FULL-SLATE OF HOME-AND-HOME SETS KICKS OFF WHAT PROMISES TO BE ANOTHER EXCITING SEASON OF SJHL ACTION
With the record-breaking heat of the summer now in the rear-view mirror it is time to cool off our heels and get back on the ice as the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League kicks off its 2017-18 regular season with a full slate of games this weekend.
This is always an exciting time of the year as all teams are on a level playing field anxiously waiting to see how they stack up against the other clubs from around the league.
Competitive training camps and a bevy of pre-season tilts have given coaching staffs an opportunity to evaluate their respective talent and now the real work begins with the first of 348 regular-season contests from now until the beginning of March set to commence to determine who will still be in the running for the Canalta Cup.
The Battlefords North Stars enter the season as the early favourite having won the last two regular-season crowns and their first league championship in 17 years last spring when they swept through the playoffs winning all 12 games they played.
There is, however, a new boss in the Battlefords as Brandon Heck replaces Nate Bedford as the latter departed after just one season with the North Stars. Some key losses due to graduation and trades could bring them back closer to the pack, but there is still plenty of talent to make them a legitimate contender to repeat as champions.
The Flin Flon Bombers will undoubtedly have something to say about that as they will be hungry to get over that final hump having been a finalist in each of the last two years only to lose to the North Stars last spring and the Melfort Mustangs two years ago.
Bombers’ coach Mike Reagan will not only be focusing on his own squad, but will be keeping an eye on other talent as the veteran bench boss was recently named the Team West head coach for the annual World Junior “A” Challenge, which will be held in Truro, N.S., in mid-December.
The Nipawin Hawks and Estevan Bruins are also once again expected to ice strong teams as the Hawks have been semi-finalists in each of the last three seasons while the Bruins were a vastly improved squad a year ago when they laid claim to the Viterra Division banner.
That was in the past, however, and all 12 teams begin the season with the same record.
The La Ronge Ice Wolves enter a new era with Evan Vossen having control of the club for the entire season. The former Ice Wolves player took over the club early last year when La Ronge struggled mightily out of the gate so it will be interesting to see what kind of a stamp his first camp has on the club.
The Kindersley Klippers, Weyburn Red Wings, Humboldt Broncos, Notre Dame Hounds, Melfort Mustangs, Melville Millionaires and Yorkton Terriers will all be looking to challenge for division titles and as is the case with all 12 teams there will be holes to be filled due to players moving on so the team that has recruited the best will undoubtedly benefit the most.
Recruitment takes on a different strain this year as players taken in the recently-initiated annual bantam draft should have an impact on the various rosters. The bantam draft was introduced at the league meetings in 2015 so players selected that year will be more likely to move into full-time roles at the Junior “A” level this season.
That draft was one of many initiatives the league has implemented in recent years to make the SJHL more attractive for homegrown talent to remain in Saskatchewan and with work continuing to be done to provide more opportunities for players to seek a post-secondary education while continuing to play hockey at the conclusion of their junior careers, the league hopes the foundation continues to grow and retains more elite athletes.
Parity, for the most part, has been a staple with the SJHL in recent years and this season should follow that trend as there really is no clear-cut favourite. No one really saw the Battlefords being the dominant force they would be when camps broke last fall so who will it be this season? Or, will it be a fight to the finish for all 12 teams. The league and fans certainly feel this is the case.
As is the custom to start every year, it is a home-and-home schedule between rivals to kick off the campaign although this year has a bit of a twist with Weyburn meeting Yorkton and Melville taking on Estevan rather than the usual Weyburn-Estevan, Melville-Yorkton tilts. With that said, the hockey promises to be exciting from start to finish so fasten your seatbelts for the ride of your life.
La Ronge at Flin Flon
Nipawin at Melfort
Yorkton at Weyburn
Melville at Estevan
Battlefords at Kindersley
Flin Flon at La Ronge
Melfort at Nipawin
Estevan at Melville
Notre Dame at Humboldt
Kindersley at Battlefords
Weyburn at Yorkton
Humboldt at Notre Dame