posted career highs in goals (29), assists (30), points (59) and plus-minus (plus-41).
Raiders GM Curtis Hunt was all smiles on winning the WHL title.
    On top of everything, the Raiders players were a respectable and classy great group of guys.
    The Raiders topped the WHL regular season standings with a 54-10-2-2 record and were rated second in the final CHL Top 10 rankings. In the WHL playoffs, the Raiders captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champions on Hannoun’s winner that will never be forgotten.
    The hard work by general manager Curtis Hunt and head coach Marc Habscheid paid off in a big way. I was happy to see Hunt enjoy a WHL title win from a management role, because he had always done things the right way as a head coach or general manager with every team he had worked for in his career.
    He played defence for the Raiders when they won the WHL and Memorial Cup titles in 1984-85.
    It was cool to see long time veteran athletic therapist Duane “Puff” Bartley relish a WHL title win.
    The Raiders ensured they remembered those in the organization who passed away. 
A player card for the late Adam Herold.
    The list included Raiders prospect and defenceman Adam Herold, who was killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018.
    Last December, Ron Gunville, who was the Raiders director of player personnel, passed away as well. In March, former Raiders player, head coach and general manager Donn Clark passed away too after a long battle with cancer. Clark was inducted on to the Raiders Wall of Fame in his final days of life.
    Over the years, Clark became a valued friend, and we stayed in touch after I moved away from Prince Albert in 2004.
    Last summer, Habscheid’s father, Nicholas, passed away and the bench boss said his players were big in helping him through that.
    I was able to identify with that. During the 2003-04 campaign, my dad passed away. I rode the bus to cover in division games with the Raiders that season, and the team gave me great support back then, when my dad passed away.
    I believe the Raiders will be in good hands as long as Hunt and Habscheid are in their roles with the team. I am also well aware in sports that things change.
    The contracts for both are due to run out, and it is likely they will get well deserve opportunities to do other things in the game likely at the professional level.
I covered this classic Game 7 in the WHL final in 2007.
    Even for me, there were no guarantees I would cover the campaign until the end of the season depending on what life sends my way.
    It is possible I might not be around next season. If different opportunities come up in my personal life or a communications position with a sports team, sports organization or mental health organization, my life might be changed too in a different good way.
    You always hope your life doesn’t change due to a difficult situation.
    After Hannoun scored his OT winner for the Raiders, a few people have asked me what it was like to be in the building on both occasions when Game 7 of a WHL final was decided in overtime.
    Way back on May 14, 2007, I was in The Arena in Medicine Hat when Brennan Bosch scored the winner in double overtime to lift the host Tigers past the Giants 3-2 in Game 7 of that year’s WHL Championship series before a sellout crowd of 4,006 spectators.
    I was a beat writer covering the Tigers for the Medicine Hat News that game.
The Raiders enjoy their WHL championship win.
    Reflecting on seeing both Bosch and Hannoun score their winners in person, I am thankful the factors I can’t control in life allowed me to be there in those moments. I am one of the few individuals that saw both of those goals live.
    I don’t think I could ever find the words to adequately describe what it was like to be in the building for both of those goals. It is something I can look upon on, when I am having a bad day.
    I am happy life worked out to the point I could cover this special season the Raiders had. I gained a lot of sweet memories to add to the ones I have already collected in life.
    As I work to make the best out of life on a day to day basis, perhaps fate and the forces I can’t control will allow me to continue to experience special moments like these.

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Sunday, 26 May 2019

Montgomery soaked in farewell lap with WHL champion Raiders

Sean Montgomery skates with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – For Sean Montgomery, his first days and season with the Prince Albert Raiders seem like they are from another lifetime.
    “I think most of all I was just kind of just shocked to be playing here,” said Montgomery. “I was just happy to be here.”
    Way back in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, the Raiders selected Montgomery in the sixth round and 114th overall. The Calgary, Alta., product was going to have his chance to crack into the WHL, but there were no guarantees he would have a career in the major junior ranks.
    Montgomery made the Raiders in his 16-year-old season in 2014-15 collecting six goals and six assists for 12 points while posting a minus-four rating in the plus-minus department in 65 regular season games.
    The hard working centre would ultimately play a career record 345 regular season games for the Raiders netting 72 goals and 72 assists for 144 points and a plus-three rating.
    He skated in 35 career games in the WHL post-season posting 12 goals, nine assists and a plus-11 rating.
    Montgomery played in his final three games at this year’s Memorial Cup tournament in Halifax, N.S., for the Raiders picking up one goal in those outings.
    He had by far his most productive campaign as an overager this past season. In 67 regular season games, Montgomery posted 29 goals, 30 assists and a plus-41 rating.
Sean Montgomery leads the Raiders in career regular season games played.
    Over his five seasons with the Raiders, Montgomery became a solid two-way player. Looking back, Montgomery said he can’t remember too much about his first campaign, but he enjoyed being the elder statesman as a career member of the team in his final season.
    “It has been pretty cool,” said Montgomery. “I never thought I would get to that point, but I am here now.
    “I am just honoured to have that record.”
    With Montgomery having a big year, the Raiders had one of their best seasons ever since joining the WHL in the 1982-83 campaign.
    The Raiders topped the WHL’s regular season standings with a 54-10-2-2 record. The only time the club posted more regular season wins in the WHL came the only other time the squad finished first overall in the 1984-85 campaign, when the Raiders recorded a record of 58 wins, 11 losses and three ties.
    Prince Albert went on to win the WHL title and the Memorial Cup that season.
Sean Montgomery record 59 points in the regular season in 2018-19.
    During the 2018-19 campaign, the Raiders topped the CHL’s Top 10 rankings for a number of weeks and were rated second in the final installment of those rankings.
    In the playoffs, the Raiders advanced on to win the WHL title for the second time in team history.
    Prince Albert captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champions in dramatic fashion on May 13.
    Overage centre Dante Hannoun scored the overtime winner in Game 7 of the league final in a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Giants before a sellout crowd of 3,289 spectators at the 2,580 seat Art Hauser Centre.
    During the club’s journey to reach the WHL’s peak, Raiders captain Brayden Pachal said Montgomery’s importance to the Raiders can’t be understated.
    “He (Montgomery) is a huge leader on our team,” said Pachal. “He has tonnes of games in this league.
    “He has the experience. He comes to play every single night. He battles, and that is the definition of a playoff guy.”
    Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid said Montgomery has earned tonnes of respect for years of work he put in with the team and deserved to graduate from the major junior ranks as a league champion.
Sean Montgomery (#25) battles for a draw for the Raiders.
    “Look at Sean Montgomery and what he went through with the losing and the taunting,” said Habscheid. “If he would have lost (the WHL final), it wouldn’t have been right.
    “I’m really happy for him.”
    The Raiders missed the playoffs in Montgomery’s first and third seasons with the team, and he said persevering through those times helped his special final season materialize.
    “Whenever we did have 15 or 20 wins, it looked like a long shot, but those kind of helped us in the long run,” said Montgomery. “We just kept building off it, and now we are here.”
    Remembering those struggles, Montgomery said he soaked in and enjoyed every moment of his magical final season with the team.
    “It was a blast the whole time,” said Montgomery. “It was incredible.”
    After the Raiders bowed out of the Memorial Cup falling 5-2 to the OHL champion Guelph Storm in their final round robin game last Tuesday, Montgomery enjoyed the reception the team received from the fans upon returning to Prince Albert.
Sean Montgomery celebrates a hat trick goal against the Blades.
    Montgomery had fun seeing everyone that met the team bus at the Art Hauser Centre last Wednesday and taking part in a final rally for the team last Thursday at the club’s home rink.
    “It is pretty special,” said Montgomery. “We’ve come a long way, and we’re pretty proud of everyone.
    “We’ve had some tough years. To end it off on the most incredible year of my life, I can’t put it into words.”
    Now that his Raiders playing days have come to a completion, Montgomery said he wasn’t sure what waits ahead for him in the future as far as hockey goes. He planned to spend some down time in “Hockey Town North” before returning to Calgary.
    “I’m just going to enjoy the next few days, and then I am going to start to focus on what I am going to do next year,” said Montgomery. “I haven’t decided yet.”

Kelly sets sights on future with NHL’s Senators

Parker Kelly will likely find a home in the professional ranks next season.
    With the Prince Albert Raiders WHL championship winning season having come to a close, it has crossed Parker Kelly’s mind that he might have played his final game with the team.
    The 20-year-old power forward is eligible to return to the WHL for an overage season. With that noted, Kelly signed an NHL entry-level contract with the Ottawa Senators back in September of 2017.
    The Camrose, Alta., product earned the contract as a free agent after having a good showing at the Senators development camp held in July of that year.
    It is highly likely Kelly will play in Ottawa’s system next season either with the NHL club, their AHL affiliate the Belleville Senators or their ECHL affiliate the Brampton Beast.
    Kelly will have to get used to a new head coach in Ottawa. On Thursday, the NHL Senators hired D.J. Smith to be the team’s new head coach. Smith has been an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
    “Obviously, that is the next chapter in my career,” said Kelly. “Hopefully, I can make it to part of their organization whether that is in Ottawa next year or in Belleville.
    “That is going to be the next chapter, and I am really looking forward to it. They just hired a new coach today. I’ll be looking forward to meeting him and getting back and seeing all my friends down there and hopefully kicking off a great career with the Senators organization.”
    Kelly has played four complete seasons with the Raiders appearing in 273 regular season games posting 93 goals and 95 assists for 188 points and a plus-50 rating in the plus-minus department.
    This past regular season, Kelly appeared in 64 games with the Raiders picking up career highs in goals (35), assists (32) and points (69) to go with a plus-42 rating. In the WHL playoffs, Kelly had eight goals and nine assists for 17 points to go with a plus-19 rating in 23 games.

Leason notes mom is the boss of the family household

Brett Leason said his mom, Rhonda, makes the family household run.
    Brett Leason might be a star right-winger for the Prince Albert Raiders, but he is quick to note his mom, Rhonda Leason, is the boss at home.
    Brett had a breakout season with the Raiders leading the team in regular season scoring in the 2018-19 campaign with 36 goals and 53 assists for 89 points to go with a plus-55 rating in the plus-minus department. He topped the Raiders in scoring in the WHL playoffs with 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points to go with a plus-six rating in 22 games.
    Father, Darryl Leason, was a star quarterback with the Regina Rams from 1992 to 1995 when the team was in the Canadian Junior Football League and with the University of Regina Rams in 2000 and 2001 when the squad joined the U Sports ranks. In between those stints with the Rams, Darryl was a star with the University of Calgary Dinos.
    While Brett and Darryl have fame from athletic pursuits, Brett said Rhonda is the one who is always right at home and makes sure everything runs well in the household.
    “I think she rules it pretty good,” said Brett.
    Both Brett and Darryl know that life is happy when Rhonda is happy. Brett, who turned 20 in late April, is expected to be an early selection in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.

Habscheid said Simpson still “the man” with Raiders

Marc Habscheid gave props to Raiders coaching legend Terry Simpson.
    Marc Habscheid would never put himself ahead of the legendary former Prince Albert Raiders head coach and general manager, who has a street beside the club’s home rink named after him.
    Terry Simpson, who achieved legendary status as the Raiders head coach and general manager, said in an online CBC story on May 10 that the current team, “is probably a lot better coached than the team in 1985.”
    When the Raiders played in the junior A ranks, Simpson guided the club to Centennial Cup victories as national champions in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982. After the Raiders moved up to the major junior ranks and joined the WHL for the start of the 1982-83 season, Simpson guided the Raiders to WHL and Memorial Cup titles in the 1984-85 campaign.
    Simpson has a vast coaching resume that includes being a head coach in the NHL with the New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Winnipeg Jets. One of the streets that runs beside the Art Hauser Centre is name Terry Simpson Lane.
    Habscheid has his own lengthy and impressive resume, but doesn’t put himself on Simpson’s level.
    “I don’t think so,” said Habscheid. “He (Simpson) has had a way better coaching career than me.”
    With that noted, Habscheid was proud his Raiders could win the club’s second WHL title this past season.
    “I’m just so happy for these kids,” said Habscheid. “I really am.
    “They are proud Raiders. They hung in there and faced a lot of adversity. Nobody picked us to do this at the beginning of the year.
    “We have four guys that have NHL allegiance, and they just kept believing. We have great players. A lot of these guys are going to get opportunities because of this and deservedly so.”

Huskies rally to win first Memorial Cup title 4-2

    The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies weren’t going to be denied.
    On Sunday at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax, N.S., the QMJHL champion Huskies fell behind the host Halifax Mooseheads 2-0 before rallying for a 4-2 victory in the title game at the Memorial Cup tournament played before a sellout crowd of 10,595 spectators. The win gave the Huskies their first CHL championship in team history.
    The Huskies topped the QMJHL regular season standings with a 59-8-0-1 record and were rated first in the final CHL Top 10 rankings. They won the best-of-seven QMJHL final 4-2 taking out the Mooseheads.
    The Mooseheads finished first in the QMJHL’s Eastern Conference in the regular season with a 49-15-2-2 mark and were rated eighth in the final CHL Top 10 rankings.
    In Sunday’s clash in the Memorial Cup championship game, Samuel Asselin scored with 44 seconds remaining in the opening frame to give the Mooseheads a 1-0 lead. At the 5:26 mark of the second, Raphael Lavoie tallied to increase the Mooseheads edge to 2-0.
    From that point, the Huskies took over. Before the second period ended, Felix Bibeau and Joel Teasdale each netted singles for the Huskies to even the score at 2-2.
    At the 3:02 mark of the third, overage centre Peter Abbandonato scored the winning goal for the Huskies to put Rouyn-Noranda up 3-2. Just 2:01 later, the Huskies received an insurance goal from Vincent Marleau to round out the 4-2 final.
    Samuel Harvey made 23 stops to pick up the win in goal for the Huskies, who posted a 4-1 record at the tournament. Alexis Gravel turned away 31 shots to take the setback in goal for the Mooseheads, who finished the tournament with a 2-2 mark.
    Teasdale was named the MVP of the Memorial Cup recording four goals, one assist and a plus-four rating in the plus-minus department in the Huskies five games.
    Huskies head coach Mario Pouliot became the first head coach to win back-to-back Memorial Cup titles with two different teams having guided the Acadie-Bathurst Titan to the CHL title last season.
    Huskies star offensive defenceman Noah Dobson was a member of the Acadie-Bathurst squad that won the Memorial Cup a year ago.
    Huskies import left-winger Jakub Lauko led the tournament in scoring with two goals and six assists for eight points to go along with a plus-three rating.
    Between action in the regular season, QMJHL playoffs and the Memorial Cup tournament, the Huskies won eight of 10 head-to-head meetings with the Mooseheads.
    The tournament’s title game has been plagued off the ice by people trying to make a quick buck. Gregg Drinnan, who is the dean when it comes to covering the WHL, reported from a source on his Taking Note blog that a pair of tickets for today’s championship game was offered for sale at $1,500.
    On Thursday, CBC ran a story online stating it has found tickets for the title game of the Memorial Cup tournament being sold on resale sites for $1,000 each.
    Individual tickets for the Memorial Cup’s title game were running from $50 to $75 each at face value.
    Over the last 11 Memorial Cup tournaments, teams from the QMJHL and the OHL have won five titles each, while the WHL has claimed one championship.
    The next Memorial Cup will be hosted by the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets running from May 22 to 31, 2020 in Kelowna, B.C.

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