Saturday, 31 December 2016

Top 10 memories of 2016

Rush captain Chris Corbeil raises the Champion’s Cup.
    Wow! I am amazed at how much happened this year.
    This year seemed to be incredibly busy, but it was a good busy. Through using this blog and freelance opportunities, I traveled all across the three Prairie provinces piling up memories in 2016.
    During the busy times in my final three years in the mainstream media, I wasn’t able to enjoy everything I was involved with because the busy schedule was an overload one. Now that I am flying solo, I feel like I was able to set my busy schedule to a point where I could soak in and enjoy the experiences I was going through.
    While 2016 will be remembered for the fact that way too many celebrities passed away, I will still look back on the past 12 months with fondness, because I believe I had a good year.
    When the end of June rolled around, I could have made a top 10 list at that point of highlights for the first six months. I could have had another for the last six months.
    Overall, I think made a solid selection for top 10 memories, but I still couldn’t believe what I left out. Memories that didn’t make the cut included attending a Garth Brooks concert in June in Saskatoon, which is a bucket list item.
    Also not making the cut was watching the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team win a Canada West title at home and being pumped they moved on to capture their first national championship. The Canada West title victory came against the U of Regina Cougars.
    Attending the first football game at New Mosaic Stadium between the U of Regina Rams and U of Saskatchewan Huskies also didn’t make the cut as did watching Saskatchewan win Football Canada’s inaugural Senior Women’s National Championship tournament.
    During my journey in 2016, this blog also doubled in readership, so I thank you all for checking in. I humbly hope I can keep earning and holding your respect as I continue onwards.
    I also did well enough I made donations to the scholarship funds of both Saskatchewan’s university football teams in the Rams and Huskies and the provinces two junior programs in the three-time defending Canadian Junior Football League champion Saskatoon Hilltops and Regina Thunder. 
    Besides the football teams, I donated to the scholarship funds of the U of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s and women’s hockey teams, the U of Regina Cougars women’s hockey team, the U of Regina Cougars women’s basketball team and to the Home Ice Campaign, which is raising funds to build a new hockey arena on the U of Saskatchewan campus.
    Now without further ado, here are the memories.

10. Final Labour Day Classic at Taylor Field

Justin Medlock boots the winning field goal for the Blue Bombers.
    The final Labour Day Classic at Taylor Field/old Mosaic Stadium between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Winnipeg Blue Bombers was a classic on many fronts.
    I spent the whole weekend in Regina enjoying and soaking in the whole weekend on the social side. The partying was so good the Saturday night before the game I was definitely not 100 per cent the Sunday morning of the game.
    A Bombers fan saw me and said, “Don’t worry. You’re still in Calgary.”
    I guess that shows where I was at in the recovery state. This was my 16th Labour Day Classic, and with it being the last one at Taylor Field, I wanted to make it memorable, and things were perfect on the social front.
Darian Durant celebrates scoring a TD for the Roughriders.
    As the game itself went on, I was feeling better and better. The contest itself was a classic.
    With under a minute to play, Kendial Lawrence returned a punt 86 yards for the Roughriders to force a 25-25 tie. The Bombers pulled out a 28-25 victory, when kicker Justin Medlock nailed a 43-yard field goal on the last play of the game.
    The Bombers victory dampened the fact Roughriders franchise quarterback Darian Durant completed 36 of 47 passes for 399 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
    Winnipeg snapped its 11-game skid in the Labour Day Classic. While I was cheering for the Roughriders, I was happy for the Winnipeg fans, especially the regulars that make it to Regina every year for that contest. The fan bases from both sides really get along well.
    The Roughriders are 14-2 in the 16 Labour Day Classics I attended at Taylor Field. While the Roughriders didn’t get the last one, I will always remember that day and weekend fondly.

9. Rush conquer all

The Rush celebrate the NLL title winning goal from Jeff Cornwall, centre.
    I might get a little more into the Saskatchewan Rush in the future, but I will admit the first impressions were good ones.
    Former veteran WHL coach/executive and current Calgary Flames scout Brad McEwen said I would love the National Lacrosse League before the Rush played their inaugural season in Saskatoon. The Rush moved to town from Edmonton as defending NLL champions. McEwen definitely knows me, because he was right.
    After getting off the WHL playoff trail, I decided to check out the Rush as a ticket buyer. I made it to their final two home playoff games. I saw them lock up the West Final with a 12-9 victory over the Calgary Roughnecks on May 21.
    I was there when they won the Champion’s Cup to repeat as NLL champions with an 11-10 victory over the Buffalo Bandits on June 4. With the teams locked in a 10-10 draw, Rush defenceman Jeff Cornwall scored on a breakaway with 12 seconds to play to deliver the Rush to victory.
Rush forward Robert Church drives to the net for a scoring chance.
    In the win over Calgary, a SaskTel Centre record crowd of 15,192 spectators turned out and 15,182 spectators came out to the NLL title clinching game. I believe the 10 person difference depended on how many people could be squeezed into the luxury boxes on any given night.
    Between the tailgating in the parking lot, watching the Crush dance team and high-tempo non-stop game action jumping at the pace of up tempo music, Rush games are a hit. The way the province has rallied around this team is impressive.
    To top things off, the players seem pretty down to earth during the brief interactions I have had with them. I enjoyed getting the chance to watch them win it all.

8. “Thank You Mr. Hockey Day” exceeds expectations

Gordie Howe’s four children take part in a ceremonial faceoff.
    It was one of the classiest game days ever at the SaskTel Centre, and I still can’t even remember what happened as far as actual game action went.
    On Sept. 25, the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades hosted a “Thank You Mr. Hockey Day” to honour late hockey icon Gordie Howe. Howe passed away at age 88 on June 10, and the Blades were looking for a way to honour “Mr. Hockey” in his hometown area.
    When Blades president Steve Hogle found out from Howe’s children that one of his wishes was to have his ashes interred at the base of the Gordie Howe statue outside the SaskTel Centre along with the ashes of his late wife, Colleen, the wheels were put in motion for a special day.
    A private interment ceremony started open to 61 members of the Howe family started the day’s festivities in the morning. The Howe family was then taken to see the Circle Drive South Bridge, which was renamed the Gordie Howe Bridge. They proceeded to visit King George School, which Gordie attended, and one of Gordie’s childhood homes.
A fan gets her picture taken with the Gordie Howe statue.
    Before that day’s WHL clash with the Swift Current Broncos, the Blades put on a stirring 25-minute pre-game tribute. There were photos on display in various locations around the rink of the Howe family over the years. The Hockey Hall of Fame put on an exhibit to display a number of Howe items including one of his Detroit Red Wings jerseys from his NHL days and one of his Houston Aeros jerseys from his WHA days.
    I soaked in the magic of the day and renewed ties with old hockey friends and made new ones. I was able to visit with Bryan Trottier for a short while.
    The highlight was spending the whole second period hanging out with old hockey bud Morris Lukowich and Gordie’s son, Mark, who I just met at that point in time. It was fun meeting Gordie’s grandson, Corey, and his girlfriend Davis Parkinson. The two were the textbook image of the cute young couple.
    The Broncos won the game 6-0, and I couldn’t tell you how they got any of their goals. When the night ended, the Blades handed out Gordie Howe posters that contained three pictures from festivities from that day.
    It was the perfect hockey day that paid a fitting tribute to a legend.

7. Valkyries win WWCFL final 81-6

Julene Friesen runs in for TD for the Valkyries in the WWCFL final.
    That was no misprint. The Saskatoon Valkyries actually won the Western Women’s Canadian Football League championship game 81-6.
    Since I first saw the Valkyries play in their sophomore season back in 2012, I have always admired how well they approach playing the game of football and all the accomplishments they have piled up. On a warm Saturday afternoon in Lethbridge on June 25, I watched the Valkyries thump the Edmonton Storm 81-6 to claim their fifth WWCFL in their six seasons of existence.
    The win concluded a 7-1 overall campaign for the Valkyries, whose only loss was a 27-26 setback to the Riot in Regina on May 28. The Storm had a strong season posting a 6-2 overall mark.
    In the win over the Storm, the Valkyries may have never looked more polished in setting a new team record for points scored in a game and matching the team record for largest margin of victory.
The Valkyries celebrate their WWCFL championship win.
    It seemed you could go up and down the Valkyries roster listing a special plays each member of the team contributed in that outing.
    Julene Friesen, who is Saskatoon’s Marshall Faulk style tailback, was named her side’s player of the game. She piled up 142 yards rushing on seven carries and 109 yards on three kickoff returns. Friesen opened the game’s scoring with a 28-yard touchdown run and finished the scoring with an electrifying 82-yard kickoff return score.
    The Valkyries put together an impressive 2016 campaign with a good mix of strong veterans and talented newcomers. Going into 2017, they are set to have another strong campaign under new head coach Pat Berry. Jeff Yausie, who was the team’s only head coach before Berry took the role, will remain with the team as a position coach, but he is opening up his schedule to focus on his various roles in the sport provincially and nationally.
    With the title win in Lethbridge, the Valkyries cemented themselves as one of Saskatoon’s great sports dynasties.

6. Saskatoon Hilltops are always a great time

Jared Andreychuk fires a pass downfield for the Hilltops.
    The years change and the players come and go, but the Saskatoon Hilltops always find a way to remain one of the top amateur football programs in Canada.
    In 2016, the Hilltops claimed their 19th Canadian Junior Football League championship in team history, their six national crown in the last seven years and their third championship win in a row. On Nov. 12 in Langford, B.C., the Hilltops downed the Westshore Rebels 37-25 to one again capture the Canadian Bowl championship trophy.
    In the process, Hilltops starting quarterback Jared Andreychuk became what is believed to be the third signal caller in CJFL history to guide a team to three straight national championship wins as a starter. Andreychuk, who exhausted his junior eligibility following the 2016 campaign, finished his CJFL career with a perfect 9-0 record in the post-season.
    The fun with the Hilltops comes from everything that goes around the team like enjoying the annual alumni game, involvement in community events or participating in team fundraising functions.
Joshua Ewanchyna runs in for a winning TD for the Hilltops.
    One of the best social functions came after the Hilltops played their final game at Taylor Field/old Mosaic Stadium in Regina on Oct. 1. The Hilltops fell behind the host Regina Thunder 26-16 with 2:21 to play but rallied for a 30-26 victory. Rookie running back Joshua Ewanchyna ran in the winning score with 48 seconds to play.
    Following that contest, the Hilltops had a nice pizza party outside the stadium for the players, coaches, team staff and player families before everyone boarded the bus to head home. It was a great time enjoying fellowship on a warm clear night in Regina.
    The Hilltops seemed built to create great memories, and those memories always help to brighten up any rough spots in life.

5.  Rams home opener and return to U of R

Ryan Schienbein catches a winning TD for the Rams.
    The University of Regina Rams home opener in 2016 ended up being more meaningful to me than I originally thought it would.
    I have strong ties to the athletics program at the University of Regina built from the years I attended school there, but it felt like things changed. After Frank McCrystal retired as Rams head coach following the 2014 season and Dick White retired as the school’s director of athletics in December of that same year, I went more than a full year without hearing from anyone in that athletics program.
    With having covered the WHL for so long, I just wrote that off as part of the business of sports. New people were in charge and they were going to do things their way and communicate with the people they felt most comfortable with. You just kind of move on while still holding a soft spot for the program.
    That changed this year when Steve Bryce, who was one of McCrystal’s former players, replaced Mike Gibson as Rams head coach, and Tanya (Hutchinson) Reynoldson, who is an alumna of the U of R’s Cougars women’s hockey program, replaced Curtis Atkinson as the school’s interim director of athletics. I started to hear from the U of R’s athletic program again.
The Rams celebrate a home opening win over the Bisons.
    I planned on seeing the Rams play one last time at Taylor Field/old Mosaic Stadium. Due to getting back in touch with the program, a quick visit turned more of an impromptu homecoming over a couple of days where I visited with coaches and met some current athletes. With Bryce as head coach of the Rams, I found out the team started renew ties with its alums which had been lost under Gibson.
    During the Rams home opener, I found myself on the field shooting pictures and it felt like old times.    
    The Rams trailed the visiting U of Manitoba Bisons 38-27 late in the fourth quarter and rallied for a 41-38 victory. With 25 seconds to play, Rams quarterback Noah Picton hit Ryan Schienbein with the game-winning touchdown pass, and the play literally happened right in front of me.
    The feeling of the Rams pulling out a game like that at Taylor Field was a definitely flashback. In that moment, it felt great to be home.
    I will always have a soft spot for the athletics program at the U of R, but I realized how special it was to feel that good about being home again that night. I have been back to a couple of other Rams games. I hope to be around at a few other U of R athletics events in the future too.

4. Run though the WHL playoffs

Jayce Hawryluk (#8) and Nolan Patrick (#19) enjoy a Wheat Kings win.
    In 2016, I so enjoyed hitting the road and getting on the WHL playoff trail.
    Originally, I planned to hit games in Saskatchewan centres, but those plans evolved to taking trips to Alberta and Manitoba. At first, it felt a bit weird to be working a WHL playoff game that didn’t include the Medicine Hat Tigers, due to the fact I covered the Tigers as a beat writer from 2004 to 2014. The last time I worked any WHL playoff games that didn’t involve the Tigers was way back in 2004.
    I was able to work a game in every round of the post-season, and I was very well received wherever I went. The two most memorable stops were Red Deer and Brandon. Both those cities’ teams went deep in the playoffs and ended up in the Memorial Cup tournament. The Red Deer Rebels were the host team and the Brandon Wheat Kings made it winning the WHL championship.
    Red Deer was really memorable due to the fact it seemed like everyone there remembered me from my days covering the Tigers. I was warmly received, and I had some good nights out on the town there. It was also interesting to see that the Rebels fans took the rivalry between the Rebels and Tigers as seriously as the fans in the Hat do.
Winger Jake DeBrusk breaks into the offensive zone for the Rebels.
    My young cousin Nelson Nogier was playing for the Rebels, and he had a chuckle when I mentioned I was having fun there. Nogier knows I like to have my moments of pleasure on the WHL beat. I made it back to Red Deer for a short time as a ticket buyer to enjoy part of the Memorial Cup tournament, which still included writing a couple of stories.
    Brandon was a blast as well. I hadn’t been to a Wheat Kings home game for a while, and it was wicked seeing the citizens of Brandon rally around that team. I was there to see the excitement when the Wheat Kings won the WHL Eastern Conference title against the Rebels.
    In the WHL championship series, I saw one of the craziest finishes ever, when the Wheat Kings took Game 2 of that series against the Seattle Thunderbirds 3-2 in overtime. The overtime winner came courtesy of Wheat Kings forward Jayce Hawryluk, who deflected a puck in off Thunderbirds goalie Landon Bow into the net from a bad angle against the right corner boards in the Seattle zone. Hawryluk was trying to hit linemate Nolan Patrick with a backdoor feed.
    During that whole run, I learned I could enjoy working the WHL post-season without being an employee of a mainstream media outlet.
    I enjoyed the games, and was impressed I enjoyed them even though they didn’t involve the Tigers. Trust me, I totally enjoy any WHL post-season game that includes the Tigers, but I also enjoy seeing how each club in the league builds on their respective histories.
    Each team has its own unique stories that are fun to tell and live through. Those stories help give the WHL its character.

3. Final Roughriders home game at Taylor Field

Rider Nation soaks in the final Roughriders home game at Taylor Field.
    On Oct. 30, it was time for one last Saskatchewan Roughriders nostalgia trip at Taylor Field/old Mosaic Stadium.
    The CFL’s oldest franchise in Western Canada was playing its final game at its iconic home park. During the drive down from Saskatoon to Regina to attend that contest, it felt weird knowing that would be the final time I would see the Roughriders play at a facility I hold close to my heart.
    The day was festive when you arrived in the Queen City. It felt like a mix between a Labour Day Classic game and when the Roughriders hosted and won the 2013 Grey Cup. The festive activities included a kick butt halftime performance from country star Jess Moskaluke, who is from Langenburg, Sask.
    The post-game ceremony definitely took you on a trip down memory lane seeing all the old photos from years past. The day provided a great celebration of all the good things that went on at Taylor Field over the years.
Terrell Sinkfield Jr. makes an acrobatic TD catch for the Lions.
    The only downer was the fact the visiting B.C. Lions came away with a 24-6 victory. It was also familiar to see the fans super engaged with the contest.
    You would have thought the Grey Cup was on the line. The passion of Rider Nation was at its best.
    When the post-game ceremonies ended, I lingered around the field just soaking in the sites and the sounds like I did when I was there for the Roughriders 2013 Grey Cup victory. It was different to walk out of there after that game to a post-game party on the Dewdney Avenue strip.
    Taylor Field was the place that memories were made, and the memories from that park will always be special. It is still weird to think I will never see the Roughriders play there live ever again.

2. Stars keep getting brighter, excite on repeat long playoff run

The Stars celebrate a SFMAAAHL title win.
    There might not be anything that can bring a bigger smile to your face than seeing the Saskatoon Stars skate to greatness and look modest and excited while doing it.
    As my young cousin Danielle Nogier was playing out her final season of eligibility as the Stars captain, I thought it would be neat to cover their playoff run like a WHL post-season run. I figured the Stars had a good shot of repeating as Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League champions and returning to the Esso Cup national championship tournament. I did have dreams of the Stars winning it all.
    With the way the schedule works out in the SFMAAAHL post-season, the Stars pretty much ended up playing every second day like a team in a WHL playoff run would.
    The Stars also have an outstanding group of players, coaches, staffers and the best parents group I had ever seen around a minor sports team. I felt pretty positive that this would be a good time.
Following the Stars took me on the road to Swift Current and Weyburn provincially as well as Shoal Lake, Man. During the run, it seems readers appreciated the fact I followed the Stars and their exploits as my page views big time spiked when I wrote about them.
    I also gained a new appreciation for how well Swift Current, Weyburn and Shoal Lake, Man., back their female midget AAA teams.
Emma Johnson makes a save in goal for the Stars.
    The highlight was seeing the Stars lock up the SFMAAAHL championship series in Swift Current with a 4-3 overtime victory over the host Diamond Energy Wildcats on March 26. At the 4:08 mark of the extra session, 14-year-old Stars forward Grace Shirley drove home the winner on a brilliant shot. Her goal celebration was just as good as winning tally.
    Another special night was seeing the Stars lock up the Western regional playdown series with a 3-1 victory over the Yellowhead Chiefs in Shoal Lake, Man. Star goalie Emma Johnson was stellar making 32 save to steal that win, while 18-year-old defender Rayah DeCorby blasted home the winner in the third period and added a key empty-net insurance goal.
    I followed the Stars to the Esso Cup national championship tournament, which was held in late April in Weyburn. They made it to the tournament’s semifinal. The goal dried up at that point, and they came away with a fourth place finish.
    The whole run was spectacular. I was glad I decided to pile up the road miles.

1. Huskies get sweet title sweep for Smuk

Kendall McFaull (#2) shows off Cody Smuk’s jersey.
    During my time of being involved in sports, I have never seen as much emotion around a championship win as when the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team captured this year’s Canada West championship.
    I have seen teams win national championships and numerous conference, league and provincial titles, but the emotion I saw when the Huskies won the Canada West title in memory of former teammate and alumnus Cody Smuk was unique. Smuk was a gritty forward, who played for the Huskies from 2010 to 2014, and he was known for his hard work and being the ultimate glue guy in the dressing room. He passed away from cancer in June of 2015.
The Huskies are all smiles after a goal from Logan McVeigh.
    For the whole 2015-16 campaign, the Huskies warmed up wearing Smuk’s #24 jersey. The Huskies men’s team retired Smuk’s #24 on Oct. 24, 2015. During the campaign, the Huskies piled up their wins and matched a team record for wins in a regular season finishing first in Canada West with a 22-6 mark.
    On March 5, the Huskies swept their “Forever Rivals” the U of Alberta Golden Bears taking Game 2 of a best-of-three Canada West championship series 3-2 at the ancient Rutherford Rink. Trailing the Golden Bears 1-0 entering the third period of that contest, the Huskies rolled off three straight goals to cement a championship victory.
    After the game, Huskies captain Kendall McFaull skated on to the ice with Smuk’s #24 jersey. McFaull along with third-year forward Josh Roach helped bring Smuk’s father, Marty, mother, Darla and fiancée, Stephanie Vause, on to the ice for the team championship picture. All three attended every Huskies home game.
The Huskies celebrate a Canada West title with Smuk’s family members.
    You could feel the real emotion from the Huskies men’s hockey team as well as the Huskies women’s hockey team, who were all in attendance that night.
    I really thought the Huskies men’s team was going to move on and win the University Cup national championship tournament, which was held in Halifax, N.S. The Huskies weren’t able to pull out the fairy tale finish.
    They won their quarter-final match in thrilling style on Parker Thomas’s OT winner, but dropped an OT heartbreaker in a semifinal match. The Dogs returned home with a fourth place finish.
    Still, the emotion of the Canada West championship win will be the dominate memory for the 2015-16 campaign. To this day, my post of the recap of that night’s events is still my most viewed blog post.
    The Huskies conference title win helped bring the healing process of Smuk’s passing to as much of a closure as you could get. That is something that is absolutely priceless.

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