Voice of the N.D. Hounds
The 2018-2019 Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League campaign is just around the corner, with pre-season games already in the books, and the regular season set to start Sept. 12.
I've been tasked to do a ’10 Things’ piece every week of this season, and am looking forward to sharing my thoughts on a regular basis. But enough jibber-jabber, let’s get to it for this week!
1. Honourably mentioned: The Canadian Junior Hockey League, the body that governs all legitimate Tier II Junior ‘A’ leagues (hit me up elsewhere if you want to know what I mean by ‘legitimate’) in our nation, released its pre-season national power rankings a couple days ago. It would be low-hanging fruit to comment on what Saskatchewan teams made that cut every week, so I’ll try not to, but I would be remiss to omit the fact that three SJ squads made the Top 20, and Humboldt was thrown an honourable mention. There are presently 10 leagues and 132 clubs under the CJHL umbrella, so having that many up there is not a bad tip of the cap to the work being done here. The defending Saskatchewan League champion Nipawin Hawks were slid in at No. 6, the Battlefords North Stars at No. 13, and the Melfort Mustangs are at No. 17. The always relevant Penticton Vees (British Columbia Hockey League) and Brooks Bandits (Alberta Junior Hockey League) were given the one-two spots, respectively.
2. The key departed: Turnover due to graduation and ‘guys moving on’ is a fact of life for every junior hockey team, but the SJHL lost a truly exceptional group of talent this off-season. The scoring leaderboard was littered with 1997-birth years, and those that watch the league will definitely miss watching the likes of Layne Young (Battlefords), Logan Schatz (Humboldt, RIP), and Zach Goberis (Estevan) lighting the province up like a Christmas tree – goaltenders perhaps excepted. Speaking of, the Notre Dame Hounds will certainly miss Jacob Standen patrolling their crease (though injuries derailed the end of what was a brilliant campaign last year for the new Wilfrid Laurier University puck stopper), while Estevan’s late season acquisition of netminder Bo Didur from Salmon Arm in the BCHL was an enormous factor for their run to the final. It would be a foolish endeavour to try to name all the key departees, but the second and third most dominant players in the league after Young, in my opinion, were defencemen Josh McDougall of Nipawin (a ’98, but has moved on to Mercyhurst University in the NCAA), and Melfort’s Loch Morrison (a ’97 birth year off to Acadia University of USports). Also have to tip my cap to perhaps the league’s most under-appreciated star Clayton Eisler, who captained the brutally inconsistent Melville Millionaires last year, and can be seen this season attempting to help turn around the fortunes of the University of Regina’s men’s hockey program.
3. Saskatchewan Exodus: The biggest challenge to the growth of the SJHL that I’ve observed is the difficulty general managers have in keeping the best Saskatchewan talent in house; an exceptionally important element given the relatively small population of the province. This off-season’s haul of midget players shipping off west to Alberta and BC, or south to the USHL is large, and includes the Telus Cup winning captain Cody Lehner of Prince Albert, off to the Bonnyville Pontiacs (AJHL), as well as the likes of Aberdeen, SK’s Kyrell Sopotyk, who was so electric during the Prince Albert Mintos run to the Saskatchewan midget final, and who has signed with the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League. The exodus continues…
4. Humboldt-Nipawin starter: Tip of the cap to the SJHL for opening the season in Humboldt, with the Nipawin Hawks in town, as the only game on Sept. 12. The story of the crash, and the circumstances around it are well reported, but that these two were the clubs in the playoff series when it all happened, means that it makes all sorts of sense to kick off this way.Another tip of the cap to TSN for showing the game nationally, and if you can’t come out to Humboldt, I suggest that you find a way to tune in: it is going to be one emotional night. Check out my interview with Humboldt crash survivor Kaleb Dahlgren here: https://bit.ly/2o4UJKa.
5. Attention on Humboldt: New Humboldt head coach Nathan Oystrick certainly has a big job on and off the ice, and even if they have brought in some solid talent, it will be interesting to see how quickly an almost completely new batch of players can gel. That embattled community has obviously been bombarded all summer with feelings, emotions, and sentiments, and just so, but I am going to try to stick to the hockey side of the Humboldt story in this section (I’ll try). The best news for the Broncos might be that the other teams in the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division all have new coaches as well, and will be similarly in search of their respective identities from the off.
6. What other clubs should do with Humboldt in town: Briefly, I think they should give it a moment of silence, maybe a quick announcement, and get on with hockey. Feel free to disagree, but I feel the community, staff and players involved with the 2018-19 Broncos will have plenty of emotional moments, and so they should, but let us let them just be hockey players when they come to town. Just my opinion…
7. ND's Japanese connection: I love the little stories of how players end up on certain clubs, especially in the occasional ‘wild west’ feel of Tier II Junior A hockey in Canada. One of those guys is Sho Takai: born in Japan, moved to B.C. as a four-month-old, grew up to love hockey, and while representing the Notre Dame Hounds, is hoping to join up with the Team Japan U20s for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Division IB World U20 Championships Dec 8 to 14 in Tychy, Poland. Really nice kid too, and he can really play.
8. Renwick v Gallagher: Speaking of ND, the Hounds opened up their pre-season on Monday in an all-rookie game against the Estevan Bruins in Wilcox, and it was a chance to see two guys that I expect to be a couple of the top first years in the league this year.Power forward Nolan Renwick joins the league fresh off a 10-point Telus Cup, in which his Notre Dame Hounds claimed the Midget National Championship. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound smooth-skating centreman/right winger is an excellent passer, competes like a dog on both sides of the puck, and has the maturity, on and off the ice, of a much older man than his 2001 birth year suggests. On the Estevan side, Bruins fans need to get excited about Eddie Gallagher, a late-2000 born forward who was maybe two strides faster than anyone on the ice Monday. The Albertan is shifty, electric, and dangerous every time he is on the ice…sounds like an Estevan recruit.
9. Twinning in Battlefords: It is always special when family get to play together at high levels, so you can imagine the Huebner twins Parker and Dakota are psyched to take the ice together in Battlefords for their final years of junior after two years apart. Dakota was a breakout forward for the Stars last year after a couple seasons toiling in Alberta’s Junior B loop, while Parker, a talented offensive defenceman, was part of a Brooks Bandits team that fell in the 2017 RBC Cup in Cobourg, ON, playing on the same corps as the highly touted Colorado Avalanche prospect Cale Makar. Cheers to the Huebners!
10. Dangerous Weyburn: The team that I expect to go from the bottom of the league to the top is head coach Wes Rudy’s Red Wings. They were talented, but very young last year. This might be their time, and they have turned heads by adding 20-year-old Riley Lamb in net – he of 83 games for the Red Deer Rebels of the WHL the last two seasons. Ferris State Division I NCAA commit Cade Kowalski, and his left winger Ben Hiltz were both over a point-per-game last year, while fellow all-stars Jordan Kazymyra, Dylan McCabe, and Jevon Schwean are all slated to be back for this year. If they can find a way to replace Mike Eskra’s minutes on the back end, the Red Wings should be a real force.
(Follow Jamie on Twitter at @neugsie)