By Dave Leaderhouse
Let the games begin!
After more than four months away from the rink – in some cases it has been six months – the 12 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League teams get back to work for real this weekend with the first batch of 348 regular-season games taking to the ice in five locations.
Traditional rivalries between the La Ronge Ice Wolves and Flin Flon Bombers, Estevan Bruins and Weyburn Red Wings, Melville Millionaires and Yorkton Terriers, Battlefords North Stars and Kindersley Klippers and Melfort Mustangs and Nipawin Hawks are on the opening-night schedule with the Notre Dame Hounds and Humboldt Broncos getting their first action on Saturday when another full slate of games grabs the spotlight.
This is an exciting time of the year as not only is the season getting unwrapped, but it is the start of junior hockey careers for many new players. Each team will have an abundance of new faces as players lost to graduation or through trades have created openings for newcomers to make their mark in a league that continues to gain prominence in the Canadian Junior Hockey League.
The arrival of new talent isn’t limited to that just being showcased on the ice either as three clubs will have new faces behind the bench while two others will have coaches beginning their first full season in charge of their respective teams.
Former NHL players Kevin Kaminsky and Rich Pilon take over the La Ronge and Weyburn coaching responsibilities, respectively, while long-time Flin Flon assistant coach Gary Childerhose is the new man in charge in Kindersley. Scott Barney in Humboldt began last year as an assistant coach and Kyle Adams joined Melville a month into the season to help Devin Windle, but both were moved into the head coaching positions at various stages of the regular season when those clubs needed a shakeup to try and turn their respective seasons around.
Mat Hehr in Yorkton, Phil Roy in Notre Dame and Braden Klimosko in the Battlefords are also still relatively new to the league as they begin their sophomore campaigns, but in the case of Klimosko it will be a tall order to top his accomplishments from his rookie season as all he did was guide the North Stars to their second league championship in three years.
The other four teams all return long-time veteran bench bosses with Chris Lewgood in Estevan, Trevor Blevins in Melfort, Mike Reagan in Flin Flon and Doug Johnson in Nipawin combining for close to 2000 games at the SJHL level. For Johnson this weekend could put him in the Hawks’ record book as he needs just one more win to equal the franchise mark for coaching victories.
Picking a favourite at this time of the year is always a crapshoot as there are so many unknowns, but as the saying goes the defending champs are the ones to beat so the Battlefords begin the season with the biggest target on their backs.
But, there is a twist this year as the playoff format has been changed from previous seasons as the Wild Card round has been eliminated in favour of having just the top eight teams advance beyond the regular season. Previously, the ninth and 10th-place teams got an extra life as they would meet the seventh and eighth-place squads in a best-of-three preliminary round, but that has been nixed in favour of having just the top eight teams moving on. This change puts even more emphasis on each and every game and while training camp and the pre-season was just over two weeks in length it will be interesting to see who is more prepared when the puck drops for real, beginning tonight.
After this weekend there will be a light schedule during the week before things kick into high gear next weekend with another full slate of games leading up to the annual Showcase scheduled for Sept. 22-25 at the Legend’s Centre in Warman. This event, which brings all 12 teams to a centrally-located neutral site, attracts scouts from various levels of the game as the SJHL continues to promote its players for post-secondary and higher-level hockey opportunities. A second showcase, which pits players from the SJHL against their counterparts from the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, will be held in Regina in January.
From now until the first week of March, when the regular season concludes, the action is expected to be fast and exciting and fans in all 12 centres will certainly have plenty to look forward to. It takes a lot of hard work from countless volunteers, sponsors and team staff to make the season a success and all of those efforts come together beginning tonight.
Good luck to everyone involved and let’s make the 51st SJHL season something to remember.
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Melfort at Nipawin
Melville at Yorkton
Estevan at Weyburn
Battlefords at Kindersley
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Nipawin at Melfort
Yorkton at Melville
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Kindersley at Battlefords
Humboldt at Notre Dame