The night that hockey fans were hoping for, but some admittedly thought wouldn’t happen, has finally arrived with the curtain to be lifted tonight on the 2020-21 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League regular season.
Delayed by more than six weeks due to restrictions put in place surrounding the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic, 10 of the 12 teams will hit the ice tonight with all 12 of the squads filling a full slate of games on Saturday.
The road to this point has been filled with plenty of uncertainty, but hard work by the board of governors, league members and volunteers has the SJHL ready to bring its high-energy brand of hockey back to the fans, albeit limited in numbers to start the season.
One of the major restrictions put in place by the provincial health authority is that no more than 150 fans will be allowed into the rink to start the season and while that number certainly puts a strain on the financial aspect of running a junior franchise – it is a start.
The hope is that in the not-so-distant future that number will be increased once the virus becomes more contained, if not eliminated, but for now this is the hand that is being dealt and after nearly eight months since a meaningful hockey game has been played, the enthusiasm for a successful return is palpable.
When play was called in March at the onset of the pandemic, the 2019-20 playoffs had just nicely gotten under way. The Flin Flon Bombers were the lone team to have won their opening round after sweeping the Humboldt Broncos in a quarter-final match-up while the regular-season champion Battlefords North Stars and Melfort Mustangs were each one win away from claiming decisions over the Nipawin Hawks and Estevan Bruins, respectively. The La Ronge Ice Wolves, who were making their first playoff appearance in four years, were deadlocked with the Viterra Division-champion Yorkton Terriers in the final opening-round match-up.
With those results now all a part of history, it is time to move forward and as is the case with each new season comes a high level of uncertainty as new players – and coaches – enter the league looking to make their mark.
Three of the four teams that missed out on qualifying for the post-season a year ago will have new men guiding their clubs behind the bench. Ken Plaquin takes over from Larry Wintoneak (who replaced Garry Childerhose) in Kindersley with the Klippers, Brett Pilkington assumes the head coach and general manager duties with the Notre Dame Hounds after Phil Roy left the club to become an assistant coach with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Shawinigan Cataractes and Mike Rooney is now the man in charge of the Melville Millionaires after that club decided to make a change from Jarrett Waldbauer who in turn had replaced Kyle Adams with just a handful of games left on the regular schedule. One other coaching change had the Estevan Bruins make a surprising move when they relieved Chris Lewgood after seven years, replacing him with Jason Tatarnic.
Coaching changes aren’t the only thing that will be new this year as the regular-season has been reduced from 58 games to 50 due to the late start meaning that the battle for the eight playoff spots will be intense right from opening night. Last year the four teams that missed the post-season were anywhere from nine to 26 points out of the final spot so with fewer games those margins will only be magnified.
Another twist to this season is the loaning of major junior players to SJHL squads to start the schedule. With the Western Hockey League not set to start its regular schedule until early January several players are starting the season in the SJHL to get in some game action before they go back to their regular teams.
Regardless of what has happened off the ice, just having meaningful hockey again is a morale boost for everyone. While it is hard to predict who will be strong and who might struggle, hearing and seeing real hockey once again is what everyone needs right now.
With that said, however, everyone has to be aware of what is still going on in the world. Things could be shut down on a moment’s notice, but as long as everyone – from the players to the staff to the volunteers to the fans – follows the protocols in place the level of excitement can only grow from here.
More than ever this is truly an exciting time.
Battlefords at Kindersley
Nipawin at La Ronge
Flin Flon at Melfort
Estevan at Melville
Humboldt at Yorkton
Kindersley at Battlefords
Melville at Estevan
Melfort at Flin Flon
Yorkton at Humboldt
La Ronge at Nipawin
Notre Dame at Weyburn
Weyburn at Notre Dame