Division rivals open WHL regular season at SaskTel Centre
|Blades head coach Dean Brockman oversees a team practice.|
Dean Brockman knows his Saskatoon Blades are going to have their hands full opening the regular season against a battle hardened division rival.
The Blades face the Swift Current Broncos in the regular season opener for both teams on Friday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre. Last season, Saskatoon posted a 28-35-7-2 record to finish fifth in the East Division, ninth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and five points back of the Calgary Hitmen (30-32-8-2) for the conference’s second and final wildcard berth.
The Broncos posted a 39-23-4-6 mark to finish third in the East Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference. After eliminating the Moose Jaw Warriors in a tough seven-game series in the first round of the WHL playoffs, they went to a series deciding Game 7 in the second round against the Regina Pats before bowing out of the post-season with a 5-1 loss in that contest.
Swift Current returns a number of players from their team last season, and Brockman, who is the Blades head coach, knows it is tough to face any club that gains experience from a strong playoff run.
“It is always a challenge,” said Brockman. “We know that their top two lines and their back end will be as good as any of the contenders in our division.
“Certainly when they have the Hepos (Aleksi Heponiemi) and the Gawdins (Glenn Gawdin) and those types of guys, you have to be aware of them. I think certainly they are a great challenge, and they will be a challenge throughout the year.
“The experience that they got last year with their playoff run just makes them more hungrier for this year. For us, it is going to be definitely be a battle right from the start.”
Gawdin is the Broncos captain, and the 20-year-old centre potted 26 goals and 33 assists in 52 games last season. Heponiemi is a high-flying 18-year-old Finnish winger who piled up 28 goals and 58 assists appearing in all of the Broncos 72 regular season games.
Swift Current’s most dangerous offensive player is likely 19-year-old winger Tyler Steenbergen, who topped the Broncos in scoring with 51 goals and 39 assists.
On defence, the Broncos are anchored by 19-year-olds Colby Sissons and Russian Artyom Minulin. Minulin became an effective power-play quarterback piling up eight goals and 42 assists in 70 regular season games.
|Goalie Joel Grzybowski takes part in a drill at Blades practice.|
Of course, the Broncos acquired overage netminder Logan Flodell from the Blades in a trade on Wednesday. Flodell was a second team WHL Eastern Conference all-star last season posting a 22-20-4 record, a 2.81 goals against average, a .912 save percentage and three shutouts.
While the Broncos have a number of dangerous players, Brockman said his Blades have to focus on their own performance.
“I think every game is a measuring stick whether you show up or you don’t show up, (and) how good were you and how bad were you,” said Brockman. “We don’t want to use Swift as the measuring stick.
“We want to be playing hard, you know a hard working hockey team. We just want to have those trademarks right from the start. We want to be a team that makes it difficult for them to play here and make it hard and try and match their work ethic and do better.”
Like last year, the Blades will start the season without the services of star centre Cameron Hebig, but under different circumstances. Hebig missed all of last season due to injury.
The local product starts his overage season sitting out Saskatoon’s first two games due to a league imposed suspension for receiving a checking from behind major penalty and a game misconduct in the Blades final pre-season game last Saturday, which was a 2-1 victory over the Oil Kings in Edmonton. Hebig had five goals and an assist in four pre-season games.
Overage winger Braylon Shmyr topped the Blades in scoring with 35 goals and 31 assists in 66 regular season games. Saskatoon is loaded with a number of strong young forwards in 17-year-olds Michael Farren and Chase Wouters and 16-year-old Kirby Dach, who the Blades selected in the first round and second overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.
On defence, the Blades are anchored by overage captain Evan Fiala and Czech import Libor Hajek. Fiala was returned to the Blades on Tuesday after attending training camp with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. Hajek was at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s NHL training camp, and he was assigned back to the Blades on Thursday.
Saskatoon starts the season with a new goaltending tandem in 19-year-old Ryan Kubic, who was acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Giants on Wednesday, and 18-year-old rookie Joel Grzybowski. Kubic was the Giants starting goaltender for the past two seasons, and Grzybowski had a stellar campaign last season in the junior A ranks with the Battlefords North Stars.
“We definitely have some young guys that are going to be really good players in our league,” said Brockman. “Hopefully, we’ve insulated them enough with some of the older guys.
|Blades assistant coach Bryce Thoma keeps things loose with humour.|
“As your guys take progressions and steps, some guys have to take bigger steps than others. It is a good mix. We’ll find out whether the chemistry is there to get that mix over the top or not.
“Time will tell. Our group is always learning and always working.”
The Blades will be trying to make the post-season for the first time since 2013. Brockman said he is aware of the importance of the overall view of the campaign, but in order to get to the playoffs, he said his team’s focus has to be on the present.
“You have to look big picture, but again, I want to look right what is in front of us,” said Brockman. “If you get looking too far ahead, you’ll be looking behind.
“You have to make every day count and every game count. If you look at it in away last year, I think we missed it by five. If you get a point per month (extra), you are in the playoffs.
“We have to really, really focus on what we have in front of us and not look too far ahead.”
Engele puts meaning behind the Pac-Man
|Blades assistant coach Jerome Engele speaks are a presser on Monday.|
The Saskatoon Blades have created a real buzz, when they officially announced in late August they were returning to their famed Pac-Man logo and look on a regular basis.
The Blades used the Pac-Man look throughout the 1980s and in the early 1990s. Even when it was not in use, it was still the signature look that was associated with the Blades. The team also had the majority of its most successful and memorable seasons wearing that look.
Besides drawing approval from fans, the return of the Pac-Man look has been warmly received by the team’s alumni. During a press conference on Monday to announce the Blades would be honouring former captain and long-time Saskatoon Police Services officer Bruce Gordon before Friday’s home opener, veteran assistant coach and retired Saskatoon Police Services officer Jerome Engele spoke about what the Pac-Man logo meant.
“We strive very hard to teach our young people coming here about integrity, honesty, hard work and with that responsibility that comes along with it outside of this arena,” said Engele. “Like our police world, you’re wearing a badge.
“That badge we’re held at another level through the Police Act that we are responsible to, so we are held at a level higher that what the public is. Our Blades are also held at that level away from the rink. We expect them to treat everybody with respect.”
Future wedding bells to ring for Howe and Parkinson
|Davis Parkinson, left, and Corey Howe at the SaskTel Centre in Sept. of 2016.|
While the Saskatoon Blades will honour their former captain Bruce Gordon before Friday’s home opener, a year ago the team honoured the Saskatoon area’s greatest sporting hero ever in the late hockey icon Gordie Howe, which produced an interesting tidbit.
A year ago, Howe’s ashes and those of his late wife, Colleen, were interred at the base of the Gordie Howe statue that sits in front of the SaskTel Centre. During the festivities to honour Howe, the Blades helped play up the love story between grandson Corey Howe, who was raised in Ohio, and a young woman named Davis Parkinson, who was raised in Saskatoon.
In April of 2016, Corey moved to Saskatoon, because he wanted Parkinson in his everyday life. The connection made for a cute story in the local media, and off camera, the two chuckled when they talked about how Blades president Steve Hogle played things up.
Out of the obscure pieces of information that seem to come my way, I discovered that the young couple had gotten engaged. They are slated to be married on Aug. 25, 2018.
If you have ever seen Corey Howe and Davis Parkinson together, they make a really sweet and cute couple, and both have a great sense of humour. Here is hoping they have a spectacular wedding day, and they make a lifetime of wonderful memories together.
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