By Dave Leaderhouse
The official end to summer is less than two weeks away, as far as the calendar is concerned, but for hockey players and staff, along with the fans and countless volunteers, that season is now behind us and the dawn of another Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League regular season has arrived.
Training camps have ended and initial rosters have been selected creating excitement and optimism in each and every one of the 12 league centres. For the 50th straight season opening night is a special event, but none of the previous 49 will even come close to what is expected to occur in Humboldt on Wednesday.
A national audience, along with a jam-packed Elgar Peterson Arena, will witness the rebirth of the Humboldt Broncos as that franchise rises from the ashes of a tragic bus accident last April that decimated the team when 16 members were killed and another 13 were injured while they were en route to Nipawin to play the Hawks in a semi-final contest.
A tribute to those who were on that bus will be held prior to the game between Humboldt and, fittingly, Nipawin, with the Canadian Junior Hockey League also honouring the team when the first of 133 “We Play for Them” banners will be raised to the rafters.
There will be no shortage of emotion as the tragic event gripped everyone locally, nationally and even globally. In just over five months, the Humboldt franchise has endured unbearable grief and disbelief to rebound with a resilience that has been unmatched.
Nathan Oystrick has been brought in as the new head coach and general manager to replace Darcy Haugen, one of the 16 who lost his life on that fateful April 6 afternoon. Oystrick and his staff have assembled a squad that has been built from recruitment, player dispersement and the return of two roster players – Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter. For those two the evening will be even more poignant and the reception they are sure to receive will be heard around the world.
Wednesday’s game is naturally the lone contest on the schedule as the spotlight deserves to be pointed solely on a franchise and community that has endured so much. The first full slate of games will be two nights later with the Broncos and Hawks hooking up once again. That contest will also feature a special pre-game ceremony only this time it will be to celebrate something that hadn’t occurred in 28 years – Nipawin winning a league title.
The Hawks capped off a remarkable campaign with a hard-fought seven-game victory over the Estevan Bruins in the Canalta Cup final. While that triumph might have been tempered somewhat by what happened days earlier just outside of Nipawin, the Hawks had a season to remember, one that included a 30-game stretch with recording at least one point.
The remaining teams will get back to work on the weekend with the Battlefords North Stars and Kindersley Klippers, La Ronge Ice Wolves and Flin Flon Bombers, Melville Millionaires and Estevan Bruins and Melfort Mustangs and Notre Dame Hounds all squaring off in home-and-home double headers. The Weyburn Red Wings and Yorkton Terriers have just one meeting scheduled on opening weekend.
While the off-season centred on the rebuilding of the Humboldt franchise there was plenty of other activity as three other teams made coaching changes with Brayden Klimosko taking over the reins in the Battlefords, Clayton Jardine is now the head coach and general manager in Kindersley and Phil Roy assumes the same responsibilities in Notre Dame. All three will make their debuts on the weekend.
The SJHL has become one of the premiere development leagues in Canada and while this season will be different than the 49 that have preceded it, the competitive fires will certainly be stoked. A very satisfying trend has taken shape in which a growing number of players from the league are being noticed for post-secondary opportunities and this year it is expected to see that upswing continue.
Emotionally, this season will be unmatched, but from an entertainment perspective the season is expected to be high voltage. Let the games begin!
Nipawin at Humboldt (televised on TSN and CTV)
Kindersley at Battlefords
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Estevan at Melville
Humboldt at Nipawin
Yorkton at Weyburn
Melville at Estevan
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Battlefords at Kindersley
Notre Dame at Melfort
Melfort at Notre Dame