Thursday, 31 December 2020

2020 – The year that was truly inconceivable

Rylan Kleiter, right, gives out a big cheer after a clutch final shot.
My 2020 started off on fire.

I never imagined 12 months ago 2020 would be a year most wish would go up in flames.

On December 31, 2019, I decided I wasn’t going to go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve, which was my annual norm. Instead, I planned to stay home because I wanted to be fresh to cover the Saskatchewan junior men’s curling championship tournament game to be played the next day at the Sutherland Curling Club.

Rylan Kleiter’s foursome, which contained lead Matthieu Taillon, second Joshua Mattern and third Trevor Johnson, was going for a fourth straight junior title in their home rink.

Kleiter is a good guy and had always been one of my favourites with the CJFL’s venerable Saskatoon Hilltops powerhouse squad, which had won the last six straight league titles. Kleiter is a receiver and kicker with the Hilltops.

Up to that point in time, I hadn’t seen him take part live in a curling game, and I that was on my list of things to do. I figured covering the game where he was going for a fourth straight provincial title was the ample to time to get that done.

Kleiter rink supporters cheer their team’s a provincial title win.
In another added bonus, I hadn’t covered a curling event since my time working as a sports reporter for the Medicine Hat News, which came to an end on June 30, 2014, so this was pretty unique for me.

On January 1, 2020, Kleiter’s squad downed another Sutherland Curling Club foursome skipped by Daymond Bernath 7-6 in a classic game. With the two sides locked in a 6-6 tie, Kleiter made a draw to the four-foot with the hammer in the 10th end to win the game.

A huge amount of jubilation followed with the large contingent of supporters Kleiter’s team had at that contest. Bernath’s side had a large following too, and his side was congratulated for a strong effort.

The few times I have covered curling I have actually seen a number of dramatic finishes be it at a Continental Cup or a Canada Cup of Curling.

I chuckled that the first curling game I’ve worked in years ended up being a classic like the fourth straight provincial junior men’s championship win was for Kleiter’s team.

I told Kleiter after the game that the new year wasn’t yet 24 hours old and I already had something for my list of cool things I saw in 2020. 

Kleiter team supporters signal a four-peat as provincial champs.
I had been creating an annual list of cool things I saw in that calendar year that I usually posted in late December of that year since I moved to Saskatoon in the summer of 2014.

After that day, I thought 2020 was going to rock as a year.

Little did I know, I don’t think anyone in the world could have seen how 2020 was going to play out.

On January 1, 2020, most could not foresee that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was going to grip the world and there would be massive restrictions and shutdowns everywhere. It is safe to say most of the world’s population would like to see 2020 disappear and never come back again.

In 100 years from now, 2020 will be a year that will be studied in the history books to analyze how the people on Earth dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. World leaders in the current day will be judged by historians in 100 years from now on the way they handled life unfolding in our current times.

For those that live in North America, it feels like 2020 can be divided into two parts.

Jared Dmytriw made the U Sports all-rookie team in 2019-20.
The first part was from January 1, 2020 to March 10, 2020. During that part, life in North America unfolded like it normally would on an annual calendar.

The second part went from March 11, 2020 and is still proceeding in the current day. March 11 marked the first day shutdowns and restrictions started to occur, and they have continued to this day in different forms.

When I look back at posts on my blog, it feels like anything that happened from January 1, 2020 to March 10, 2020 came from a different lifetime.

I look back at pictures I took on February 29, 2020 of a record 2,667 spectators packed into Merlis Belsher Place to watch the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team down the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds 3-1 in Game 2 of the Canada West Championship series, and I almost can’t believe that game happened this year.

That win allowed the Huskies to sweep the best-of-three series 2-0 to capture the Canada West title. When I look at the crowd pictures from that game, I keep thinking they are from an alternate universe.

I look at a hockey round up post I created on March 10, 2020, and there is no mention of the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” I remember that as being the last day the world was playing out as it normally does.

A crowd of 2,667 watched the Huskies win a Canada West title. 
On that day, I was looking forward to going to Medicine Hat on March 14, 2020 to take part in the festivities of a cool friend in Bob Ridley calling his 4,000th game as the play-by-play voice of the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers.

On March 11, 2020, my post noting that Huskies goaltender Taran Kozun was named the U Sports player-of-the-year and U Sports goalie of the year didn’t mention the words “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.” That posted added that Kozun was a U Sports first team all-Canadian all-star and Huskies fifth-year right-winger Levi Cable took home the U Sports most sportsmanlike player award.

It also said Huskies centre Jared Dmytriw was named to the U Sports all-rookie team.

On that day, the COVID-19 pandemic was in the back of my mind as the NBA had paused its season that night. Word started to circulate that sports cancellations were going to come in hot and heavy.

On March 12, I wrote a post that the Huskies had been upset in the U Sports national championship tournament in Halifax, N.S., falling 3-2 to the University of Western Ontario Mustangs in a quarter-final match.

The Huskies celebrate their Canada West title win.
The post said that nationals along with the U Sports women’s national elite eight national championship tournament going on in Charlottetown, P.E.I., had been called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That post added the Saskatoon Contact had fallen 5-3 to the Moose Jaw Warriors in the last meaningful hockey game at Merlis Belsher Place, which was Game 3 of an SMAAAHL semifinal series. The Warriors swept the best-of-five series 3-0, but the rest of the national midget AAA playoffs were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That marked the first time the words “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” were used in this blog. They have been contained in almost every post since that time.

Also on that day, the WHL season was officially paused, and I cancelled my hotel reservations for my trip to Medicine Hat, as the Tigers home game on March 14, 2020 wasn’t going to happen. Ridley currently sits with 3,998 games called as the play-by-play voice of the Tigers.

From March 11, 2020 to March 13, 2020, the entire sports world in North America was shut down. I still can’t believe how fast that all happened.

Members of the Contacts at Merlis on March 12, 2020.
These days Merlis Belsher Place sits as a field hospital in waiting for possible COVID-19 patients. While it hasn’t seen patients yet, it is still being used by the medical community in the battle against COVID-19.

Originally, my March 14, 2020 trip to Medicine Hat marked what was supposed to be an unusually packed social calendar for myself linked with weddings and one-of-a-kind celebrations that never happened.

I did take part in a drive by wedding celebration for Huskies men’s hockey team alumnus Garrett Thiessen and bride Danielle Empey. They actually got married at the same spot my parents got married at outside of the fact my parents were married at the original version of Mayfair United Church, and Garrett and Danielle were married at the modern version of that same facility.

I had thought about writing a “Top 10 cool things I saw in 2020” post to try and give a positive spin to what was a forgettable year for the world.

I decided against that hokey idea thinking it would be disingenuous to what happened this year.

Garrett Thiessen, right, and Danielle Empey, centre, got married.
Even just a couple of days ago, my mind wandered to think about old friends from Medicine Hat who had committed suicide during the pandemic. My mind was glued to thinking about two friends I spend a lot of social time with.

The next time I go to that centre I might have to spend two weeks there, because I know the emotions of those passings will hit me in a different way when I am there.

There have been a couple of passings in the sports community here in Saskatoon due to suicide too.

With that noted, the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic is real. Early on, I know I wrote things in posts that didn’t age well. Back then, I didn’t grasp how easily this virus can spread.

I just had a family member get over this virus and have had three or four people I know deal with testing positive for COVID-19.

I had been doing updates of statistics from Worldometer, which is really accurate, relating to deaths from COVID-19 and other factors on a periodic basis. This one will be the last one for this year.

According to Worldometer at the time this post went live 1,824,384 people have died so far this year in the world due to the coronavirus even with varying restrictions that have been imposed around the world.

Downtown Saskatoon sits empty on March 22, 2020.
Also this year, Worldometer has reported 1,684,540 people in the world so far this year have died of HIV/AIDS, 1,352,688 died by road traffic accidents, 1,074,566 died by suicide, 843,851 people have died by water related diseases, 491,083 died by seasonal flu, and 309,729 mothers have died during birth.

The skeptics of the COVID-19 pandemic always want to know the deaths from cancer it seems. Worldometer said 8,229,960 people have died of cancer this year.

I should add from various world statistical sites I have check out that the deaths this year by HIV/AIDS appear to be at a high for the past 10 years.

While vaccines are rolling out for COVID-19 around the world, there will likely still be many bumps in the road and a lengthy haul before this is over, even though it appears there is an end in sight.

I’ve only covered two live hockey games since March 12, 2020.

An oxygen producing complex next to Merlis pictured in May 2020.
The road forward in the future still has clouds over it. I can’t even guarantee what my involvement will be in the sports world, and I’ve covered sporting events going back to my start with the University of Regina student newspaper, The Carillon, back in September of 1996.

The pandemic had made me a little more jaded when it comes to dealing with people in general. I view a few more people in the general population as always being out to satisfy their selfish needs, or they basically are trying to be their best versions of Professional Football Hall of Fame diva receiver Terrell Owens.

Like life has been since March 11, 2020, you just try to adjust to whatever life throws your way the best you can. I have gotten into old pastimes I didn’t have time for before like playing Madden football or watching old animation episodes of G.I. Joe, Robotech and Transformers from the 1980s.

I have also learned a new appreciation for having quite weekends at home on Friday and Saturday nights.

Facemasks became regular clothing in 2020.
Still, whatever life brings, life brings. I try to purge as many emotional attachments as possible to try to things about things with a clear head in order to try and react in the best way possible.

I look forward to the day I can see you all in person again without restrictions.

Until that day comes, I hope you all have a Happy New Year and are able to stay healthy and safe.

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Tuesday, 29 December 2020

Canada performs as expected – Big tests next at world juniors

Kaiden Guhle in action for the Raiders last season.
Let’s see – going 3-0 while outscoring the opposition 29-3.

It is safe to say Canada got all it needed out of its first three preliminary round games of the world junior men’s hockey championship.

On Tuesday playing inside a bubble environment at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alta., Canada crushed Switzerland 10-0 in a contest that was played without fans. World juniors are being played in a bubble environment due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has gripped the world.

Canada, which already had a berth locked up in the playoff round, improved to 3-0 in the preliminary round with Tuesday’s win and is 24-0 against Switzerland all-time at world juniors.

Canada will close preliminary round play on Thursday against Finland (5 p.m. Saskatchewan time, TSN). Finland is 2-0, but the New Year’s Eve tilt with Canada will be for first place in Group A.

Finland will play 1-1-1 Slovakia on Wednesday (1 p.m. Saskatchewan time, TSN), but will still have a chance to finish first no matter how the clash with Slovakia concludes.

Canada heads into that showdown with Finland playing as well as can be expected after three preliminary round wins. Canada was a heavy favourite to win each of its first three preliminary round contests and was a vastly superior squad in two of those outings.

One of the outings where Canada was expected to win in a romp was Tuesday’s clash with Switzerland, and Canada did just that.

Canada actually only led 1-0 after 20 minutes thanks to a goal from centre Philip Tomasino just 90 seconds into the contest. Tomasino wired home a sweet setup pass from centre Quinton Byfield, who is a centre with the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves.

Canada held a 14-3 edge in shots on goal showing a lack of finish around the net and looked off on three power-play opportunities in the first frame. If anyone wanted to be over-critical, the opening 20 against Switzerland provided ample opportunities to go off.

The flood gates did indeed open from there as Canada held a 5-0 advantage after the second period and rolled off five more goals in the third to close out the 10-0 victory.

Byfield had two goals and four assists in the romp. Jakob Pelletier scored twice, and Dylan Cozens, Ryan Suzuki, Connor McMichael, Cole Perfetti and Kaiden Guhle all had singles for the event’s host country.

Devon Levi turned away all 15 shots he faced to pick up the shutout win in goal. Noah Patenaude, who plays for the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, turned away 42 shots to take the loss in goal for Switzerland.

Dylan Cozens in action with the Hurricanes in 2018-19.
Canada held a 52-15 edge in shots on goal, went 3-for-6 on the power play and 6-for-6 on the penalty kill.

Cozens, who is a star centre with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, has points in all three of Canada’s preliminary round contests posting four goals and five assists over that time.

Guhle, who is a star offensive-defenceman with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, has two goals in Canada’s three preliminary round games.

In the third period on Tuesday, Canada didn’t let the foot off the gas, which was a good thing. Canada needed to avoid playing the trap for prolonged periods of that contest to avoid getting into bad habits for when the schedule gets more difficult.

Last Saturday, Canada opened the preliminary round thumping Germany 16-2. Germany’s roster was decimated due to positive COVID-19 tests.

The last 25 minutes of that game really didn’t help Canada, because the issue was decided and Germany was just trying to get out of that game too at that point.

There were ample opportunities for all sorts of bad habits to develop.

Last Sunday, Canada was pushed hard in its second preliminary round game by Slovakia. Canada led 1-0 after the first and was still up just 1-0 after the second.

Canada ultimately won 3-1 and needed an empty-net goal inside of the contest’s final 15 seconds to seal victory. Canada held a 23-18 edge in shots on goal in that gritty outing.

While that win wasn’t a romp, the clash with Slovakia forced the players on the Canadian side to get their intensity and complete level up another notch.

Tuesday’s romp over Switzerland had to play out to the satisfaction of Canadian head coach Andre Tourigny, who is the head coach of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s.

Now business picks up. Canada has a big first place showdown for first place in Group A with Finland on Thursday.

After that contest comes the playoff round that begins with one-and-done quarter-final games.

Canada is where it needs to be at this point in time, but the host squad still has to find ways to improve and find ways to win as the schedule gets tougher going forward.

Huskies’ Lokombo picks up East-West Shrine Bowl selection

Nelson Lokomko (#25) was named to the East-West Shrine Bowl.
Nelson Lokombo is still collecting accolades even with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping his University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team off the field.

On Tuesday, the Huskies star defensive back was named to the roster for the 2021 East-West Shrine Bowl. The East-West Shrine Bowl is the oldest college football all-star game in the United States dating back to 1925, and it typically showcases graduating student-athletes from the NCAA ranks.

Canadian university players began receiving invites for the contest since 1985, and Lokombo is the seventh player from the Huskies program to pick up an East-West Shrine Bowl nod.

The upcoming East-West Shrine Bowl was set for Jan. 23, 2021 to be held at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, but it won’t be played due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the game won’t be played, it was decided roster selections for the contest would be announced throughout December of 2020 to recognize outstanding senior seasons.

Players selected for the East-West Shrine Bowl will be able to participate in various virtual training/informational drills with current NFL coaches and members of NFL operations staffs.

Some of the 2021 all-stars will also participate in various virtual experiences with Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Lokombo wasn’t able to hit the field in 2020 due to the U Sports football season being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He had a memorable campaign in his third-year of eligibility with the Huskies in 2019.

Lokombo topped the Huskies with four interceptions, and he returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns during the team’s eight-game regular season.

The Abbotsford, B.C., product posted 23.5 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and four pass breakups during the regular campaign as well.

Lokombo was named the winner of the Presidents’ Trophy as the U Sports defensive player of the year. On top of winning the Presidents’ Trophy, Lokombo was named a U Sports first team all-Canadian all-star.

Huskies head coach Scott Flory applauded Lokombo’s East-West Shrine Bowl selection.

“This selection shows how legitimate of a professional prospect Nelson (Lokombo) is, both north and south of the border,” said Flory in a release. “He has every bit of potential to be a phenomenal professional athlete.

“It’s all there for him. He is athletic, tough, durable and without a doubt one of the most talented player to ever put on a Huskie uniform.”

Lokombo still has two more seasons of U Sports eligibility to potentially use with the Huskies.

Oct/Nov. junior hockey worries gone in December, other notes

Cole Fonstad in action for the Raiders in 2018-19.
It is crazy how much of a difference a change in the month can make, especially when it comes to people losing it over the developments in junior hockey in Canada.

Back on Oct. 23, the WHL announced it had granted temporary transfers to WHL roster players to continue their development playing competitive hockey in junior A, junior B or the under-18 levels. Those loans were slated to expire on Dec. 20.

That decision was made at that time, because the WHL wasn’t planning to hit the ice until January 8, 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In various hockey circles people cried foul saying the major junior players were taking roster spots meant for others and the moves crush development in the junior A, junior B and under-18 levels. The cries came when the announcement was made and lasted through most of November.

As the number of new COVID-19 cases spiked and new restrictions were introduced in the four western Canada provinces which all hockey seasons at all levels come to a halt, those cries of foul about major junior transfers went away.

Some of those major junior players got in only five or six games before the season was halted. Cole Fonstad, who is an overage left-winger with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, played junior A in the Saskatchewan junior Hockey League with his hometown Estevan Bruins.

Fonstad, who helped the Prince Albert Raiders with a WHL title in 2019 before being traded to the Silvertips, appeared in six regular season games with the Bruins collecting five goals and five assists.

In the big picture of things, was it worth it for someone to lose their mind over the major junior transfers issue over five or six games knowing everyone would hit the point they wouldn’t be playing?

As November went a long, most people that had any common sense could see the road was heading to a point where all hockey seasons were going to be put to a halt.

On Dec. 14, WHL announced it was pushing back its planned Jan. 8, 2021 start date and did not give a date for when its upcoming regular season will start.

All other hockey leagues in Western Canada are playing the same waiting game regarding the continuation of their respective seasons.

Everything depends on how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out. The vaccines rollouts that are occurring now likely won’t cause any major changes to allowing sports to resume until potentially July or August of 2021, if everything plays out positively on that front.

Another thing that people lost their marbles over was the notion bodychecking could be banned in the OHL for the 2020-21 campaign. In early October, Lisa MacLeod, who is the minister of sport for Ontario, said the OHL should remove bodychecking if it wants to return to play for the 2020-21 season.

There were various circles that went nuts over throughout October and November. There were people acting like this was the end of the world.

Come December, major lockdowns started to occur in Ontario again. A province-wide lockdown was put in place this past Saturday.

On Dec. 23, the OHL announced it wouldn’t be able to start its upcoming regular season on Feb. 4, 2021. No new start date has been set.

Looking back now, how much energy was wasted on the freak out of a bodychecking ban?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, what may be viewed as some a major tragedy in the sports world during one month may become a non-issue when the calendar changes to the next month.

  • At the moment, the QMJHL is shut down too with play having been suspended on Dec. 1. The circuit is hoping its 12 teams in Quebec can play in four markets in late January of 2021. No timetable has been set to for the circuit’s six teams in the Maritime provinces to resume play.
  • On Monday, it was learned Kirby Dach, who is a centre for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, will be out four-to-five months after having surgery on a his fractured right wrist. Dach was the captain of Canada’s world junior team. He injured his right wrist in Canada’s 1-0 exhibition game victory over Russia played in a bubble environment on Dec. 23 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alta. Dach’s injury occurred during what seemed like a harmless bodycheck in the game’s third period.
  • The National Women’s Hockey League is slated to hold its upcoming season and playoffs in a quarantined bubble in Lake Placid, N.Y., from Jan. 23 to Feb. 5, 2021. The six-team circuit includes a Canadian expansion entry in the Toronto Six. The Isobel Cup semifinals and championship final will be shown live on the NBC Sports Network.
  • Back on Oct. 12, NWHL commissioner and founder Dani Rylan stepped down as the circuit’s commissioner. She was replaced by Tyler Tumminia as interim commissioner. Rylan is still with the circuit overseeing the operations of the Buffalo Beauts, Connecticut Whale, Metropolitan Riveters and Minnesota Whitecaps. She is searching for independent ownership of those league operated teams. Rylan got married this past August 1 to Sean Kearney.
  • Gregg Drinnan continues to track how the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the sports world in his Taking Note blog. His entry from Monday night can be found by clicking right here.
  • Chase Claypool, who is a standout receiver for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and is from Abbotsford, B.C., posted a tribute on Instagram to late University of Saskatchewan Huskies running back Samwel Uko on Sunday. Uko, who played for the Huskies in their Canada West Championship season in 2018, passed away in May due to suicide while he was in the middle of going through a mental health crisis.

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Saturday, 26 December 2020

Canada needs to avoid complacency at world juniors

Hosts open with big 16-2 win over Germany

Dylan Cozens in action for the Hurricanes in 2018-19.
Canada’s coaches are likely happy their squad’s first preliminary round game at the world junior men’s hockey championship is over.

On Saturday inside the bubble environment at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alta., Canada opened preliminary round play crushing Germany 16-2. It was the type of game that really does Canada no favours in the grand scheme of things, because they were that much of a superior side.

The game did help the Canadian players shake off rust as most haven’t played in a truly meaningful game since March due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has gripped the world. Saturday’s game was played without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For most of the players on Canada’s roster, this was just their second contest since March. Canada blanked Russia 1-0 in a spirited pre-tournament game on Wednesday.

In Saturday’s encounter against Germany, it felt like you could only shake off the rust for so long. Eventually, the blowout hit a point where one worried that the victory ceased being helpful to Canada.

Germany showed up in the Alberta capital city without four players due to positive COVID-19 tests in Lukas Reichel, Nino Kinder, Elias Lindner and netminder Tobias Ancicki.

On top of that, Germany had nine players isolating in hotel rooms on Saturday night because of positive COVID-19 upon arriving in Edmonton.

Germany played with 14 skaters in nine forwards and five defenceman for the second straight game played on two consecutive nights. Finland downed Germany 5-3 on Christmas Day, which marked the opening day of the preliminary round.

Germany was heading into Saturday’s clash with Canada at a clear disadvantage.

Kaiden Guhle in action for the Raiders last season.
The results showed on the scoreboard. Canada led 4-1 after the first period and held an 11-1 advantage after 40 minutes of play.

Dylan Cozens, a star centre with the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes, had a hat trick and three assists for Canada.

Dawson Mercer, Philip Tomasino, Alex Newhook and Peyton Krebs each scored twice for the host country. Kaiden Guhle, Ryan Suzuki, Jakob Pelletier, Thomas Harley and Connor McMichael potted singles to round out the scoring for the Canadian side.

Guhle, who is a star offensive-defenceman for the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, had the opening tally of Saturday’s contest.

John Peterka and Florian Elias replied with singles for Germany.

Devon Levi  stopped eight-of-nine shots over two periods to pick up the win in goal for Canada. Dylan Garand of the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers played the third period in relief turning away five-of-six shots sent his way.

Arno Tiefensee turned away seven-of-11 shots to take the loss in goal for Germany. He was pulled after the first period.

Jonas Gahr played the final two frames in relief turning away 21-of-33 shots fired his way.

The biggest adversity Canada faced was losing defenceman and Prince Albert, Sask., product Braden Schneider, who plays for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, in the first period after he was ejected for receiving a major penalty for a head check.

The opening part of Canada’s schedule in the preliminary round is fairly light. Canada’s second game is Sunday against Slovakia (5 p.m. Saskatchewan time, TSN). While Slovakia is 1-0, that is a contest were Canada will be a heavy favourite and should not have any difficulty in winning.

Canada’s third game of the preliminary round is Tuesday against Switzerland (5 p.m. Saskatchewan time, TSN), and that contest is another that should easily go in the win column for Canada.

Bowen Byram in action for the Giants in 2019-20.
Canada shouldn’t have any difficulty getting to 3-0, which would lock up a berth in the playoff round.

Canada’s final game of preliminary round on Thursday against Finland (5 p.m. Saskatchewan time, TSN) will be the host side’s first true test in a game that counts in the tournament standings.

Having those three easier opening games in succession could create an opportunity for Canadian players to develop bad habits.

Canadian head coach Andre Tourigny, who is the head coach of the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, and his staff will have a big challenge on their hands that way.

The saving grace might be the fact Canada did play Russia in a pre-tournament game. Canada and Russia are the favourites to win gold at a world juniors where at least half the teams are carrying watered down rosters due to players testing positive for COVID-19.

While that encounter was a pre-tournament game, both sides played like it did mean something. Of course, Canadian captain Kirby Dach, who is a centre for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and an alumnus of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, was lost for the entire world junior tournament injuring his wrist on what seemed like a harmless bodycheck in the centre ice zone in the third period.

With International Ice Hockey Federation rules declaring a team must have a player designated as a captain for each game played, Canada has elected to rotate the captain duties between Cozens and offensive-defenceman Bowen Byram, who plays for the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.

Connor McMichael, who is a centre for the OHL’s London Knights, have been named a new alternate captain for Canada.

Despite losing Dach, the pre-tournament contest with Russia gave the Canadian players an idea of where their focus and intensity level needs to be when playing the tougher teams at this event.

Braden Schneider in action for the Wheat Kings last season.
Against Slovakia and Switzerland, the Canadian players need to keep up their intensity level the whole contest, even if the score gets uncomfortably lopsided. Dumping the puck in and playing the trap for the last 30 minutes of a blowout win is the sure way to create the complacency, which could spell doom in possible future encounters against foes like Russia.

Canada has to continue to keep the foot on the gas against the weaker teams to prevent developing bad habits that could be costly against stronger opponents.

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Thursday, 24 December 2020

“The Raccoons On Ice” – a lost Canadian Christmas time classic

The Evergreen Raccoons set to battle Cyril’s Bears.
You know it is a big hockey game in the cartoon world when Ferlin Fielddigger voiced by Danny Gallivan is on the call.

Back on December 20, 1981, the Evergreen Raccoons took on Cyril’s Bears on the natural ice confines of Evergreen Lake situated in the picturesque Evergreen Forest in a contest for the ages. At stake is the fate of the lake itself.

If Cyril’s Bears win, greedy aardvark Cyril Sneer gets ownership of the lake and he plans to build the “Cyril Dome” on it. The “Cyril Dome” will be as massive concrete rink facility Sneer aims to use to make big bucks off of.

Ralph, left, and Bert playing hockey on Evergreen Lake.
He doesn’t plan to be a charity for any user groups.

If the Raccoons win, the Evergreen Lake stays in its natural state to be used freely for all who choose to skate there.

Thus was the plot for the just under 25-minute animated television special “The Raccoons On Ice,” which originally aired on CBC on December 20, 1981 and was the second of four Raccoons TV specials. 

“The Raccoons On Ice” often ran in conjunction with the first Raccoons TV special called “The Christmas Raccoons,” which originally aired on Dec. 17, 1980 on CBC.

Cedric Sneer decked out in his New York Islanders gear.
The specials ultimately led up to The Raccoons animated series that was a staple on CBC from 1985 to 1992 with its classic theme song “Run With Us” performed first by Steve Lunt and then followed by the famous version created by Lisa Lougheed.

“The Raccoons On Ice” is one of those lost Canadian classics in animation and was shown for a number of years in the 1980s when the Christmas season came around.

The episode starts out with the Bert, Ralph and Melissa Raccoon playing shinny with their friend Schaeffer, who is an Old English Sheepdog. Ralph and Melissa are married, while Bert is a friend and roommate.

The proposed “Cyril Dome” for Evergreen Lake.
Schaeffer plays goal in those sessions. Ralph and Melissa are both very good players. Bert isn’t that good, but he talks a lot about being good at the sport.

The lake is often shared by Cedric Sneer, who is Cyril’s son, and a young female aardvark figure skater named Sophia Tutu.  Cedric and Sophia meet by accident and quickly fall into adolescent love.

Cedric usually acts nervous around Sophia.

During one of the skating sessions, Cyril arrives with a construction crew expecting to go in and build his “Cyril Dome.” Cyril admits he technically doesn’t have any ownership of the lake.

Cyril Sneer, right, enjoys a Cyril’s Bears practice.
Cyril has a verbal confrontation with the Raccoons. Ultimately, he challenges the Raccoons to a hockey game for ownership of the lake. The contest will happen in one week.

Bert being all worked up emotionally accepts the game. Cyril speeds down to quickly shake hands on the agreement.

After the game is agreed to, the Raccoons find out Cyril owns a professional team that is pretty much NHL caliber.

During the week, Cyril trains his Cyril’s Bears team. They are a squad that is built in the image of the NHL’s “Broadstreet Bullies” Philadelphia Flyers clubs from the 1970s.

Sophia, left, takes her picture away from Cedric’s bedside.
After seeing Cyril’s Bears, Fielddigger remarked, “Don’t they look like a brutish bunch.”

The Raccoons convince Cedric to join their side. Cedric skates at the lake in the full uniform of the NHL’s New York Islanders, who were enjoying their run of winning four straight Stanley Cup titles when “The Raccoons On Ice” first aired.

Cedric’s jersey sports the #22 of Islanders superstar right-winger Mike Bossy. Cedric shows some really great skill in the practice sessions.

Cyril spies on the Raccoons and finds out his son is playing for them. He forbids Cedric to play for the Raccoons and grounds his son for a month and bans him from seeing Sophia.

Ferlin Fielddigger all set to call the big hockey game.
Before the Raccoons continue practising after losing Cedric from their squad, Bert proclaims, “Hey, we’re the good guys remember, so we’re supposed to win. Right?”

The Raccoons continue to practice and ever Bert starts improving. They still have doubts about their chances against Cyril’s Bears.

The night before the game, the Raccoons crew decided to sneak into the Sneer estate to try and convince Cedric to play on their side. When they are meeting Cedric in his bedroom, Cyril almost catches them there and threatens Cedric to not go anywhere near the Raccoons.

A Cyril’s Bear player, right, toys with Bert.
After Cyril leaves, Cedric tell the Raccoons he didn’t want to disobey his father and wouldn’t join them on the ice. Sophia was so disappointed she took away a picture of herself that sat by Cedric’s bedside.

Then, the scene switched to game day.

When Fielddigger was doing his pregame introductions for the television broadcast, Cyril came on the scene and proclaimed, “There better be a doctor in the house!”

After delivering his proclamation, Cyril gave out an evil laugh.

The game itself was a two-period contest. In the first period, Cyril’s Bears came out playing a brutally physical and often dirty style of game.

Cyril Sneer enjoys his team’s first period scoreboard surge.
They took a 3-0 lead by the end of the opening frame. Cyril’s Bears first goal came after they gave Schaeffer snow shower.

On their third goal, one of players from Cyril’s Bears bowled Schaeffer out of the net allowing another player from Cyril’s Bears to pop the puck into an empty cage. For some reason, no penalty was called on the play.

Also on that play, Cyril’s Bears managed to injury Bert’s right paw seemingly knocking him out of the contest.

As the first period wound down, Sophia snuck over to Cedric, and convinced him to come to the Raccoons side adding they would conceal his identity. Bert and Cedric traded jerseys.

Bert, centre, stares at his injured paw.
When Bert put on the New York Islanders #22 Mike Bossy jersey, he said, “Hey, we should do this more often.”

Cedric proceeded to go out on the ice for the second period and looked like the best player the sport of hockey had ever seen. He skated through the entire Cyril’s Bears team scoring three spectacular goals – which were made greater by Fielddigger’s calls - to tie the contest up at 3-3.

After netting the equalizer on a slick backhander, Cedric started to hotdog it and blew a kiss to Sophia. When he was blowing that kiss, he was tripped to the ice by Cyril.

Cedric Sneer, centre, turns the game around for the Raccoons.
Cyril discovered the mystery player was his son, took him off the ice and vowed to throw him in the dungeon at the family estate.

With two minutes remaining in the contest, the Raccoons side questioned if they should throw in the towel. 

Bert vowed he would return to the ice and would play injured. 

He gave a bit of a raw, raw speech that they could still win the game if they all played together.

The Raccoons side decided to give it a shot to big cheers from the crowd of forest animals watching the game.

Melissa eludes two bruising forecheckers to start a rush.
When the contest resumed, Cyril’s Bears broke into the Raccoons’ zone, but a dangerous drive by a Cyril’s Bears player was turned away by Schaeffer.

Melissa got a hold of the puck, made a smart moved past two forecheckers to begin a transition rush up ice. 

She hit Ralph with a pass jetting down the right wing, and all the skaters from Cyril’s Bears went after him.

Ralph slipped a pass over to Bert, who was open for a break in on goal as the game’s final seconds ticked down.

Bert misplayed the pass, and made a dash to the loose puck in the offensive zone. 

Bert, left, wins the race for the puck.
The netminder for Cyril’s Bears came out of the goal to create a race for the puck.

Bert managed to get to the puck first and flipped it past the charging goalie towards the open cage. 

Would the puck go into the net before time expired?

Well it is a Canadian animated show aimed for children, so the puck did indeed go into the net for a buzzer beating 4-3 victory for the Raccoons.

“I don’t believe it,” said Fielddigger on the call. “The Raccoons have won it.

“What a game. What an incredible finish.”

Bert watches his winning goal go in the net.
The Raccoons proceeded to embrace in a joyful celebration.

The next morning, Ranger Dan arrived at Evergreen Lake with his children, Julie and Tommy, and they were puzzled why there were so many crazy looking skate marks on the lake.

They were there with Schaeffer. The TV special closed with a narrator stating that Schaeffer knew how the skate marks were left on the lake.

The narrator added Schaeffer and the Raccoons side discovered that by working together as a team you can do almost anything.

The Evergreen Raccoons hockey team celebrates victory.
And that moral brought an end to great piece of classic Canadian animation.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you have to check out “The Raccoons On Ice,” and it will give you all those feel good feelings.

If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to You can check out “The Raccoons On Ice” on Youtube by clicking right here.


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Tuesday, 22 December 2020

World juniors will be rallying point for Canada

Kirby Dach in action for the Blades in 2018-19.
The world junior hockey championships will bring Canada together.

In Canada, it is an annual Christmas holiday season tradition to watch the world junior hockey championships on television and cheer for Team Canada. It can be argued the Christmas tradition really took flight when the entire province of Saskatchewan hosted the tournament from Dec. 26, 1990 to Jan. 4, 1991.

At the time, world juniors was an eight-team event played in round robin format. TSN took over as the television rights holder that season and went full steam ahead with top level coverage.

The Canadian team contained the likes of Eric Lindros, Mike Craig, Patrice Brisebois, Kent Manderville, Mike Sillinger, Pat Falloon, Scott Thornton, Kris Draper, Scott Niedermayer, Trevor Kidd and Felix Potvin.

On the final day, Canada faced the Soviet Union at the rink then known as Saskatchewan Place in Saskatoon. The winner would take the gold medal with the way the event played out.

The Soviets could capture top spot with a tie as no overtimes were played in world juniors at that point in time.

The teams were locked in a 2-2 tie in the third period when defenceman John Slaney would step up to forever be a household name in Canada. Slaney fired home the winning goal from the point with 5:13 remaining in the third period as the then capacity crowd of 11,312 spectators did their best to blow the roof off at the fairly new facility as Tina Turner’s “The Best” played over the sound system.

Slaney’s goal stood up as the winner allowing the host side to capture a storybook 3-2 gold medal victory.

From that moment, world juniors forever became must-watch television in Canada.

This year the tournament is being played in a bubble format at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alta., and it will likely be that much more of a must watch event for Canada.

With North America being in the grips of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for over nine months, world juniors are going to be shown on TSN across Canada to pretty much a captive audience.

While the games at Rogers Centre will be played without fans, most parts of Canada have moved to observe more strict type lockdown measures in order to combat COVID-19. With the majority of people in Canada glued to stay in their homes, this might be one of the most watched world juniors ever.

Canada is a big favourite to win gold led by a leadership group that all has WHL ties. Saskatoon Blades alum and centre for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks Kirby Dach is the captain.

As soon as Dach makes one or two hero type plays, even the fans of the Prince Albert Raiders, who are the Blades archrivals, will be cheering for him.

Lethbridge Hurricanes centre Dylan Cozens and Vancouver Giants offensive-defenceman Bowen Byram are the assistant captains. Both helped Canada win gold at last season’s world juniors in Ostrava in the Czech Republic.

Kaiden Guhle in action for the Raiders last season.
Speaking of “Hockey Town North,” it would not be a surprise to see Raiders defenceman Kaiden Guhle emerge to play big minutes for Canada.

It would be cool to see Guhle possibly paired with Prince Albert product and Brandon Wheat Kings rearguard Braden Schneider.

Saskatoon product and Kamloops Blazers centre Connor Zary is another player that has the potential to step in the spotlight in the clutch.

The Canadian roster is loaded including the likes of Cole Perfetti and Ryan Suzuki, who are both of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, and Peyton Krebs of the Winnipeg Ice at forward, Yorkton, Sask., product Kaedan Korczak of the Kelowna Rockets on defence and Dylan Garand of the Blazers and Taylor Gauthier of the Prince George Cougars in goal.

The pressure will be on as this is a gold medal or bust team. That always seems to be the case for Canada at this event.

Canada will benefit from the fact some of the other top squads at this year’s 10-team tournament will be weakened from players being disqualified due to testing positive for COVID-19.

Sweden arrived in the Edmonton bubble without four players including Albin Grewe, William Wallinder, Karl Henriksson and William Eklund. Eklund, who is an 18-year-old forward, is viewed as a top prospect for the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.

The United States arrived in the bubble minus five players due to positive COVID-19 tests in Robert Mastrosimone, Alex Vlasic, John Beecher, Thomas Bordeleau and goalie Drew Commesso.

Germany showed up in the Alberta capital city without four players due to positive COVID-19 tests in Lukas Reichel, Nino Kinder, Elias Lindner and netminder Tobias Ancicki.

In Edmonton, Germany had eight players test positive for COVID-19 and later one staff member, while Sweden had two staff members test positive. That resulted in the exhibition schedule shrinking from 10 games to four contests.

Canada plays its lone exhibition game on Wednesday against Russia (5 p.m., Saskatchewan time). Russia might be the hardest team Canada plays, because we all know how much Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to win at hockey.

The tournament’s preliminary round starts on Christmas Day and Canada’s first preliminary round game is Saturday against Germany (5 p.m., Saskatchewan time).

While some hardcore fans might say the field at world juniors isn’t as strong as it should be due to the pandemic and put the tournament down, it will be a feeling limited to those hardcore fans.

For the millions - and millions - of fans in Canada that will be cheering for the Canadian side watching on television, most just want to see victory, and they won’t care how it comes. A Canadian gold medal win would bring a much needed release for all those in “The True North strong and free.”

Wiesblatt outdoor rink incident shouldn’t have heated up

Ocean Wiesblatt outdoor rink arrest incident shouldn’t have gone as far as it did.

Since Saturday, video went viral on Facebook and Twitter saw Calgary police executing an uncomfortable looking violent takedown arrest of Wiesblatt that was fit for a drug dealer at an outdoor community rink in that centre on Thursday. Wiesblatt had been playing shinny hockey with some friends.

Police said more than 40 were using the area when Calgary’s Bylaw Services were called to enforce Public Health Orders to combat the COVID-19 pandemic specifically regarding the size of the outdoor gatherings. The police said they were called after Bylaw Services ran into non-compliance issues.

The police said Wiesblatt was asked multiple times to leave and was issued ticket. The police said after Wiesblatt refused to provide his name or identification the arrest was made.

Wiesblatt was charged with resisting arrest, obstruction and breaking a Public Health Order. The Public Health Order ticket is $1,200. The resisting arrest and obstruction charges are both criminal code infractions.

The 21-year-old Wiesblatt just finished up a playing career in the junior A ranks with the Portage Terriers in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. He has three younger brothers who have all played in the WHL.

His 18-year-old brother, Ozzy, is a star with the Prince Albert Raiders and is a first round NHL Entry Draft selection of the San Jose Sharks and has signed an NHL entry-level contract with the Sharks.

The four Wiesblatt brothers have been raised by their mother Kim White, who has been deaf since birth. White has been a single mom since 2014.

The Rebel News Network, which is a far right-wing political and social commentary media outlet run by Ezra Levant, went to town on that story. A staffer interviewed Ocean Wiesblatt on Saturday and posted lengthy video story on Sunday on The Rebel News Network site.

In the piece, Wiesblatt said he and his friends talked to the bylaw officers once. He said a bunch of people left and he stuck around with four other guys.

Wiesblatt said when the police arrived they were talking to some children, and he decided to see what was going and provide the presence of an older person. Wiesblatt said he started talking with the police, and it was at that point he was told he was breaking a Public Health Order.

Of course, The Rebel News Network is going to slant their piece to paint the police in an evil picture. The piece said Calgary police exaggerated and inflated the number of people that were at the outdoor rink in their original report.

On a gut judgment, I believe Wiesblatt when he said went over to check on the police talking to some children and his talks with the police there developed to the police telling him he was breaking a Public Health Order causing things to escalate.

Knowing Ozzy and knowing the background of the Wiesblatt family, my gut tells me that Ocean is not a violent criminal. I think the police could have been feeling pressure to make arrests to set the tone for the Public Health Order.

If someone isn’t used to dealing with the police feeling under pressure which is most of the general public, it leads to the potential of things escalating. Those thoughts are influenced from years of talking to court reporters during my time in the mainstream media.

In the video of the arrest, Ocean Wiesblatt asks why he is being arrested, and he never gets a straight answer in the video.

Those that took videos and posted those videos to social media likely did that, because they felt in their gut something wrong was going down. It also appeared at one moment early in the video the friends were succeeding in convincing Wiesblatt to leave.

Due to all of reaction from these videos, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw clarified on Monday that outdoor hockey is not allowed under the Public Health Orders if players are not from the same household.

Overall, I think the situation with Wiesblatt should not have gotten this far, and it is unfortunate court time and taxpayer money will tied up with this situation as it goes forward.

Blades hold distanced “Teddy Toss,” other notes

The COVID-19 did not stop the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades from holding their annual “Teddy Bear Toss.”

When times are normal, the “Teddy Bear Toss” promotion usually happens during a regular season game in December, where the spectators throw stuffed animals on to the ice after the Blades score their first goal of that contest. The stuffed animals are collected and given to charities.

On Friday night at the SaskTel Centre parking lot, the Blades held a modified “Teddy Bear Toss” for the pandemic. People were able to drive into the parking lot and throw stuffed animals into large inflatable tubs.

The Blades delivered the stuffed animals to the Salvation Army in Saskatoon on Tuesday.

It seems the last week has been full of developments in the sports world with a mix of good and bad. Here is a quick rundown.

  • On Dec. 16, Softball Saskatchewan said they will allow sanctioned activities that follow provincial guidelines including those for sports and activities. The notice was put out due to Public Health Orders changing on a continuing basis with regards to COVID-19. Athletes in Saskatchewan in any sport are allowed to train currently in groups of eight.
  • On Dec. 16, the Saskatchewan Hockey Association announced it had cancelled provincial playoffs for the 2020-21 campaign and carded team programs. I got confirmation that the cancellation does not include playoffs for the male and female under-18 AAA leagues in the province. The Saskatchewan Hockey Association is still holding out hope playoffs will still happen in those leagues, but the first concern is just resuming regular season play.
  • Last Thursday, Saskatoon Stars 17-year-old defender Kalli Hiebert committed to joining the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds women’s hockey team in Fredericton, N.B., for the 2021-22 U Sports campaign. Hiebert has two assists in the two SFU18AAAHL regular season games the Stars have played. She spent two seasons from 2017 to 2019 with the Battlefords Sharks.
  • Last Thursday, the Canada West Conference in U Sports announced the cancellation of its conference track and field and its conference swimming championships for the 2020-21 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All Canada West competitions for 2020-21 have been cancelled due to the pandemic except for curling. A decision on the conference championship for curling will be made at a later date. No meaningful games or competitions have taken place in Canada West for 2020-21. All U Sports nationals for 2020-21 have already been cancelled due to the pandemic.
  • Last Thursday, Medicine Hat Tigers 19-year-old forward Lukas Svejkovsky gamed his side to winning the inaugural Memorial eCup video game tournament. Svejkovsky and the Tigers finished the event with a perfect 8-0 record. In the best-of-three Memorial eCup final against Riley Bezeau of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, Svejkovsky swept the series 2-0 with victories of 10-0 and 4-1. The CHL made a $1,000 donation to a charity of Svejkovsky’s choice, and Kia Canada provided $1,000 gift card to the winner. Svejkovsky donated the gift card to charity too. Svejkovsky chose to support the Medicine Hat Santa Claus Fund and the Medicine Hat Women’s Shelter.
  • On Sunday, the NHL and NHLPA announced a plan has been put in place for the upcoming season. The regular season is now slated to start Jan. 13, 2021 and will be 56 games long. All seven Canadian teams will play in one division. Playoffs will be a more typical 16-team format with all series being best-of-seven. Of course, all these plans could change again due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The upcoming NHL season was originally slated to start Jan. 1, 2021.
  • On Monday, Lynn Moe was drawn as the winner of the 50/50 jackpot for the Hockey Harvest Lottery, which supports the player scholarship funds of Saskatchewan’s five WHL teams in the Moose Jaw Warriors, Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades and the Swift Current Broncos. Moe, who son Spencer is a Raiders centre, took home $185,365.
  • On Monday, the 2021 Saskatchewan Summer Games, which were to be held in Lloydminster, were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were slated to be held in July. Originally, those games were supposed to happen July 26, 2020 to Aug. 1, 2020 before being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On Monday, the WHL announced the WHL Bantam Draft will now be known as the WHL Draft, and the 2021 WHL Draft has been moved from May to a date to be determined in December of that year. With most minor hockey shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHL made the move to give teams a better chance to scout draft eligible players.
  • On Monday, the WHL announced the league’s board of governors approved the Winterhawks Sports Group as the new owners of the Portland Winterhawks effective Jan. 1, 2021. The Winterhawks Sports Group is led by Michael Kramer and Kerry Preete, who will be managing partners. The Winterhawks Sports Group has also acquired the operations of the Winterhawks Skating Center in Beaverton, Or, and all Winterhawks junior hockey programs. The Winterhawks were previously owned by William Gallacher, who is a Calgary based oil man.
  • On Tuesday, the Notre Dame Hounds female under-18 AAA team announced forward Emma Thomas has committed with the Nipissing University Lakers women’s hockey team in North Bay, Ont., for the 2021-22 U Sports Campaign. Thomas has six goals and one assist in four SFMAAAHL regular season games the Hounds were able to get in during the current campaign.

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