Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Wildcats stand in Stars return road to Esso Cup

The Stars aim to build off their latest SFMAAAHL title win.
    Only one more obstacle stands in the Saskatoon Stars way of returning to the Esso Cup.
    On Friday, the Stars will begin a best-of-three Western regional playdown series against the Hartney, Man., based Westman Wildcats at 7:30 p.m. at Merlis Belsher Place. Game 2 of the series is slated for 3:45 p.m. at Merlis, and if necessary, Game 3 will be held on Sunday at 2:45 p.m. at Merlis.
    The winner of the series advanced to the Esso Cup female midget AAA national hockey championship tournament, which runs April 21 to 27 in Sudbury, Ont.
    The Stars posted a 27-1 regular season record in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League and went on to capture their fourth league title in the last five years. They advanced to the gold medal game of last year’s Esso Cup falling 2-1 to the Alberta based St. Albert Slash, who claimed the national crown for a second straight year.
    The Wildcats topped the regular season standings of the Manitoba Female Midget AAA Hockey League with a 21-5-2 record before advancing on to win the league crown. They also won the inaugural Esso Cup title back in 2009.
    The Stars will enter the series as favourites due to carrying a roster that contains players that have loads of post-season experience blended in with some talented rookies and second-year players.
Ashley Messier has had an outstanding season on the Stars blue-line.
    Grace Shirley, who is the Stars outstanding 17-year-old captain, led the team in regular season scoring with 27 goals and 21 assists for 48 points. She was the second leading scorer in the SFMAAAHL.
    Shirley was on the Stars roster in their three previous visits to the Esso Cup in 2015, 2016 and last season. She played in the 2015 tournament as an associate player call up.
    Kaitlin Jockims, who is another standout 17-year-old forward, finished second in Stars team scoring with 21 goals and 24 assists for 45 points. All of those totals were career highs for Jockims.
    Anna Leschyshyn was third in team scoring with 18 goals and 21 assists for 39 points and is also looking to graduate from the midget AAA ranks after this season on a high note.
    Joelle Fiala, who is also playing her final midget AAA season, was fourth in team scoring with 11 goals and 24 assists for 35 points.
    The Stars have a strong defensive unit that can get things done offensively as well. Ashley Messier, who just turned 17-years-old in late March, led all Stars defenders in regular season scoring with career highs in goals (five), assists (27) and points (32).
    Chace Sperling, who turned 17-years-old in January, had a breakout year on the back end posting career highs in regular season play in goals (eight), assists (12) and points (20).
    In goal, the Stars will likely turn to steady third-year veteran Arden Kliewer. Kliewer, who turned 17-years-old in February, was outstanding in the regular season posting a 16-0 record, a 1.21 goals against average, a .941 save percentage and seven shutouts.
Arden Kliewer has been stellar in goal for the Stars.
    For the Wildcats, their two most dynamic scorers are Alisha O’Hara and Paige Hubbard. O’Hara, who is in her final season of midget AAA eligibility, led the Wildcats in scoring with 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points.
    Hubbard, who is also in her final midget AAA campaign, was second in Wildcats team scoring with 16 goals and 13 assists for 29 points.
    Defender Jori Hansen-Young quarterbacks the power play leading all Wildcats blue-liners in scoring with four goals and 13 assists.
    In goal, 15-year-old Natalie Williamson carried the bulk of the workload in the playoffs for the Wildcats. In 12 regular season appearances, Williamson posted a 9-2-1 record, a 1.73 goals against average, a .936 save percentage and two shutouts.
    Way back in 2009, the Wildcats swept the first ever Western regional playdown series against the Prince Albert Northern Bears 2-0. A Manitoba champion hasn’t won that series since 2012, when the Morden-based Pembina Valley Hawks swept the Notre Dame Hounds 2-0 and moved on to capture the Esso Cup.
    Last year, the Stars swept away the Eastman Selects in Steinbach, Man., 2-0.

Blazers had a great run

Nolan Allan had an outstanding season for the Blazers.
    The Saskatoon Blazers are likely still feeling some lingering disappointments, but they had a great run in 2018-19.
    Last Friday, the Blazers saw their season come to an end, when they fell 4-1 in Game 4 of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League Championship series to the Notre Dame Hounds at the Duncan McNeill Arena in Wilcox, Sask. Notre Dame took the best-of-five series 3-1.
    The Hounds won the SMAAAHL title for the second straight year and are hoping to win the Telus Cup midget AAA national title for a second straight year too.
    Notre Dame heads to the four team Telus Cup Western Regionals tournament that starts Thursday and runs to Sunday in Tisdale, Sask. The winner advances to the Telus Cup, which runs April 22 to 28 in Thunder Bay, Ont.
    Last Friday, the Blazers and Hounds were locked in a 1-1 after two periods before the Hounds closed the contest out with three goals in the third.
    Trey Funk scored for Notre Dame in the first period and Keenan Allan replied for the Blazers in the second frame.
    In the third, Maxwell Joy and Coalson Wolford put the Hounds up 3-1, and Cam Recchi sealed the win with an empty-net goal inside of the final 30 seconds of the third.
    Thomas Wardle made 18 saves in goal for the Hounds. Matthew Pesenti turned away 20-of-23 shots in goal for the Blazers.
    The Blazers finished third in the SMAAAHL regular season with a 31-10-3 record, while the Hounds were fourth with a 28-12-2-2 mark.
    The campaign was an outstanding one for the Blazers, who finished five points behind the Regina Pat Canadians for first place in the regular season.
Rhett Gibson sets to fire a shot on goal for the Blazers.
    Nolan Allan, who was a 15-year-old rookie with the Blazers, was named the top defenceman of the SMAAAHL and a first team all-star. Having been selected in the first round and third overall in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft by the Prince Albert Raiders, Allan will likely make the jump to the WHL club next season.
    He had 12 goals and 23 assists for 35 points in 39 regular season games with the Blazers. Allan appeared in seven regular season games with the Raiders collecting one assist.
    Cole Nagy, who is 17-year-old forward with the Blazers, was named a first team SMAAAHL all-star, while 15-year-old rookie netminder Brett Mirwald was a second team SMAAAHL all-star.
    Due to the fact most SMAAAHL rosters experience almost a 70 per cent turnover from year to year with players moving to the major junior and junior A ranks, the Blazers are far from guaranteed from having a follow up stellar campaign next season.
    With that said, those that were part of the Blazers team this season made memories they will never forget.

Labach is “the queen” of the Huskies

Julie Labach won two major Huskies awards.
    Track star Julie Labach has to take the title as “the queen” of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
    Last Friday at the Huskie Salute held at TCU Place, Labach, who stands 5-foot-7, completed a fifth and final season with the Huskies being named the winner of the Mary Ethel Cartwright Trophy as the program’s female athlete of the year for a second straight year. The 22-year-old also claimed the Valerie Gisberger Award as the top female all-around athlete combining excellence in the classroom and in athletics.
    To say Labach had a sensational year might actually be an understatement. She had a season that was beyond a dream.
    Labach was named U Sports female track athlete of the year. At U Sports nationals, Labach won gold in women’s 1,000-metre race and added silver in the women’s 600-metre race. She was also a member of the Huskies 4 X 400 women’s relay team that capture gold.
    At the Canada West Conference championships, Labach won gold in the women’s 600 and 1,000 metre races and helped the Huskies women’s team capture the team conference championship.
    In the classroom, Labach was named an academic all-Canadian in her first four seasons with the Huskies. She is currently completing her first year of studies in law school.
    Actually, Labach is so gifted and outstanding that we would all be fortune to work for her or be her “yes person” in the future. She is pretty personable and modest, so you have to like her when you meet her.
Julie Labach had a dream final U Sports season.
    Labach became the first double winner of the all-around and athlete of the year awards since former wrestler Daniel Olver pulled of the same feat on the men’s side in 2011.
    These days, Olver is the head coach of both Huskies wrestling teams, and he was named the winner of the Colb McEwon Trophy as the coach of the year for the Huskies program. Olver guided the Huskies women’s wrestling team to a Canada West title and a second place finish at U Sports nationals.
    He also took home honours as the Canada West and U Sports coach of the year in women’s wrestling.
    Midfielder Payton Izsak of the Huskies women’s soccer team won the Patricia Lawson Trophy as the Huskies female rookie of the year.
    Sophomore netminder Taran Kozun of the Huskies men’s hockey team claimed the E. Kent Phillps Trophy as the program’s male athlete of the year.
    Kyle Siemens, who was the fifth-year quarterback of the Huskies football team, took home the Rusty MacDonald Cup as the top male all-around athlete combining excellence in the classroom and in athletics.
    Logan Sloan of the Huskies men’s wrestling team captured the Howard Nixon Trophy as the program’s male athlete of the year.
    Brianna Antonichuk and Melinda Ardagh were both winners of the Dr. Walter Hader Student Trainer of the Year Award.

CWHL’s demise leaves a big hole

    One of the surprising news stories of the week occurred on Sunday, when the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced it will be folding on May 1 after 12 seasons of existence.
    The circuit first hit the ice in 2007 creating a new professional league for women’s hockey.
    The announcement to fold seemed to shock everyone involved with women’s hockey.
    On Tuesday, the National Women’s Hockey League, which is based in the United States, announced plans to expand to Toronto and Montreal for the start of next season. The possibility that the NWHL could add more expansion teams wasn’t ruled out.
    The CWHL had four teams in Canada, one in Worcester, Massachusetts and one in Shenzhen, China. It is uncertain if any of these franchises will resurface in another league.
    Here is hoping that the void can be filled that the demise of the CWHL will leave.
    In its final season existence, the CWHL provided a great opportunity to Kaitlin Willoughby, who is a forward from Prince Albert, Sask., originally hailing from Canwood, Sask.
    Willoughby, who turned 24-years-old in late March, starred for five seasons with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team becoming the program’s second all-time leading scorer posting 50 goals and 61 assists for 111 points in 132 regular season games.
    From 2008 to 2013, she appeared in 96 regular season games with the Prince Albert Northern Bears of the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League piling up 34 goals and 63 assists for 97 points.
    When her midget AAA career finished, Willoughby was viewed as a good player, but she wasn’t declared a phenom that was on Hockey Canada’s radar.
    During her university career, Willoughby continued to improve and blew past a larger number of players that put up more points than she did or were viewed as better than her in midget AAA.
    Hockey Canada took notice, and Willoughby earned a spot on Canada’s women’s team that won silver at the FISU Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan in 2017.
    She was invited out to Hockey Canada summer development camps for three straight years from 2016 to 2018. Last September, Willoughby was one of 59 players invited to Canada’s National Women’s Hockey Team’s Fall Festival in Dawson Creek, B.C.
    That camp is used to evaluate and develop Canada’s top female players and players can earn a chance to play on Canada’s Senior National Women’s team from that camp.
    During each of those points, Willoughby earned an invite from her accomplishments with the Huskies. At the Fall Festival, it could be argued that Willoughby was just there to be a camp body, but she managed to create a bigger blip on the radar for herself.
    If the CWHL didn’t exist at that point, it was possible Willoughby’s career as a competitive hockey player could have been done there.
    She suited up for the Calgary Inferno and played with and against the top women’s players in the world including senior national team members from Canada, the United States and a few countries in Europe.
    Willoughby had a goal and five assists in 27 regular season games with the Inferno and played in their 5-2 victory in the Clarkson Cup final on March 24 over Les Canadiennes de Montreal in Toronto, Ont. While her point total was modest, she showed off her athletic ability including her great speed that allowed her to pull away from players even at that level.
    Willoughby learned the ins and outs of playing with top level players, where you have to get to spots on the ice and the puck will be on the tape of your stick. She performed well enough that there was talk of having her play further up the Inferno’s lineup.
    A player like Willoughby is still improving, and you still wonder how good she could actually be. She has played well enough that if you cut her the person that makes that cut likely goes home and feels sick all night over that decision.
    Willoughby might play for Canada’s Senior National Women’s Hockey team and might play in a Winter Olympics one day. If she doesn’t have a league like the CWHL to play and improve in, all of a sudden she doesn’t have the vehicle that will give her the opportunity to reach her full potential.
    She also skated again for Canada in the last FISU Winter Universiade that recently wrapped up as the captain of the women’s hockey team in Krasnoyarsk, Russia. On March 11, Willoughby led Canada to the gold medal game, where they lost a 2-0 heartbreaker to the host Russian side.
    If there isn’t that professional option, it lessens the chance for female players that have their biggest improvement curves after high school to get on the radar of Hockey Canada. You have to hope you go to camp for or make Canada’s under-18 women’s team to get on that radar.
    While there is uncertainty in the women’s professional game, hopefully something works out to keep the players that were on the six CWHL clubs playing. It would be unfortunate to tell someone like Willoughby the time has come to pack it in after all the strides forward she has made.

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