Sunday, 22 September 2019

Graham grabs on to last run of highlights with Hilltops

Connor Graham hauls in an 18-yard touchdown catch for the Hilltops.
    Connor Graham wants to clutch every highlight catch he can during his remaining time with the Saskatoon Hilltops.
    That was why the 22-year-old receiver was determined to hang on to a touchdown reception early in the second quarter of a CJFL regular season clash against the Calgary Colts.
    On Sunday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, Graham ran a corner route into the Calgary end zone, and saw a pass rainbow towards him from Hilltops quarterback Tyler Hermann over the outstretched hands of Colts defensive back Joseph Okunlola.
    Graham juggled the ball and finally secured it going to the ground for an 18-yard touchdown reception to give the five-time defending CJFL champion Hilltops a 31-0 lead.
    Saskatoon rolled to a 53-6 victory before 1,236 spectators and improved their Prairie Football Conference leading record to 5-0.
Connor Graham holds up the ball from his touchdown catch.
    “I would have liked to have attacked the ball probably a little bit better than I did,” said Graham. “His hands kind of came up late.
    “I got my hands on it, and then it was kind of just juggling all the way down to the ground and just trying to get a squeeze on it.”
    Graham finished the game making three catches for 73 yards to go with his touchdown. 
    With the Hilltops holding a 41-0 advantage at halftime, Graham sat for most of the second half as Saskatoon’s reserves hit the field for mop up work.
    Now that the Hilltops are past the halfway point of their regular season schedule, Graham said it is strange to think that he is playing through his final games with the team as he is in his fifth-year and final season of CJFL eligibility.
    “It is surreal,” said Graham, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 180 pounds. “I try to stop and kind of take it in.
    “It just goes by so fast. I’m just trying to enjoy it the best I can and make my plays.”
Connor Graham (#8) gets congrats for his TD catch.
    Graham said it seems like yesterday that he joined the Hilltops as a rookie. 
    He is happy a lot of his teammates from his rookie class have remained with the club through the years.
    The Hilltops roster contains 14 players who are in their fifth and final seasons of eligibility for the CJFL.
    “We have a lot of fifth-year guys this year,” said Graham. “There are a lot of guys that I’ve seen around and kind of seen grow up too through this program.
    “I’m really thankful to be a part of it. I’m glad I stayed all five years.”
    Legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant is happy Graham played out his eligibility too. Sargeant said Graham and Hermann, who is also a fifth-year player, have a good rapport on the field.
    “Connor (Graham) and Tyler (Hermann), they just have a great synergy,” said Sargeant. “They seem to find each other.
    “When the plays are called, they have a tendency to look for each other. They’ve been very successful.”
    The Hilltops were very successful on offence on Sunday piling up 301 yards rushing and 304 yards passing as a team.
Tyler Hermann threw three TD passes for the Hilltops.
    Hermann completed 17-of-25 passes for 222 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. 
    While Hermann is in his fifth year of CJFL eligibility, he is in his first year holding the starter’s role, and Graham said his long time teammate is getting comfortable in the new role.
    “It has been good, and Hermann is getting confident too,” said Graham. “That is the biggest thing.
    “We work on it every day in practice. He trusts us, and we trust him so just going out there and executing is the big thing.”
    The Hilltops hit top gear early storming out to 24-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. 
    Backup quarterback Doug Fleming ran in a major from five yards out and receiver/kicker Rylan Kleiter booted a 19-yard field goal to account for Saskatoon’s first 10 points.
    Hermann hit star defensive tackle Jesse McNabb for a four-yard touchdown toss with 47.7 seconds to play in the first quarter to push the Hilltops lead out to 17-0. 
    McNabb plays as an extra lineman in the Hilltops short yardage offensive package.
Jesse McNabb makes a four-yard TD catch for the Hilltops.
    On the final play of the opening quarter, Hilltops defensive back Evan Mantyka intercepted Colts quarterback Cole Belway and ran the ball back 58 yards for a touchdown.
    After Graham’s touchdown catch, Hermann hit backup running back Carter McLean on a 21-yard pass reception for another major score to give the Hilltops a 38-0 advantage. 
    Kleiter hit an 18-yard field goal to round out the scoring in the first half.
    The Colts had the only score in the third quarter on a one-yard touchdown run by running back Ike Okafor to cut the Hilltops lead to 41-6. The hold on the point after attempt by Calgary was botched.
    In the fourth quarter, Kleiter hit a field goal from 10 yards out, the Colts conceded a safety and Hilltops reserve running back Zach Grodecki ran in a final major from 14-yards out to finish off the 53-6 final.
    “We were physical,” said Sargeant. “The line got off the ball, and there was just some good energy early.
Ben Abrook, left, powers his way to 152 yards rushing for the Hilltops.
    “The last couple of games, we’ve been slow out of the gates. Today, I was much happier with the polish and how we looked and kept going. When the young guys got in to play, they played real well too.
    “I’m very excited with their performance. We have lots to build on and still lost to coach, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
    Power running back Ben Abrook led the Hilltops in rushing with 152 yards on 17 carries. On the season, Abrook has run the ball 140 times for 794 yards and scored four touchdowns.
    Second-year receiver Dillan Heintz topped the Hilltops with 89 receiving yards coming off four catches.
    K.J. Stembridge starting the game at quarterback for the Colts competing 1-of-3 passes for 10 yards and running the ball once for 12 yards.
Evan Mantyka (#15) returns an interception for a TD.
    Belway played most of the game in relief completing 10-of-20 passes for 106 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions.
    Tristan Hering and Jordan Seipp each had a sack for the Hilltops. Brant Morrow and Wade Keating had interceptions for the host side.
    The Hilltops defence limited the Colts, who fell to 1-4, to 89 yards rushing and 116 yards passing.
    Devon Southwell had a sack for the Colts. Okunlola, Tyrese Bristol and Mackenzie Bannatyne had interceptions for Calgary.
    The win allowed the Hilltops to improve their overall winning streak to 24 games, and they officially locked up a playoff berth.
    Saskatoon needs one more win to clinch first place in the PFC as the Regina Thunder and Edmonton Huskies sit tied for the second and third place spots in the conference standings with 3-2 records.
    The Thunder beat the Huskies 24-21 in Regina, Sask., on Sunday.
    The Hilltops hold the standings tiebreaker over both the Thunder and the Huskies.
The Hilltops celebrated a season high 53 points on Sunday.
    The Hilltops return to action this coming Sunday, when they travel to Edmonton to face the Wildcats (2-3).
    Having played for the Hilltops’ last four CJFL title winners, Graham admits he would like to depart like last year’s eight Hilltops fifth-years, who won a national championship ring for every year they were a member of the team.
    “That is always the end goal,” said Graham. “We don’t want to look too far ahead.
    “In the back of our minds, we always know what our end goal is. We are not satisfied with anything else.”

Hilltops honour Bowers family before Sunday’s game

The family of the late Kelly Bowers was honoured on Sunday.
    The Saskatoon Hilltops honoured the family of the late Kelly “Biff” Bowers before they thumped the Calgary Colts 53-6 on Sunday at SMF Field.
    Bowers passed away of a heart attack at his home on Tuesday. A moment of silence was held for Bowers before the Hilltops contest with the Colts kicked off on Sunday.
    Bowers is a member of the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame and spent over five decades coaching, officiating and volunteering in the sports scene in “The Bridge City.”
    He is a former Hilltops assistant coach working on the staff when Dave Hardy was the team’s head coach.
Tom Sargeant, centre, meets the family of the late Kelly Bowers.
    Bowers was best known for his involvement in football and with the Bedford Road Invitational Tournament, which is one of the best high school tournaments in Western Canada.
    At the time of his passing, Bowers was the president of the Kinsmen Football League.
    He had involvement with the CJFL’s Saskatoon Hilltops, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team in U Sports and the WWCFL’s Saskatoon Valkyries.
    A celebration of life was held for Bowers at a packed Hall C at Prairieland Park on Saturday.

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Saturday, 21 September 2019

Raiders rally around Bilous in shutout win over Blades

Boston Bilous makes one of his 26 saves in goal for the Raiders.
    Boston Bilous cemented his first shutout with the Prince Albert Raiders with two big exclamation points.
    On Saturday in a WHL regular season contest played before 6,221 spectators at the SaskTel Centre, Bilous’s Raiders were holding a slim 1-0 lead over the host Saskatoon Blades, and the hosts had a power play for the final 75 seconds of the third period after a tripping penalty was assessed to Raiders left-winger Justin Nachbaur.
    With just under a minute to play, Bilous robbed Blades agitator type forward Riley McKay at the right side of the Prince Albert net.
Boston Bilous (#35) is embraces by Justin Nachbaur.
  After the Raiders cleared the puck, the Blades had one last rush into the offensive zone by 17-year-old left-winger Kyle Crnkovic. Crnkovic crossed the blue-line to enter the Raiders zone wired a shot that appeared tabbed for the top right corner of the Prince Albert goal.
    Bilous made a glove save and the third period buzzer went right after the puck was secured in his mitt. That final stop was the 18-year-old’s 26th save of the contest and it preserved a 1-0 victory for the Raiders.
    “Those saves are big, but I mean our team blocks (shots) too,” said Bilous, whose team improved to 1-0-1. “That game could have been tied up if my teammates weren’t blocking shots for me.
    “I’m fortunate to make saves on breakaways and come up with a few.”
    Saturday’s game concluded a regular season opening home-and-home series between the two clubs. 
    The Blades took the first meeting claiming a 3-2 overtime victory on Friday in Prince Albert.
Blades goalie Nolan Maier stops Cole Fonstad (#24) of the Raiders
    Before Friday’s clash, the Raiders, who are the defending WHL champions, unveiled the four championship banners they won last season banners for finishing first in the East Division, first in the WHL regular season standings, winning the WHL Eastern Conference title and the WHL crown last season.
    The Blades, who are rated third in the CHL’s pre-season Top 10 rankings, spoiled the party escaping the Art Hauser Centre on Friday with a win, so Bilous was pleased his club could return the favour on Saturday in Saskatoon.
Kyle Crnkovic (#16) fires a last ditch shot on goal for the Blades.
    “It was definitely a sour taste losing with all those ceremonies and our home opener,” said Bilous, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 182 pounds. “It is how you respond.
    “It is their home opener, and we were looking to do the same to them.”
    Bilous and Blades netminder Nolan Maier stole the show on Saturday over the opening 40 minutes of the contest making 20 saves each.
    Bilous’s best stop over that period of time came in the second period when he stoned Blades right-winger Cyle McNabb from point blank range after McNabb received a smart set up pass from Colton Dach.
Cole Fonstad scored the only goal of Saturday’s game.
    In the final seconds of the second, Maier made a key right pad kick save on Nachbaur.
Early in the third period, Bilous made a blocker stop on McKay off a breakaway opportunity.
    Maier countered making key stops on Raiders centres Cole Nagy and Ilya Usau.
    With 7:58 remaining in the third, the Raiders broke through with the only goal of the contest. Import centre Aliaksei Protas got the puck to star left-winger Cole Fonstad.
    From near the left faceoff dot in the Saskatoon zone, Fonstad roofed home a shot to the top right corner of the Blades net that ultimately gave his side a 1-0 win.
    “It was great play by Alex (Protas) stopping up and messing with the D-man’s gap there,” said Fonstad. “I just try to pick up speed and get wide and he found me with a great pass.
The Raiders celebrate a goal from Cole Fonstad (#24).
    “I tried to get it off as quick as I could. It was good to step up. I’m an older guy now, and that is my job.
    “I didn’t like my first period or so. Then I thought we started clicking more as the game got on and started getting faster and picking up the pace more. We just have to keep getting better every game.”
    After Fonstad’s goal, Maier made key stops on Raiders left-winger Eric Pearce and turned away right-winger Ozzy Wiesblatt.
    Those stops set the stage for Bilous to make his two key stops inside of the final minute of the third period to cement the Raiders win.
    Maier turned away 25 shots to take the setback in goal for the Blades (1-1).
    “It could have gone either way really a 1-0 game,” said Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid. “We make a shot, and it goes in.
    “If that shot goes wide and they make a shot, it could have went the other way. Both were good games. It could have gone either way both nights.”
Raiders D Nolan Allan, left, and Blades C Colton Dach exchange words.
    While Saturday’s win marked the first time Bilous earned a shutout for the Raiders, it was the second shutout of his WHL career. Bilous’s first shutout came when he was still a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings back on Sept. 28, 2018.
    That night, Bilous made 15 saves as the Oil Kings blanked the visiting Swift Current Broncos 5-0 at Rogers Place.
    The Raiders acquired the Bilous in a deal right before the WHL trade deadline last season on Jan. 10. He backed up star netminder Ian Scott, who is now playing in the system of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
    “He (Bilous) was a big part of our team last year,” said Habscheid. “We talked about that all the time.
    “We had (defenceman Loeden) Schaufler, who didn’t play a lot. Those guys were really important keys to our team, because they always kept the guys up. They never complained.
Blades RW Riley McKay, left, is checked by Raiders D Max Martin.
    “They always were team first, and they deserve as much of part of that trophy last year as anyone.”
    Habscheid said he could see the Raiders skaters were pushing to get the shutout for Bilous on Saturday.
    “Boston (Bilous) gets his chance, and because he was such a good teammate, you can just tell in the room guys pull for him,” said Habscheid. “They want to play in front of him.
    “They want to do what they can to help him out, and when you are a goaltender, that is half the battle. He is real popular with this team. He is a real good person, and guys want to win for him.
Aliaksei Protas (#21) had the assist on the lone goal of Saturday’s game.
    “He got the shutout so kudos to him.”
    Fonstad said it was special to see Bilous get the shutout.
    “Last year, he was just such a good teammate,” said Fonstad. “He didn’t play much, but he was always a guy talking and just motivating guys.
    “He didn’t say a peep, when he wasn’t playing. We knew this year he was going to have a big year. He worked hard in the summer, and came back in great shape, confident, and it is paying off for him.
    “We are happy for him. Those are the guys you want to play for. He does all the right things, so you always want to give your extra for him.”
Scott Walford jets up ice for the Blades.
    Bilous said all his teammates contributed to helping him post a shutout.
    “Shutouts in my opinion are a result of how your team plays,” said Bilous. “Obviously, you’re going to make saves in a shutout.
    “If I don’t have my teammates, I don’t get a shutout.”
    With the regular season opening home-and-home series in the books, the Blades return to action this coming Friday when they host the Winnipeg Ice at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    The Raiders also get back at it this coming Friday when they travel to Regina to take on the Pats.
    When the Blades and Raiders meet again, Habscheid expects the action on the ice to be much different on the ice. 
The Raiders celebrate their win on Saturday night.
    The veteran bench boss both clubs are still going through bumps of transitioning their rosters from last season to this season.
    Both teams are dealing with a shuffled deck from when the Raiders topped the WHL standings with a 54-10-2-2 record and the Blades finished fourth overall in the league with a 45-15-8 mark in 2018-19.
    “It is so early,” said Habscheid. “I’m old and grey as you can see.
    “It is a long ways to go. We have a lot of turnover, but we have some veterans too. I just like the way our moxy was.
    “We are defending champions, and we expect our guys to play a certain way and to carry that mantle. That trophy is ours until somebody takes it away from us, and that has kind of been our line of thinking so far and that will continue on.”

Golden Bears sink Huskies on last minute field goal

Adam Machart (#20) had 180 yards rushing for the Huskies on Saturday.
    Kicker Jonathan Giustini came up clutch for the University of Alberta Golden Bears, and it spelled doom for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
    With 46 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Giustini nailed a 45-yard field goal to give the Golden Bears a 19-17 victory over the Huskies in a U Sports regular season game on Saturday in Edmonton.
    The Huskies built a 10-8 lead at halftime in a bit of a back-and-forth match on a one-yard touchdown run from running back Adam Machart and a 37 yard field goal from kicker David Solie.
    The Golden Bears replied with field goals from Giustini from 39 and 13 yards out. He had a single from a single from a missed field goal from 17 yards out. Kickoff specialist Brent Arthur had a single off a kickoff.
    In the third quarter, the Golden Bears jumped ahead 15-10 when quarterback Brad Launhardt hit running back Jonathan Rosery on a 43-yard touchdown pass.
    Before the third quarter came to an end, Giustini extended the host side’s edge to 16-10 with a single from a 30 yard missed field goal.
    With 8:52 remaining in the fourth quarter, Huskies quarterback Ethan Watson connected with star utility player Colton Klassen on a 15-yard touchdown pass to put the visitors up 17-16.
    That set the stage for Giustini to come through at the end.
Ethan Watson made his first U Sports start at QB on Saturday.
    Watson started in place of Mason Nyhus. Nyhus left the third quarter with an injury in the Huskies 44-9 romp over the University of Regina Rams on Sept. 13 in “the Queen City.”
    The Huskies continue to say Nyhus passed concussion protocol but are continuing to sit him out as a precaution.
    Watson, who making his first career U Sports start, completed 17-of-32 passes for 134 yards, one touchdown and one interception on Saturday. Machart ran the ball 18 times for 180 yards to go with his one touchdown.
    Launhardt completed 21-of-38 passes for 330 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Rosery carried the ball 14 times for 73 yards and caught four passes for 78 yards.
    Receiver Ben Kopczynski caught eight passes for 141 yards for the Golden Bears.
    Defensive end Nicholas Dheilly had a pair of sacks for the Huskies, while defensive back Nelson Lokombo had an interception.
    Linebacker Jassen Brown had a sack and an interception for the Golden Bears. Josiah Schakel, Shaydon Philip and Riley Szsfranski all had sacks for U of A.
    The Huskies fell to 2-2 with the setback, while the Golden Bears have won three straight to improve to 3-1.
    The Huskies return to action this coming Friday when they host the University of Calgary Dinos (4-0) at 7 p.m. at Griffiths Stadium.

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Friday, 20 September 2019

Hughes rains on Raiders party in Blades season opening OT win

The Blades celebrate an OT winner from Ryan Hughes, centre.
    PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. – Ryan Hughes spoiled the championship banner raising party for the Prince Albert Raiders.
    On Friday night before a standing room crowd of 3,108 spectators at the 2,580 Art Hauser Centre, the speedy overage right-winger scored 17 seconds into overtime to lift the Saskatoon Blades to a 3-2 victory over their archrivals in the WHL regular season opening game for both sides.
    Hughes took a drop pass from overage defenceman Scott Walford in his own zone, zipped through the centre ice zone down the left wing, and roofed a shot to the top right corner of the Raiders goal past netminder Boston Bilous.
    Before Friday’s contest, the Raiders raised four banners for finishing first in the East Division, first in the WHL regular season standings, winning the WHL Eastern Conference title and the WHL championship last season.
Ryan Hughes starts his winning goal offensive rush.
    “Walford and I talked about that play there to go underneath and drop it,” said Hughes about his goal in the three-versus-three session. “I just saw that there was a forward skating backwards, and I kind of beat him wide.
    “I took a shot and it went in. It was nice.”
    Hughes said he was checking out his options as he came up the ice before deciding the situation was right to go coast-to-coast.
    “I kind of have to evaluate the puck on three on three,” said Hughes, who picked up assists on the Blades two regulation goals. “Once I got it and I saw I was skating against a forward, I just tried to get him wide.
    “I got a step on him and just took a shot.  Usually, I wouldn’t take that shot, but I’m lucky it went in.”
    Between the regular season and playoffs, the Blades fell in all seven of their visits to P.A. in the 2018-19 campaign. Saskatoon’s last win in “Hockey Town North” was by a 2-1 decision on March 16, 2018.
    Hughes was pleased his team could get that monkey off their collective backs.
    “It is a tough place to play for sure,” said Hughes. “It was tough tonight, and it was tough all year last year.
Scott Walford had the assist on the Blades OT winner.
    “It is nice for me to get my first win in this rink with the Blades.”
    The teams played through a feeling out type first period where the Raiders held a 6-4 edge in shots on goal.
    The Raiders broke through on the scoreboard at the 4:25 mark of the second period when import centre Aliaksei Protas blew home a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle to give the host side a 1-0 lead.
    The Blades evened things up a 1-1 just over two minutes later when right-winger Tristen Robins converted a backdoor feed on the power play from overage defenceman Nolan Kneen. The assist was Kneen’s 100th career regular season point in the WHL coming in his 250th career game.
Aliaksei Protas had a goal for the Raiders on Friday.
    Shortly after Robins goal, Blades star netminder Nolan Maier robbed Raiders import centre Ilya Usau with a sprawling save. The scoring chance came after the Blades turned the puck over in their own zone.
    Blades head coach Mitch Love expected his team would experience some bumps in Friday’s opener.
    “It wasn’t pretty at times for probably both teams,” said Love, whose team is rated third in the CHL’s pre-season Top 10 rankings. “I’ve often said this weekend is a bit of an unpredictable event. You have a lot of kids playing in front of big crowds for the first time.
    “It is opening weekend and lots of family is in town. There are a lot of nerves. Obviously, (there was) the presentation here tonight for the defending champions.”
    Just past the midway point of the second, the Raiders went ahead 2-1 on a nifty play from rookie 17-year-old defenceman Landon Kosior. Kosior got the puck, pinched into the slot and sniped a shot past Maier.
    The tally was Kosior’s first career WHL goal.
Landon Kosior scored his first career WHL goal on Friday.
    The rivalry came to the forefront in a pronounced way in the third period. At the 2:37 mark of the third, Blades left-winger Randen Schmidt took on Raiders rookie defenceman Braydon Clark in a spirited fight.
    At the 7:28 mark of the third, two unexpected combatants went at it as Blades left-winger Kjell Kjemhus took on Raiders rookie defenceman Nolan Allan.
    After those two bouts, the Blades evened things up at 2-2 at the 10:11 mark of the third, when Walford fired home a floater through a screen from the point. That set the stage for Hughes’s heroics in the extra session.
    Bilous made 15 saves in goal for the Raiders. Maier turned away 18 shots in goal for the Blades.
    “It has been a long time since we found a win in this building,” said Love. “It is something our guys are pretty happy about tonight.”
    The only down part for the Blades was veteran centre Eric Florchuk left the game in the first period with an injury. Love said Florchuk will be re-evaluated when his club returns home to Saskatoon.
The Blade celebrate their OT win on Friday night.
    “I haven’t heard anything,” said Love. “He (Florchuk) seemed to be in good spirits after the game with his teammates, which is a good sign, but we will find out more in the morning.”
    The Blades and Raiders go at it again in Saskatoon on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre. That contest will be the home opener for the Blades.
    Hughes would like to see his team get after the Raiders right out of the gate.
    “Obviously, we need a faster start,” said Hughes. “I think that will be a big easier with our crowd behind us.
    “That is what we are going to look to do and see how it goes.”

Raiders captain Pachal inks NHL deal with Vegas

Brayden Pachal, left, signed an NHL contract on Friday.
    Prince Albert Raiders overage captain Brayden Pachal signed a three-year NHL entry-level contract with Vegas Golden Knights on Friday.
    Last season, Pachal appeared in 66 regular season games for the Raiders posting 15 goals, 36 assists and a plus-76 rating in the plus-minus department. In the WHL post-season, Pachal suited up in all 23 games the Raiders played recording one goal, seven assists and a plus-12 rating.
    With Pachal as the Raiders leader, Prince Albert finished first overall in the WHL last season with a 54-10-2-2 mark and captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup in the WHL playoffs to become league champions. That marked the first time the Raiders accomplished both those feats since the 1984-85 campaign.
    The Raiders won the Memorial Cup as CHL champions in 1984-85. At last year’s Memorial Cup in Halifax, N.S., the Raiders posted an 0-3 record against a tough field. Pachal had a goal and two assists in that event.
    Pachal began his WHL career in the 2015-16 campaign with the Victoria Royals, and he came to the Raiders in a trade on Jan. 9, 2017 in his second campaign.
    In 239 career regular season games split with the Royals and Raiders, Pachal had 26 goals, 72 assists and a plus-67 rating.
    He was in Prince Albert on Friday night to take part in the Raiders pre-game banner raising festivities. He will be heading to camp with the Knights AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves.
    Pachal could still be eventually assigned to the Raiders for his overage campaign.

Love, Habscheid hit frenemies territory

Blades HC Mitch Love will be the HC of Team WHL.
    Mitch Love and Marc Habscheid are going to be frenemies.
    On Friday, the WHL and Hockey Canada announced that the 35-year-old Love, who is the head coach of the Saskatoon Blades, and the 56-year-old Habscheid, who is the head coach of the Prince Albert Raiders, will be working on the same staff together guiding the WHL team that will play in the annual Canada versus Russia series.
    Love will be the head coach of the WHL squad, while Habscheid will be an assistant coach along with Regina Pats head coach Dave Struch. Struch was a former Blades star forward, assistant coach and head coach.
    The WHL squad hosts Team Russia on Nov. 13 in Saskatoon and Nov. 14 in Prince Albert.
    Last season, the Raiders eliminated their archrivals in the Blades taking a best-of-seven second round series 4-2. During that series, Love and Habscheid fired verbal barbs at each other.
    Habscheid said the Blades players like to dive, while Love countered saying the Raiders like to go head hunting.
Raiders HC Marc Habscheid will be an AC for Team WHL.
    After that series, the Raiders moved on to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions.
Love chuckles about what happened in the post-season now.
    “Of course, we had some fun with each other last year through the media in that playoff series,” said Love during a media conference on Friday morning at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon. “The one thing that people maybe don’t understand is how much respect I have for Marc (Habscheid) and obviously Dave (Struch) himself.
    “Those are guys that have done a lot of things at this level along with international hockey, and I look up to (them). I’m real excited to get a chance to work with those guys, and I’m sure a lot of people are going to wonder about that relationship on that bench.”
    Love said he is looking forward to being the head coach of the WHL side, and believe it or not, he is pumped out the chance to work with Habscheid and Struch.
    “It is an extreme honour,” said Love. “I take a lot of pride in being a western Canadian boy working in the Western Hockey League whether as a player or now as a coach.
    “To get an opportunity from (WHL commissioner) Ron (Robison) along with Hockey Canada to be the head coach of this team is real exciting. I’m looking forward to working with the players that will be involved and obviously our staff her throughout the league.”

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Thursday, 19 September 2019

Blades aim to follow up breakout campaign in right way

Captain Chase Wouters leads the Blades into a new campaign.
    It was a campaign the players and all staff member of the Saskatoon Blades didn’t want to let go of.
    After going five straight seasons without making the WHL playoffs undergoing a massive rebuild after hosting the CHL championship tournament – the Memorial Cup – in 2013, the Blades returned to the post-season in the 2018-19 campaign by blowing the door in. They finished fourth overall in the WHL regular season standings with a 45-15-8 record and earned honourable mention status in the final CHL Top 10 rankings.
    “The Bridge City Bunch” proceeded to win their first playoff series since 2011 sweeping away the Moose Jaw Warriors 4-0 in a best-of-seven set. The Warriors were no pushovers finishing seventh overall in the WHL at 40-20-6-2.
    Due to the fact the WHL playoff format makes teams mostly play through their division, the Blades faced their archrivals the Prince Albert Raiders in a best-of-seven second round series. The Raiders topped the WHL regular season standings with a 54-10-2-2 mark.
    The Blades battled hard but ultimately fell in six games. Saskatoon’s season came to an end on April 14 with a 6-3 loss to the Raiders in Game 6 of their series before a season high 10,521 spectators at the SaskTel Centre.
The Blades are backed by star netminder Nolan Maier.
    The Raiders moved on to capture the WHL championship.
    After that season ending loss to the Raiders, it wasn’t just the Blades players and coaches who were crying as they digested the end of the campaign. The Blades office staffers, support staff and management had tears in their eyes too.
    The tears showed how emotionally invested everyone was into the team. After finally seeing tangible rewards for the hard work that was invested in the five previous non-playoff campaigns, it was hard to digest that the breakout campaign had come to an end.
    Everyone in the Blades organization wanted the good times to continue.
    Going into the 2019-20 campaign, the Blades face the task of showing what happened last season is not just going to be a once in a while thing. The work begins in ensuring playoff berths become a habit along with improving on what happened last season.
    Colin Priestner has grown a lot taking over as the team’s general manager before the start of the 2016-17 campaign. 
Kyle Crnkovic became a fan favourite last season as a rookie.
    He has made many astute player moves and was tasked with handling the turnover on the team’s defence during the off-season.
    Dawson Davidson and Brandon Schuldhaus were lost to graduation. Emil Malysjev elected to play in the professional ranks in his home country of Sweden.
    Malysjev made his final decision after the NHL Entry Draft was held in June. Originally thinking Malysjev was going to be back, the Blades dealt overage defenceman Reece Harsch to the Winnipeg Ice in early May in an effort to reduce the number of 20-year-olds on the Saskatoon roster.
    Looking to reload the back end, the Blades picked up Czech products Libor Zabransky and Radek Kucerik at the CHL Import Draft held in late June. Zabransky is a 19-year-old who has WHL experience with the Kelowna Rockets before being released by that club.
    Kucerik, who will turn 18-years-old in December, is entering his rookie campaign in the WHL.
The NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks might send Kirby Dach back to the Blades.
    In August, Priestner picked up offensive defenceman Scott Walford in a major trade with the Victoria Royals. The Blades will be looking to Walford, who is in his overage season, to alleviate the backend offensive product that was lost due to Davidson’s graduation.
    The trio of Zabransky, Kucerik and Walford helps fill out what should be a sound starting defensive six that includes returnees in overager Nolan Kneen, Aidan De La Gorgendiere and Majid Kaddoura.
    The Blades will be strong on the coaching front as 35-year-old Mitch Love returns for his second season as head coach. Before joining the Blades, Love was an assistant coach and an assistant to the general manager for the Everett Silvertips.
    Love spent a total of seven seasons on the Silvertips coaching staff earning high praise from clubs in the WHL’s Western Conference.
    With the Blades, Love has shown why he had such high praise from the clubs in the Western Conference, and he is one of the circuit’s bright young coaching minds. His teams come to the rink prepared and motivated.
The Blades faithful grew during last season’s playoffs.
    The Blades are returning a solid group at forward including captain Chase Wouters, Kyle Crnkovic, Eric Florchuk and Tristen Robins. All four of those players should take steps forward in their respective offensive game.
    Speedy Ryan Hughes and feisty Riley McKay will be battling Kneen and Walford for the team’s three overage spots. WHL teams have until Oct. 10 to cut down to three overage players, but the three the Blades do hold on to will bring quality to the team.
    Last season, Hughes and McKay often played on the same line at right and left wing respectively.
Winger Colton Dach has the potential to make noise as a 16-year-old rookie.
    Of course, everyone is watching to see of the Blades will get Colton’s older brother, Kirby, assigned back to them from the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks.
    The Blackhawks picked Kirby Dach in the first round and third overall in the NHL Entry Draft held last June. Chicago promptly signed Dach to an NHL entry-level contract.
Head coach Mitch Love, centre, guided the Blades back to the playoffs.
    The 18-year-old centre is still with the Blackhawks undergoing concussion protocol after being on the receiving end of a dirty hit at a rookie tournament in Traverse City, Michigan.
    In goal, the Blades are backed by dependable 18-year-old star netminder Nolan Maier, who was snubbed in the last NHL Entry Draft. That was an unfortunate development for the Yorkton, Sask., product. Maier more than deserves a shot at the professional level.
    As far as the early going is concerned, the Blades won’t be able to sneak up on anybody. They were rated third in the CHL pre-season Top 10 rankings that were released on Wednesday, and they were the highest ranked WHL club.
    Love is already throwing caution to the wind as far as those rankings go noting the factors outside of the control of the coaches that have to go right.
    Those initial ranking could get knocked for a spin when the Blades open their regular season on Friday by traveling to Prince Albert to take on the Raiders (7 p.m., Art Hauser Centre). The Raiders faithful will do their best to act as another player on the ice for the home side.
    Those two clubs meet again on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre for the Blades home opener. 
The Blades aim to salute their fans after lots of wins this season.
    The Blades are doing their best to make that contest an event with a tailgate party starting at 4 p.m. and a 50/50 jackpot that starts at $50,000.
    There will be an appearance by Paul “Biz Nasty” Bissonette, who came to fame as a colourful character winger of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes.
    Wendel Clark, who is a legend of both the Blades and the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, will be in attendance as well.
    The Blades were able to create buzz with their post-season run last season. Time will tell if the high rating in the CHL’s pre-season Top 10 rankings was warranted.
    With all that said, Saskatoon hockey fans will see a Blades hockey club that is solid and will give a high effort on most nights.

Huskies’ Lokombo, Solie take player-of-the-week honours

Nelson Lokombo comes down with an interception for the Huskies.
    Nelson Lokombo and David Solie of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team took Canada West player-of-the-week honours.
    Lokombo and Solie were feted with player-of-the-week honours on Tuesday for their efforts helping the Huskies thump the University of Regina Rams 44-9 at Mosaic Stadium in Regina last Friday.
    Lokombo, who is a third-year defensive back, was named the Canada West defensive player of the week. 
    In the win over the Rams, Lokombo had two interceptions, a sack and a pass knockdown for the Huskies.
David Solie sets to launch a punt for the Huskies.
    He had the game’s biggest highlight returning his second interception 98 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
    Solie, who is the Huskies place kicker and punter in his second year of eligibility, was name the special teams player of the week for Canada West.
    He made both of his field goals and punted the ball seven times for an average of 39 yards.
    On his seven punts, Solie, who helped the Saskatoon Hilltops win a CJFL title last season, nailed two kicks over 50 yards and downed two punts inside the Rams 20 yard line.
    Quarterback Brad Launhardt of the University of Alberta Golden Bears was the offensive player of the week for Canada West.
    The Huskies and Golden Bears will face each other in regular season action on Saturday in Edmonton in a battle of 2-1 teams.

Topper headlines mascots halftime game

Hilltops mascot Topper will headline a mascots game.
    Saskatoon Hilltops mascot, Topper the lion, will headline a halftime mascots game.
    On Sunday, the Hilltops (4-0) host the Calgary Colts (1-3) in a CJFL regular season game on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. The contest is the Hilltops family day.
    As part of the team’s family day festivities, Topper and a team of mascots from Saskatoon will take on a team of players from the Kinsmen Football League in a halftime game. Toppers team is dubbed as Topper’s All-Star Mascots.
    Sunday’s game will mark the second time the Hilltops, who are the five time defending CJFL champions, play at home this season. The Hilltops enter that contest riding a 23-game overall winning streak.

Bowers passing hard for Saskatchewan football community

    The football community in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan was sent reeling by the sudden passing of Kelly “Biff” Bowers.
    Bowers passed away of a heart attack at his home on Tuesday at the age of 70. He is a member of the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame and spent over five decades coaching, officiating and volunteering in the sports scene in “The Bridge City.”
    He is best known for his involvement in football and with the Bedford Road Invitational Tournament, which is one of the best high school tournaments in Western Canada.
    At the time of his passing, Bowers was the president of the Kinsmen Football League.
    He had involvement with the CJFL’s Saskatoon Hilltops, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team in U Sports and the WWCFL’s Saskatoon Valkyries.
    Bower’s celebration of life has been set for Saturday at 1 p.m. at Prairieland Park in Hall C.
    It is hard to quantify the impact Bowers had on Saskatoon’s sports scene. I thought veteran Saskatoon StarPhoenix sports scribe Kevin Mitchell did the best at tackling that task, and Mitchell’s piece on Bowers can be found by clicking right here.

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