Monday, 30 December 2019

Top 10 cool things I saw in 2019

Dante Hannoun (#17) celebrates his OT winner in Game 7 of the WHL final.
    For me, 2019 will go down as the year of the Raiders.
    Thanks to their magical run to winning their first WHL title since 1985, the Prince Albert Raiders will obviously be making appearances on this list. Anytime I type out stories about teams or athletes from Prince Albert it seems to go over really well.
    The hockey front was extremely fun specifically when it came to covering the Raiders and the Saskatoon Blades. Both squads had strong seasons in the 2018-19 campaign.
    In order to help stir up the rivalry, posts on the Blades did actually receive more views than posts on the Raiders over the first two months of the year.
    Still over the life of this blog, posts on the Raiders usually attract more page views than posts about the Blades.
    Of course there was a lot of fun on the football front as well.
Adam Machart set a new Huskies record for regular season rushing.
    With that noted, I do have to start out with one big honourable mention. I wasn’t able to fit the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team on to my top 10 list.
    I had a really fun time covering the Huskies football team, and I am pumped about the players that are slated to be back with the team next season. I really believe the Huskies can accomplish some big things in the upcoming years.
    The big highlight was seeing running back Adam Machart break the Huskies team record for most rushing yards in one regular season. Machart ran the ball 156 times for 1,330 yards and eight touchdowns.
    The old Huskies record for most rushing yards in one regular season was held by Doug Rozon. Back in the 1999 campaign, Rozon ran the ball 151 times for 1,267 yards and five touchdowns.
    Through the air, Machart caught 20 passes for 204 yards and three touchdowns. His 1,534 all-purpose yards was a new Huskies regular season team record and was the fifth most all-purpose yards put up in the history of the Canada West Conference for one regular season.
    For his efforts, Machart was named the most outstanding player in Canada West.
Nelson Lokombo (#25) was the U Sports defensive player of the year.
    Third-year defensive back Nelson Lokombo claimed the Presidents’ Trophy as the U Sports defensive player of the year. He earned that same honour at the Canada West Conference level.
    During the regular season, Lokombo topped the Huskies with four interceptions and returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns. The Abbotsford, B.C., product posted 23.5 total tackles, 2.5 sacks and four pass breakups during the regular campaign as well.
    Huskies defensive tackle Evan Machibroda took home honours as the most outstanding lineman for Canada West. Linebacker Ramsey Derbas was named the rookie of the year for Canada West, and Huskies head coach Scott Flory was named the coach of the year for Canada West.
    The Huskies posted a 5-3 regular season record and advanced to the Canada West championship game falling to the University of Calgary Dinos, who went on to win the Vanier Cup to become U Sports national champions.
Cody Fajardo (#7) and the Roughriders won the Labour Day Classic.
    I also bumped the annual CFL Labour Day Classic clash between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders off the top 10 list this year. The Roughriders won a thriller 19-17 on a Brett Lauther 26-yard walk off field goal.
    With the football items noted, my lists traditionally have been hockey heavy due to the fact I am in my 21st season covering the WHL.
    During my travels, this blog has surpassed over 586,000 all-time page views. I thank you for stopping in.
    Your support helps drive me to keep me going. Financial support helps too, and if you wanted to click on the donate button in the upper right corner and make a contribution, I would be really grateful for that. It helps with the bills and expenses and allows me to keep returning to the sporting venues.
    Anyways without further ado, here are the memories.

10. Donn Clark’s celebration of life was a warm memorial

Donn Clark on the Raiders Wall of Honour.
    It is always different when you head off to pay your respects to an old friend.
    On March 2, long time WHL hockey executive Donn Clark, who is best remembered for his time with the Prince Albert Raiders, lost his long battle with cancer. While Clark had been fighting cancer for a number of years, it didn’t feel like you would be ready for his passing.
    He was inducted on to the Raiders Wall of Honour the day before he passed away. Clark helped create the Raiders Wall of Honour. He guided the Raiders to the WHL semifinal round as head coach in 1995 and saw the Raiders make the league’s final four again in 2005 as general manager.
    He was a real good supporter for me in my pursuits with this blog and sports reporting.
Due to the fact he can be stubborn, there was a belief Clark would beat cancer even though the doctors said his condition was terminal.
    With Clark’s family and friends being heavily involved in hockey, the family decided to have his celebration of life on July 20 in Kelvington, Sask. The people that turned out on a very bright and sunny day were shoehorned into the Kelvington Community Legion Hall for a great service.
Donn Clark, left, pictured from when he played in P.A.
    Numerous people turned out from the hockey world as well as family and friends from outside the game. While you would have like the gathering to occur under better circumstances, it was great to see Clark’s younger brother, Wendel, again and finally meet Barry Melrose in person.
    Wendel, of course, starred for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. Melrose was the head coach of the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers 1988 Memorial Cup championship team and guided the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup final.
    So many cool stories were shared about Donn Clark that included his various witty remarks from over the years. I was amazed to hear about his other pursuits and interests outside of hockey and farming.
    I didn’t know Clark could play the trumpet, had his pilot’s licence and motorcycle licence. He had his pilot’s licence even back when I worked for the Prince Albert Daily Herald from 2001 to 2004 and covered the Raiders.
    One of the speakers at the service talked about how Clark took one last short motorcycle ride during the last week he was alive, and that he had a huge grin on his face while riding his bike.
    Clark was given a sweet send off in Kelvington, which is fairly picturesque. It was special to be part of the group that came together for his celebration of life to share in many memories.

9. Star retire Emily Clark’s #13

Emily Clark waves to the crowd at Merlis Belsher Place.
    I got see a special first in 2019 thanks to the Saskatoon Stars.
    On December 20, 2019, female midget AAA hockey team retired the number of one of their all-time greats in Emily Clark.
    Clark played three seasons for the Stars from 2009 to 2012 appearing in 82 regular season games collecting 45 goals and 46 assists for 91 points.
    The skilled forward’s best season came in her final campaign in 2011-12. During that season with the Stars, Clark appeared in 26 regular season game collecting 26 goals and 34 assists for 60 points.
    Clark’s 34 helpers are still a Stars record for most assists in one regular season. Her 60 points is still a team record for most points in one regular season, and it was matched in the 2017-18 campaign by Mackenna Parker, who tallied a club record 33 goals and 27 assists in 23 regular season games.
Emily Clark’s number is raised up at Merlis Belsher Place.
    Clark is best known for playing with Canada’s senior national women’s hockey team, which included winning a silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February of 2018.
    She is also known for being a member of the University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team that won an NCAA championship last season.
    The Stars honoured the 24-year-old before a Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League regular season contest with the Regina Rebels at Merlis Belsher Place. A number of former Stars players came back to the new rink facility on the University of Saskatchewan campus to check out the festivities.
    A video was played on the rink’s big screen showing video highlights of Clark’s time with the Badgers.
    Standing at centre ice with her parents in father, Del, and mother, Tracy, Emily watched her number get raised up at the rink. She proceeded to drop the puck for a ceremonial faceoff.
Emily Clark, centre, is pictured with some of her old Stars teammates.
    As the game went on, Clark met a number of young fans on the concourse. Following the game that was won 4-3 by the Rebels in comeback fashion, Clark posed for pictures with both teams, the current Stars, the current Stars and the Stars alums in attendance and finally with the some of the Stars alums she played with.
    For me, this marked the first time I saw in person or over a televised broadcast a female athlete have her number retired by a sports team. That includes being active in the media starting with student media in 1996.
    I had seen a number of male athletes have their numbers retired, but I had never seen a female athlete have her number retired until the Stars did that for Clark.
    Clark fully deserved the honour, and I hope I will see more female athletes have their numbers retired by teams in the future.

8. Blades finally lock up first playoff berth since 2013

Captain Chase Wouters and the Blades made it to the WHL playoffs.
    There was some pretty good joy happening on the night the Saskatoon Blades finally locked up their first WHL playoff berth since 2013.
    Before the 2018-19 season began, I wrote a column that predicted the Blades would indeed return to the WHL playoffs, and they would have a post-season berth locked up before March came about in 2019.
    On February 23 at the SaskTel Centre, the Blades officially clinched a WHL playoff berth with a 4-3 victory after a tiebreaking shootout over the Kootenay Ice before 4,334 spectators. The post-season berth was officially clinched with the Blades win and due to the fact the Prince Albert Raiders thumped the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings 7-1 at the Art Hauser Centre that very same night.
    Against the Ice, the Blades built a 3-1 lead after two periods only to see the visitors score twice in the third to force a 3-3 tie and overtime.
Kyle Crnkovic has the shootout winner for the Blades.
    After a scoreless overtime frame, Blades rookie left-winger Kyle Crnkovic scored the only goal in the shootout to give Saskatoon a 1-0 victory in the tiebreaking session and a 4-3 victory in the game.
    Saskatoon last made the WHL playoffs in 2013, when they hosted the CHL championship tournament – the Memorial Cup. I moved to Saskatoon in the summer of 2014, and the Blades were still well into a major rebuild from hosting the Memorial Cup.
    The Blades were also still recovering from making a major trade in the 2010-11 campaign for Brayden Schenn. The Blades finished first overall in the WHL that season but were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the eventual WHL champion Ice.
    While I have been covering the WHL as a whole with emphasis on the Saskatchewan scene, I still live in Saskatoon, and the Blades are the team I see play the most.
    In 2014-15 and 2015-16, they needed some prayers to be answered in order to make the playoffs. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, the Blades had the roster to qualify for the post-season, but encountered near misses in each campaign due to late season slumps.
The Blades celebrate a long awaited post-season berth.
    After the disappointment of those near misses, there was great joy among the Blades and their fans after officially locking down a playoff berth with their win on Feb. 23.
    The Blades ultimately finished fourth overall in the WHL regular season standings with a 45-15-8 record. They swept the Moose Jaw Warriors 4-0 in a best-of-seven first round series.
    Saskatoon’s playoff run ended falling 4-2 in a best-of-seven second round series to the eventual WHL champion Raiders.
    The epilogue doesn’t diminish how special it was for the Blades to lock away their playoff spot on Feb. 23. Everyone involved with that club had been working hard for that moment for some time, and the reward finally came.

7. Blades first game back in WHL playoffs equals OT win

Captain Chase Wouters (#44) is mobbed after scoring his OT winner.
    I admit I was pretty giddy to start covering the 2019 WHL playoffs in my home centre.
    After finishing fourth overall in the WHL regular season standings with a 45-15-8 record, the Saskatoon Blades opened their first appearance in the post-season since 2013 on home ice. They faced the Moose Jaw Warriors in a best-of-seven first round series on March 22nd at the SaskTel Centre.
    The Blades had assembled a good bunch for the 2018-19 campaign, and it was great to see them in the post-season.
    The Game 1 clash with the Warriors didn’t start off well for the Blades as the visitors took a 2-0 lead early in the second period with singles coming from Kaeden Taphorn and Eric Alarie.
Riley McKay scored the equalizer to force overtime.
    The Blades proceeded to battle back. Overage right-winger Max Gerlach scored at the 7:21 mark of the second period to cut the Warriors lead to 2-1.
    With 8:12 remaining in the third period, feisty left-winger Riley McKay tallied for the Blades and evened the score at 2-2 to force overtime.
    At the 3:23 mark of overtime, Blades captain Chase Wouters blew down the left wing of the Moose Jaw zone and lifted a backhand shot past Warriors netminder Brodan Salmond to give the Blades a 3-2 victory.
    The 5,193 spectators at the SaskTel Centre went bananas after Wouters’ goal.
    Star netminder Nolan Maier made 21 saves to pick up the win in goal for the Blades. Salmond turned away 35 shots to take the setback in goal for the Warriors.
    As a career member with the Blades who was playing through his third full campaign at the time, Wouters was pretty pumped at game’s end.
    “It is a pretty crazy feeling,” said Wouters. “It is something I will never forget that is for sure.
The SaskTel Centre crowd celebrates the Blades playoff win.
    “It was kind of a lot of hard work all game and got some reward. It is a pretty special moment. It is not only like for me.
    “It is for our group. We’ve worked all hard to this point, and this is kind of something we’ve wanted since we started the year. We got it, so it was good.”
    The Blades swept the series 4-0. They fell 4-2 in a best-of-seven second round series to the eventual WHL champion Prince Albert Raiders.

6. “Sarge” gets his 200th win

Hilltops HC Tom Sargeant, right, gets an ice bath shower after win 200.
    A big thanks goes to veteran Saskatoon StarPhoenix sports scribe Kevin Mitchell for allowing this memory to be possible.
    Before the Saskatoon Hilltops hit their field for their second regular season game of the 2019 campaign, Mitchell figured out legendary Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant was one win away from hitting 200 head coaching victories in his career including action in the CJFL regular season and post-season.
    I double checked Mitchell’s numbers, and they were bang on.
    I figured out Sargeant was attempting to become just the second person to hit 200 head coaching wins in Canadian amateur post-secondary football.
    Retired Regina Rams head coach Frank McCrystal is the other sideline boss who has 200 head coaching wins in Canadian amateur post-secondary football. McCrystal posted a 208-104-2 record as Rams head coach from 1984 to 2014 including action in the regular season and playoffs with the Rams in the CJFL and U Sports.
    The Hilltops went into the 2019 campaign facing a huge turnover in starters from their 2018 CJFL championship team. 
Hilltops HC Tom Sargeant checks out a play on the big screen.
    They were vulnerable at the beginning of the season and going to Regina to face the Thunder in Week 2 at Mosaic Stadium was going to be a big challenge.
    Saskatoon was playing its first three regular season games on the road as well.
    With the news being out there that “Sarge” needed one win to hit 200, it seemed to help the Hilltops players take their minds of any early season struggles and sharpen their focus for when they hit the field at Mosaic Stadium on August 25.
    Still, the game was far from a work of art, but one that the Hilltops were able to grind out. Saskatoon held a 14-9 advantage with one play remaining in the third quarter. The Thunder had the ball at the Hilltops four yard line.
    The complexion of the contest changed at that point. Third year Hilltops safety Brant Morrow intercepted Thunder quarterback Blake Scherle just inside the Saskatoon end zone.
    Morrow raced 113 yards the other way for a touchdown to put the Hilltops up 21-9. Saskatoon powered out a 34-16 victory.
    Following the game, the Hilltops players gave Sargeant the ice bucket shower. That tradition is usually reserved for CJFL championship victories, but it came out for this special occasion.
Hilltops president Terry Postey made sure to collect the game ball.
Hilltops president Terry Postey collects the game ball for HC Tom Sargeant.
    The Hilltops don’t normally celebrate regular season wins that much, but everyone involved with the venerable CJFL club took time to congratulation Sargeant and enjoy his milestone accomplishment.
    It made for a very memorable early game in the season.
    As the campaign played out, the Hilltops finished with a perfect 12-0 record to win the CJFL title for a sixth straight year.
    Sargeant, who became the Hilltops head coach before the start of the 1998 campaign, boosted his career record to 210-30-2 including action in the CJFL regular season and playoffs following the Hilltops 11-6 victory over the Langley Rams in Langley, B.C., in the CJFL championship game – the Canadian Bowl.
    Sargeant is currently the all-time leader for head coaching victories in Canadian amateur post-secondary football.

5. Last run for the Slobodzian era coached Stars

The Stars piled up banner and trophy wins over five seasons.
    Even to this day, it is still crazy for me to believe the long time veterans of the Saskatoon Stars female midget AAA team have moved on.
    The 2018-19 season would be the last campaign the Stars would hit the ice with star players Grace Shirley, Anna Leschyshyn and Joelle Fiala. All three exhausted their midget AAA eligibility and moved on the to the NCAA women’s hockey ranks.
    In total, all three were with the Stars for four complete seasons. Shirley and Leschyshyn also saw time as associate player call ups in the 2014-15 campaign, when they were still first year aged bantam players.
    The Stars were also set to lose Kaitlin Jockims, Jayda Sachs, Grace Tam and Abby DeCorby due to graduation after the 2014-15 campaign.
    You could feel the impending finality that an era was coming to an end. The changes would still be bigger than the seven departures due to graduation.
Grace Shirley played in all four of the Stars appearances at Esso Cup.
    The 2018-19 was head coach Greg Slobodzian’s final season coaching the team. He guided the Stars thought their most successful time from 2014-15 to 2018-19. The Stars won their four SFMAAAHL titles in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019.
    They advanced to the Esso Cup female midget AAA national championship tournament in each of those years winning a bronze medal in 2015 and a silver medal in 2018 falling in a heartbreaking final 2-1 to the Alberta based St. Albert Slash.
    Assistant coach Curtis Leschyshyn was leaving too having been on the Stars staff for four seasons from 2015 to 2019.
    Both wanted to spend more time watching their children play university hockey or the professional ranks.
    Adam Slobodzian, who is Greg’s son, was departing after one season as an assistant coach.
    The Stars also lost Ashley Messier, Chase Sperling and Calli Arnold after the 2018-19 campaign as they chose to pursue opportunities with academy teams.
Anna Leschyshyn came through in clutch moments for the Stars.
    On the ice, the Stars took care of business in 2018-19. They posted a 47-3-2-1 overall record that included winning the prestigious Mandi Schwartz Memorial Tournament, the SFMAAAHL title and the Western Regional playdown series.
    Saskatoon posted its best ever record in regular season play at 27-1.
    The SFMAAAHL title and Western Regional wins were celebrated on the ice surface at Merlis Belsher Place.
    I miss interacting with the team around the rink after practices and games. Since I had known the veterans for so long having covered the Stars since the 2014-15 campaign, the jokes and wisecracks would fly.
    I remember when Greg Slobodzian didn’t realize the Stars had locked up first place and said he told the girls first place hadn’t been locked up yet.
    Anna Leschyshyn and Shirley emerge from the dressing room, and Slobodzian lets out a, “Hey, we clinched first place!”
    Then fist bumps were given all around to celebrate.
Joelle Fiala delivered points and spunk to the Stars.
    I loved interviewing Fiala and having her from out of nowhere pop up and say something spunky that made a couple of pieces way more entertaining.
    I remember walking out of Merlis one time after practice with a group of six players as everyone was scattering to go home.
    During that walk, I recall looking around and thinking to myself, “When did all these girls grow up?”
    They really did grow up before my eyes.
    At Esso Cup in Sudbury, Ont., in April, the Stars finished first in the round robin with a 4-1 record. They fell 2-1 in overtime in a semifinal contest to the Slash, who went on to win the Esso Cup for a third straight year.
    The Stars fell 3-2 after a tiebreaking shootout to the Ontario-based Stoney Creek Sabres.
    A tonne of great memories were made covering this special generation of the Stars. At the moment, I still miss the players and coaches who have moved on a tonne.

4. Hilltops sixth straight title, expected perfection repeat

Ben Abrook (#32) dives into the end zone for a Hilltops winning TD.
    A lot of people on the outside might not truly grasp how hard it was for the Saskatoon Hilltops to win a sixth Canadian Junior Football League championship and repeat perfection to boot in the process.
    The Hilltops did just that in 2019, but the road to get there wasn’t easy.
    In 2018, the Hilltops did have one of the most dominant 11-0 championship seasons any team in any league had ever seen. It was arguably the most dominant campaign the Hilltops ever had.
    Saskatoon lost eight key graduates from that 2018 CJFL championship team and a number of other key players elected to join the U Sports ranks.
    The Hilltops went into the 2019 campaign with a huge turnover among the team’s starters. The offence was placed in the hands of fifth-year quarterback Tyler Hermann, who would be in his first year as the club’s starting signal caller.
    Legendary head coach Tom Sargeant and his elite coaching staff had a big challenge on their hands in trying to mould the squad into a championship team.
LB Jadyn Pingue was named the CJFL’s top defensive player.
    The Hilltops won their first two regular season games on the road by solid scores, but they looked vulnerable in each of those outings.
    In their third regular season contest that was also played on the road, the Hilltops needed a fourth quarter comeback to get past the Huskies in Edmonton. Star power running back Ben Abrook ran home the winning touchdown with 1:47 to play in the fourth quarter to give the Hilltops a 24-22 victory.
    The Hilltops fourth regular season game was their home opener, and they needed another fourth quarterback comeback to beat the Regina Thunder. Down 21-20, Abrook dived home for the winning touchdown with 33.4 seconds to play and added a two-point convert for a 28-21 win.
    One play before Abrook’s score, Hilltops backup quarterback Doug Fleming, who handles short-yardage situations, fumbled the ball away, and the Thunder recovered the loose ball.
    The fumble recovery was nullified due to an offside penalty against the Regina side. The Thunder likely would have been able to run out the clock had their fumble recovery stood up.
Tyler Hermann went 12-0 in his lone season as Hilltops starting QB.
    Still, the Hilltops found a way to post a 4-0 record, and the wins came due to veteran players stepping up to make plays at critical times.
    At the point, the comfort level rose on the field as various players got used to new roles. The Hilltops posted dominant wins in their final four regular season games and first post-season contest.
    In the PFC final at Saskatoon Minor Football Field, the Hilltops held a 20-14 edge over the Huskies heading into the fourth quarter before pulling away for a 30-14 victory.
    In a CJFL semifinal game in London, Ont., the Hilltops hammered the host Beefeaters 51-1. That set up a CJFL championship game rematch from the previous season between the Hilltops and Langley Rams, but this year’s clash would be held in Langley, B.C.
    The Rams entered that clash with a 12-0 record, so the Canadian Bowl would be a rare battle between two undefeated clubs.
    The Hilltops had to rely on a stellar performance by their defence and kicker/receiver Rylan Kleiter hitting 3-of-4 field goals to squeak out an 11-6 victory.
Right guard Taylon Elderkin gets to carry the ball for the Hilltops.
    With the win over the Rams, the Hilltops had their second straight perfect season, sixth straight CJFL title win, their fifth perfect season in club history and 22nd CJFL championship in team history. They have won the Canadian Bowl in nine of the last 10 seasons.
    This title win in the nature that it happened was unexpected.
    In his one season as the starting quarterback, Hermann had a perfect 12-0 record, and he had strong season too. He completed 123-of-192 passes for 1,908 yards, 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions appearing in all of his club’s eight regular season games.
    Abrook was a workhorse carrying the ball 199 times for 1,215 yards and eight touchdowns during the regular season.
    Middle linebacker Jadyn Pingue was voted the CJFL’s most outstanding defensive player of the year. He collected 33.5 total tackles, one pass knockdown, one fumble recovery and one interception during the regular season.
Rylan Kleiter’s leg delivered the Hilltops a CJFL championship game win.
    At the end of the campaign, Sargeant had a 210-30-2 career record as Hilltops head coach including action in the CJFL’s regular season and post-season. He has the record for most wins in Canadian amateur post-secondary football.
    The Hilltops also played the campaign with heavy hearts remembering late alum linebacker Justin Filteau, who passed away in a plane crash in early June. Filteau played for the Hilltops from 2010-14 before joining the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team from 2015-17. He was serving as a defensive position coach with the WWCFL’s Saskatoon Valkyries at the time of his death.
    After winning the Canadian Bowl in Langley, the Hilltops lifted Sargeant on their shoulders, and he symbolically lifted the trophy up to the heavens for Filteau.

3. The special WHL title season for the Raiders and their fans

The Art Hauser Centre was “the Mad Hauser” in the WHL playoffs.
    When an opponent goes to Prince Albert for a WHL game, that team is playing against the Raiders and their fans.
    The 2018-19 season was simply magical for the Prince Albert Raiders. They lived up to their romanticized past in a way that hadn’t been seen for some time.
    They are a team of speed and skill mixed with incredible toughness. They are backed by a passionate fanbase that is educated on all the intricacies of hockey.
    The fans are ready to back their team at every moment and pounce on anything underhanded they see the opposition pull.
    The Raiders are the team of Mike Modano and Dave Manson – the franchise where honour still matters.
Brett Leason and the Raiders delivered thrills to “Hockey Town North.”
    The hard work of general manager Curtis Hunt, head coach Marc Habscheid and a likeable group of core players who were determined, skilled and hard working paid off in a big way in 2018-19.
    The fans saw what was happening early, and the Art Hauser Centre became “the Mad Hauser” and a must stop place for any CHL fan to watch a hockey game.
    The Raiders finished first in the WHL regular season standings with a 54-10-2-2 record. They marched through the WHL playoffs and captured the WHL title in dramatic fashion.
    In Game 7 of the WHL Championship series at the Art Hauser Centre, overage centre Dante Hannoun scored the overtime winner to deliver the Raiders to a 3-2 victory over the Vancouver Giants. 
The Raiders and their faithful celebrate a road win in Edmonton.
    The win delivered the WHL title to the Raiders for the second time in team history.
    While they posted an 0-3 record at the Memorial Cup tournament that determines the CHL champion, that finish was an epilogue to a stellar campaign no one in Prince Albert saw coming.
    The Raiders had their best season since winning the WHL title and Memorial Cup title as CHL champions back in 1985.
    Going into the 2018-19 campaign, the Raiders hadn’t won a playoff series since 2005, when they fell in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Championship series to the Brandon Wheat Kings.
    Following that run in 2005, the Raiders went through a 13-year stretch where they missed the playoffs seven times and were eliminated in the first round six times.
Raiders netminder Ian Scott was named the CHL goaltender of the year.
    Still, no one could doubt the love in “Hockey Town North” for the team was there.
    When you stepped into Prince Albert in the 2018-19 campaign, you knew it was game day. You couldn’t venture very far without encountering a sign outside of a business that showed support for the Raiders.
    You stepped into Tim Horton’s and Russ Gurr’s version of “The Song in Prince Albert is Go Raiders Go” played on the intercom system.
    Gurr, who was a country singer, wrote the tune as a theme song for the team in the early 1970s.
    When the Raiders won big post-season games on the road, a huge contingent of fans greeted the team upon returning to the Art Hauser Centre. The players and staff would get off the bus and walk through the crowd giving high-fives on the way to the rink to drop off gear.
The Raiders faithful waited a long time for another WHL championship win.
    Throughout the season, the fans followed the team on the road. There were times when the Raiders scored in opposing rinks you wondered if you were back in Prince Albert.
    I enjoyed visiting the team during some down times on the road.
    During the playoffs, the fans that had standing room tickets started bringing milk crates or stools to stand on to see the action on the ice.
    Players like Hannoun, captain Brayden Pachal, Brett Leason, netminder Ian Scott, Parker Kelly, Sean Montgomery, Noah Gregor, Cole Fonstad, Spencer Moe, Zach Hayes, Max Martin, Aliaksei Protas, Sergei Sapego, Jeremy Masella, Ozzy Wiesblatt and Kaiden Guhle delivered the thrills.
    Scott was named the CHL goaltender of the year.
Raiders fans greeted the team returning home from the Memorial Cup.
    To be fair, all the players that suited up for the Raiders were crucial to contributing to the special campaign.
    Every night it seemed someone new was ready to step up in a big moment.
    A highlight for myself personally was being able to contribute to the Prince Albert Daily Herald’s special Raiders section when the team went off to the Memorial Cup. I hadn’t appeared in the pages of the Daily Herald since I last worked there in September of 2004.
    I was happy to hopefully add to the Raiders lore in typing out the “More than just a hockey team” column that appeared on this blog and in the Daily Herald.
    Another highlight for myself was how this special season helped me get back in contact with a number of Raiders alums I covered when I was at the Daily Herald from 2001 to 2004.
    In 2018-19, the Raiders were the team they were always meant to be. Everyone in Prince Albert went on a ride that will always be remembered and engrained in the psyche of that town.

2. Valkyries win CJFL title, go 9-0 for Filteau

Justin Filteau, left, on the Valkyries sideline in May.
    It was amazing to see love and emotion allowed the Saskatoon Valkyries to lift themselves to greater heights.
    The Valkyries stormed out of the gates of the 2019 Western Women’s Canadian Football League season with a 3-0 regular season record and a 4-0 overall mark. Quarterback Alex Eyolfson was throwing rockets all over the place to receivers Rachelle Smith, Ricki Obed, Kelsey Murphy and sisters Danielle and Haley Girolami.
    Running backs Sam Matheson and Sarah Wright were tearing things up on the ground. The offensive line anchored by Alyssa Funk gave ample freedom for the Valkyries offence to execute.
    The defence featuring Beth Lalonde, Denise Kolosky, Jaime Lammerding, Emmarae Dale, Danaye Holynski, Kori Herner and Ehjae Chan was dominant.
    Head coach Pat Barry and the coaches on his staff were making all the right moves.
Emmarae Dale (#45) makes a big hit for the Valkyries.
    At that point things could have come off the rails.
    On June 1, Valkyries beloved defensive position coach Justin Filteau was in Medicine Hat, Alta., for a social function and boarded a small plane bound for Moose Jaw, Sask.
    Filteau planned to arrive in Moose Jaw and drive out to Regina to meet up with the Valkyries for their final regular season game against the host Riot on June 2.
    The 26-year-old never made it to Moose Jaw. The plane he was in crashed shortly after takeoff just east of Medicine Hat and all three persons on board died.
    The Valkyries found out about Filteau’s passing before they hit the field to play the Riot in Regina.
    The Saskatoon side walked to the field holding hands and pulled out a 22-7 victory. 
    The Valkyries dedicated the rest of their season to Filteau’s memory.
Sam Matheson was in top form running the ball for the Valkyries.
    That June 2 win allowed the Valkyries to finish the WWCFL regular season with a 4-0 record and improve their overall mark to 5-0.
    They embarked on their post-season march still grieving and coming to grips with Filteau’s sudden passing.
    Filteau played linebacker with CJFL’s Saskatoon Hilltops from 2010 to 2014 and with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team from 2015 to 2017 in the U Sports ranks.
    He helped coach the Bishop James Mahoney High School Saints in Saskatoon as well as other minor football programs in the city.
    Out all the teams Filteau had an impact on, the Valkyries were the one squad that had to immediately find their way in the healing process.
Valkyries coaches and staffers remembered Justin Filteau with old humour.
    Filteau’s celebration of life was held in Saskatoon between the Valkyries WWCFL quarter-final and semifinal playoff wins.
    Playing to honour Filteau’s memory sped the Valkyries up. During the playoffs, the Valkyries coaches and staffers often wore “Filteau’s the worst” T-shirts.
    That came from the memory from the Valkyries awards night in 2017, when the players presented Filteau with a T-shirt that said “Filteau’s the worst” as a joke gift.
    On June 29, the Valkyries returned to Mosaic Stadium to face the Riot in the WWCFL championship game and posted a 25-3 victory. On July 6, the Valkyries capped a perfect 9-0 season downing the Montreal Blitz 39-12 in a post-season exhibition game at Saskatoon Minor Football Field.
    The bulk of the Valkyries emotions came out after the WWCFL championship win.
Ron Filteau, with trophy, was part of the Valkyries WWCFL title celebrations.
    Following that contest, the Valkyries brought Justin’s father, Ron Filteau, down to the field.
    The players gave Ron a big group hug. He took part in the traditional team pictures with the championship trophy.
    Chan, who was in her sixth year as a defensive back, made two interceptions in the WWCFL championship game win and summed things up eloquently post-game.
    “This feels unreal, especially with everything that has happened this year, the adversity our team has experience and overcome on this field,” said Chan. “It means so much like more than words can even express.
    “For us to be here to have played in this game and pulled through, we really felt coach (Justin) Filteau here today. This game was 100 per cent for him. I think for us it just felt fitting.”

1. Raiders win Game 7 of WHL final in OT

The Raiders mob Dante Hannoun after he scored the WHL title OT winner.
    This was one of those “it will stick with you for the rest of your life moments.”
    Of course, my greatest memory from 2019 was being in the Art Hauser Centre to cover the host Prince Albert Raiders downing the Vancouver Giants 3-2 in overtime in Game 7 of the WHL Championship series in front of a sellout crowd of 3,289 spectators at the 2,580 seat rink.
    I can still see star overage centre Noah Gregor turning around in the left side of the offensive zone in the east end of the rink and sending a backdoor feed to linemate and fellow overage centre Dante Hannoun.
    Hannoun tapped in the backdoor feed from Gregor for the winning goal with 1:35 remaining in the extra frame.
Raiders captain Brayden Pachal raises the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    Hannoun proceeded to skate across the ice in jubilation after tallying the winner, and the Raiders piled on top of him along the left corner boards on the west end of the building.
    I took what I consider an iconic shot of Hannoun’s reaction to his overtime winner, which was the first picture that led off this top 10 post. It will go down as one of my all-time favourite moments I have ever captured on photo.
    During that game day of Monday, May 13, I had this surreal calm feeling that Game 7 night at the Art Hauser Centre was going to be special. There have been two Game 7s in the WHL final that were decided in overtime, and I was in the building to cover both of them.
Dante Hannoun will always be a hero in Prince Albert.
    The other came in 2007, when Brennan Bosch scored in double overtime to give the Medicine Hat Tigers a 3-2 victory over the Giants before a sellout crowd of 4,006 spectators at The Arena in Medicine Hat. That went down as the signature moment in the Tigers long time iconic home rink.
    When Hannoun scored his OT winner for the Raiders, I had the privilege of witnessing the signature moment in the Raiders long time iconic home rink. “The Mad Hauser” might have never been as loud as when Hannoun scored his magnificent marker.
    I covered the Raiders as a beat writer for the Prince Albert Daily Herald from 2001 to 2004, and I knew how special the relationship was with that team and its fans. It a lot of ways, the identity of Prince Albert is locked in with the skilled and tough identity of the Raiders.
    If the Raiders went on a championship run to relive their past history, I knew just how special that run would be for the small northern Saskatchewan centre.
    When the Raiders did win the WHL title in the fashion that they did, the reality of what they accomplished was far better than the dream.
Noah Gregor set up the WHL title winning OT goal.
    I had known and been friends with general manager Curtis Hunt and head coach Marc Habscheid for almost two decades by that point, and I was really happy for both.
    It was particularly sweet to see Hunt enjoy the win, because he was a Raiders player on their WHL title and Memorial Cup winning team in 1985 and this was his first WHL title win in a management role.
    I enjoyed seeing the Raiders core of eight in captain Brayden Pachal, Parker Kelly, Zach Hayes, Max Martin, Spencer Moe, Cole Fonstad, Sean Montgomery and netminder Ian Scott grow together over three seasons.
    Montgomery, who was an overage centre, was a career member of the Raiders playing as a regular with the club since his 16-year-old season. He played in a team record 345 career regular season games in Raiders colours.
    When he got to skate with the Ed Chynoweth Cup over his head, you kind of hoped that moment would last forever.
The Raiders faithful shows their appreciation for Dante Hannoun.
    It was special seeing Brett Leason enjoy the league title win. His father, Darryl, has been a good friend going back to my days at the University of Regina, and we have lots of good memories linked with the Rams football team.
    It was great to see skills coach Mark Odnokon and athletic therapist and equipment manager Duane “Puff” Bartley soak in the moment. I used to see them lots when I worked in Prince Albert.
    I was pumped the fans in Prince Albert could witness this moment in their own community, and I know they will carry it for the rest of their lives.
The Raiders pose for the team picture with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    It was the best feel good moment for the Raiders. There is a huge family feeling with everyone involved with that team, and it so shone through on that WHL title winning day.
    I thank God for lining everything up to allow me to be at the Art Hauser Centre for that night. It will stick out and be special forever.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.
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Saturday, 28 December 2019

Blades continue to hold hex over Raiders

Saskatoon claims 6-3 victory for fourth straight win versus P.A.

The Blades celebrate a empty-net goal from Kyle Crnkovic, centre.
    It might have looked pretty and then not looked pretty, but the Saskatoon Blades still found a way to keep a hex hanging over the Prince Albert Raiders.
    On Saturday at the SaskTel Centre, the Blades jumped out to a 5-0 lead at one point in the second period only to have the Raiders cut the gap to 5-3 going into the second intermission.
    While the defending WHL champion Raiders pressed in the third, they weren’t able to get any closer on the scoreboard.
    Blades 17-year-old sophomore left-winger Kyle Crnkovic tipped home a shot from linemate Tristen Robins into an empty net to seal a 6-3 victory for the host side before 3,868 spectators.
    In six head-to-head encounters between the two sides, the Blades have won five of those contests. 
    Saturday’s game finished a stretch where the two clubs played each other three straight times, and the Blades took every single one of those encounters. The Blades have won their last four straight games against the Raiders.
Scott Walford had two goals and an assist for the Blades.
    “I think it is just that we’ve come out and really embraced the rivalry,” said Blades overage defenceman Scott Walford, who had two goals and an assist in the win. “I think it is something we have to do maybe against other teams.
    “We just have to bring that intensity to every game. They are at the top of our division for a reason. They are a fast team.
    “They are a hard team to play against. They are well coached. I think it is big for us to really take that into the next games, and we can show what kind of team we have.”
    The game got off to a big start for the host side when Blades 18-year-old sophomore defenceman Matthew Sanders fired home a shot from the point at the 1:50 mark of the opening frame to give Saskatoon a 1-0 lead. Sanders’ tally was his first goal of his WHL career and came on the Blades’ first shot of the game.
Ilya Usau had two goals and an assist for the Raiders.
    Captain Chase Wouters scored at the six-minute mark and Walford potted his first of the night at the 7:13 mark of the opening frame to give the Blades a 3-0 edge.
    The tallies by Wouters and Walford came on the same power play after Raiders right-winger Jacob Brook was given a major penalty for hitting Blades overage defenceman Nolan Kneen from behind.
    The infraction against Brook will be automatically reviewed by the WHL office for a possible suspension.
    After Walford gave the Blades a 3-0 edge, the Raiders pulled starting netminder Carter Serhyenko, who stopped one of four shots sent his way.
    Boston Bilous played the rest of the way for the Raiders turning away 14-of-16 shots fired in his direction.
Blades captain Chase Wouters (#44) screens Raiders goalie Carter Serhyenko.
    Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid said Serhyenko, who is from Saskatoon, had an off night.
    “This is his hometown,” said Habscheid. “(Serhyenko has been) really good and consistent for us.
    “Really, this is his first game where he had a tough night. He’s a young guy (and) whatever experience good or bad is good for him. I felt bad for him as he’s been consistent for us.
    “He just had a tough one.”
    At the start of the second, it appeared a route would be on. Walford netted his second of the contest just 35 seconds into the frame, and 16-year-old right-winger Colton Dach tallied at the 4:32 mark of the stanza to put the Blades up 5-0.
Matthew Sanders scored his first career WHL goal on Saturday.
    The Raiders called a timeout after the Blades fifth goal in order to regroup.
    “No matter what, to get goals scored on you that quickly puts you on your heels (and) that’s what happened to us,” said Habscheid. “I want guys to keep their composure, but it’s tough.
    “Young guys, once they gathered and collected themselves we were pretty good.”
    Raiders 18-year-old rookie left-winger Ilya Usau stopped the bleeding scoring at the 10:34 mark of the second to cut the Blades lead to 5-1.
    Usau potted his second of the contest with 1:23 remaining in the second, and Raiders Belarusian import centre Aliaksei Protas netted his 20th goal of the campaign just 33 seconds later to trim the Blades lead to 5-3. Usau picked up an assist on Protas’s goal.
Nolan Maier made 35 saves in goal for the Blades on Saturday.
    Blades associate coach Ryan Marsh said his club focused on regrouping in the second intermission noting they still led the contest.
    “We just had to get back to our game,” said Marsh. “I thought that we were a little bit careless with our puck management a little bit.
    “A credit to them. They really stepped their game up and started to push hard and had some good extended O-zone play and put us into some bad spots. I thought our competitiveness in the D-zone was a little bit lackadaisical.
    “You get up, and you start to cheat a little bit on offence. Our details weren’t great there, and they stepped their game up. We were able to come in after the second and regroup, and I thought we had a pretty good third period.”
    The Raiders outshot the Blades 17-5 in the third, but couldn’t get anything past Blades star netminder Nolan Maier.
The Blades fans enjoy their team’s victory on Saturday.
    Maier made 35 saves to pick up the win. He has played in all of the Blades encounters with the Raiders this season and has stopped 170-of-180 shots fired his way in those games.
    The effort by the Yorkton, Sask., product allowed the Blades to lock away the game with Crnkovic’s empty-net goal.
    “Nolan (Maier) is a phenomenal goalie, and any time that he has a great game we normally win,” said Walford. “I think he had another stellar performance tonight.
    “I don’t think we were as god as we could have been in front of him at times. That is something that we are going to have to go back to the drawing board on.”
    Going forward, Walford would like to see his club explode offensively again like they did on Saturday. The Coquitlam, B.C., product said the key for his squad is to not over think things in the offensive zone.
The Blades celebrate their win on Saturday.
    “Every time that we have success offensively, normally, we keep it pretty simple,” said Walford. “It is when we are forcing things that we don’t get our offence.
    “A lot of plays start in our own end, and it is just simple chip out of the zone. Guys come through, pick it up and make another chip. Somehow, we get an offensive zone possession.
    “We work it around, and that is our team. If we can keep it simple and get it in and make plays when we have time that is how we score.”
    The Blades improved to 17-15-1-2 with the win, while the Raiders fell to 20-11-3-1.
    The Raiders return to action on Monday, when they host the Winnipeg Ice (21-13-1) at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre. Prince Albert sits first in the WHL’s East Division one point ahead of Winnipeg, so Monday’s clash looms as a big one.
    The Blades are back at it on Wednesday, when they host the Ice on New Year’s Day on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Blades’ Huber issued two-game suspension for head hit

Blades RW Zach Huber was suspended by the WHL on Saturday.
    The Saskatoon Blades were without 19-year-old right-winger Zach Huber on Saturday due to a suspension imposed by the WHL office for supplemental discipline.
    Huber received a two game suspension for delivering a head hit to Prince Albert Raiders star left-winger Ozzy Wiesblatt with 2:19 remaining in the third period of a regular season game won 3-2 by the Blades on Friday night at the Art Hauser Centre.
    Huber was given a minor penalty for checking to the head at the time of the infraction.
    On the play, Wiesblatt toe dragged around a Raiders defenceman and wired a shot on goal that was stopped by Blades star netminder Nolan Maier.
    After shooting the puck, Wiesblatt was drilled with a high hit from Huber. Wiesblatt went down on the play, but left the ice under his own power.
    He came out for the second shift of the ensuing Raiders power play and finished the game.
Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid made his feelings noted about the hit following Friday’s game.
    “We’ll let the league deal with that, but that was a dangerous hit,” said Habscheid. “We’re trying to protect the players.
    “The head was targeted, and we will see what the league says about it.”
    The Raiders appealed to the league office following the contest for the play to be looked at.
    Huber will conclude his suspension missing the Blades upcoming game on Wednesday at 2 p.m. on New Year’s Day against the Winnipeg Ice.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.
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