By Dave Leaderhouse
The Weyburn Red Wings returned to the upper echelon of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League one year ago winning the Viterra Division title with a 35-14-5-4 record.
A quarter-final loss to the Flin Flon Bombers ended the spectacular turnaround leaving the southeastern Saskatchewan community excited about the future, but that future is now in the hands of a new regime following some off-season shuffling of staff.
Bryce Thoma, who had brought the program back from the ashes during his three seasons as head coach and general manager, left the team in July to accept an assistant coaching position with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades.
After an exhaustive search the Red Wings promoted from within making assistant coach Wes Rudy the new bench boss and Tanner McCall, an assistant GM last year, the general manager and head scout. Brock Appleyard has also been brought on board as an assistant coach.
That trio takes over a team that has some great building blocks in place despite the loss of some key players due to graduation.
The most notable absence will be goaltender of the year Jack Burghart, who moves on to Bemidji State University after a sensational season that saw him post a 1.97 goal-against average and .935 save percentage in 43 appearances.
Rudy, who was the Red Wings’ goaltender coach for two years before moving up to be an assistant last year, said prior to training camp that goaltending will be wide open this season, but that problem was solved when Weyburn acquired 20-year-old Nathan Hargrave from the Kindersley Klippers for a player development fee. Hargraves saw action in 47 games for the Klippers last year and finished with a 3.53 GAA and .898 save percentage.
Those numbers are a bit misleading as Hargrave played on a team that allowed almost 100 more goals than the Red Wings did last year and he should only benefit from having a stronger team in front of him.
Among those helping Hargrave keeping the Red Wings as one of the stingiest defences in the league will be defenceman Mike Eskra. The third-year Regina product missed half of last year with an injury, but he still managed 21 points in 30 games.
Up front, their top scorer from last year, Braden Mellon (17-40-57) is back. Rudy also singled out 6-foot-8 forward Ian Parker as a key returnee and throw in the likes of 18-year-old Tyran Brown, who is another giant at 6-foot-5, and the Red Wings will have a big presence in the opposing end.
Rudy admitted the lateness in the coaching change delayed some commitments to be made for the team, but the 3-1 pre-season record certainly indicates that the Red Wings are on track for another successful season. Having the roster finalized and getting the players working together as a group will only make them that much better.