Thursday, 20 July 2017

Traveling WHL circuit is a blast

Broncos fans cheer on their team in Swift Current.
    Even while biking in scenic Waskesiu earlier this month, my mind keeps drifting to traveling the WHL circuit.
    I don’t have the itch at the moment to get back on the road again. I am enjoying summer, and it has been nice to get a break from all things hockey.
    With that said, the downtime gives me time to reflect, and I find myself smiling, when I reflect on the last two seasons that seemed to have gone by like the wind.
    Before the start of the 2015-16 season, I made it a goal to hit the road to cover WHL games in other centres to changed things up from always being based in Saskatoon. Being a beat writer focused on one team is fun but having done that for the bulk of the time I’ve covered the league, I needed a change.
    It also felt like some old school media thing to do long before the era when budget cuts ravaged mainstream outlets in Canada beginning about the middle of the 1990s.
The Hurricanes celebrate a goal with their fans in Lethbridge.
    It was like, “There is a game in Swift Current. Let’s jump in the car and cover it.”
    Or, “There is a playoff game in Red Deer. Let’s get in the car and go.”
    It feels like the art of just going out and covering a game is becoming a lot one. In the media world outside of radio play-by-play voices, the traveling reporter in the WHL is almost extinct.
    Traveling to different centres made the game new for me again. Every franchise in the league has a unique story. I know the basics of a lot of them.
    It is also very different to see a team in its home environment. Hearing how the small city of Swift Current was crazy for the Broncos during playoffs this past season is one thing but being there to see it is another.
    Swift Current is definitely one centre someone should visit this upcoming season, if they want to see excitement over major junior hockey in its purest form.
The Saskatoon Blades and the Raiders go at it in Prince Albert.
    Being able to fire off pictures and stories about that excitement through blog posts and social media channels helps increase the appreciation of what was transpiring.
    I found it is pretty neat to arrive in a WHL centre to cover a game, when you don’t have an attachment to the participating teams. A number of fans still remember my old attachments.
    When I went to cover Rebels playoffs games in Red Deer in 2016, the fans still see me as being the beat writer that covers the Medicine Hat Tigers. The fact proved to be a nice icebreaker that allowed me to socialize with the locals. Having covered the Medicine Hat Tigers for 10 years working for the Medicine Hat News, I know I will always have an attachment with the legendary franchise from “The Gas City.”
Mason Shaw (#18) leads the rush for the Tigers in Medicine Hat.
    Upon arriving in another centre to cover a game, I find you bring a different perspective, when you are not attached to either team. I find the locals enjoy coming and talking to you about the on goings of the hometown team and the league due to the fact it is different to talk to someone covering the circuit who is not from the centre they live in.
    Thanks to the fact the Regina Pats won so much and made it to the WHL Championship series this past season, it became common for the attendant at the CO-OP gas station I normally fill up at in “the Queen City” to say, “There must be a game on tonight?”
    From there, conversation would drift to the Pats.
    The WHL trail has provided so many memories. They come from having big homecoming feelings every time I return to Prince Albert, where I covered the Raiders for three seasons, and Medicine Hat.
    It was fun to stop in Lethbridge to see the revival of the Hurricanes and the adoration the fans there had for now graduated captain Tyler Wong.
Pats mascot K9 greets a young fan in Regina.
    I had to laugh when I made it to Regina for a clash between the Pats and Moose Jaw Warriors, who are still viewed to have major junior hockey’s greatest rivalry. The laugh came in the third period, when it was announced a Moose Jaw resident won the 50/50 and was almost booed out of the rink by the Pats fans. The booing actually had a good-natured joking vibe to it.
    Following the Saskatoon Blades on the road has been great as well. They do pretty well interacting with the locals when they are in other centres, and you get a different perspective of them when you see them in that light.
    It was cool 2016 to see Wheat Kings owner and then head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon be genuinely appreciative of the fact I made to Brandon to cover his team playing in the WHL Eastern Conference final and then the WHL Championship series.
    It was amazing to be in attendance in Regina the night Alexander True scored the WHL championship overtime winner for the Seattle Thunderbirds on May 14 of this year.
The Thunderbirds celebrate after winning the 2017 WHL title.
    Getting to hang out with the family members of Thunderbirds star defenceman Ethan Bear was another huge obvious highlight. I can’t thank them enough for giving me that ovation during a tailgate party for writing the blog post regarding how much the family travels around to support Bear.
    The biggest memory that sticks in my head over the past two seasons was seeing the monument that was built on the edge of Swift Current to remember the four players that were killed in Broncos bus accident on Dec. 30, 1986. It is a beautiful tribute to Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff. Being at the monument, you just get filled with emotion.
    I do wish traveling through the WHL circuit and covering games wasn’t becoming a lot art.
    For fans that are thinking about traveling the circuit to see games, I say do it. Even if you are following your hometown team to other centres, just do it. You will find you have a good time.

Back in the Express with NASCAR Pinty’s Series race

NASCAR races at the Wyant Group Raceway in 2015.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a preview story of the upcoming NASCAR Pinty’s Series race.
    The Pinty’s Series race is the annual showcase event for the Wyant Group Raceway, which is run by the Saskatoon Stock Car Racing Association. The event runs over two days this coming Tuesday and Wednesday.
    On Tuesday, action starts at 7 p.m. and that day’s program contains 75-lap feature races for the local pro truck and sportsman class and heat races for the super late models. On Wednesday, action starts at 6 p.m. and that day’s program contains two Pinty’s Series races and the feature run of the local super late-model class.
    In past years, the feature race for the Pinty’s circuit was 250 laps in length. This year the Pinty’s circuit is holding two feature races 100 laps in length.
    The Pinty’s Series is a minor-league circuit that prepares drivers to compete one day on NASCAR’s top level – the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
    The Wyatt Group Raceway is an underrate jewel facility in Saskatoon’s sports scene. If you have never checked out a race there, it is well worth checking out.
    My Pinty’s Series race story can be found right here.

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Huskies nostalgia tour takes over FIBA 3x3 tourney

Host Saskatoon side thrills fans on run to final

Nolan Brudehl (#6) and Michael Lieffers (#5) celebrate an OT win.
    The Huskies heroes almost wrote a storybook end to a gallant homecoming.
    For a couple of days, Michael Linklater, Michael Lieffers and Nolan Brudehl seemed to relive their time playing hoops at the University of Saskatchewan. Joining forces with Edmonton product Steve Sir, the foursome made up the local entry at the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Saskatoon Masters tournament.
    The trio of Linklater, Lieffers and Brudehl were all members of the U of S Huskies Men’s basketball team that won the U Sports national championship in 2010. At the moment, that year marks the only time the Huskies in their history have won a U Sports national title in men’s basketball.
Michael Lieffers crushes a jam for Team Saskatoon.
    On Saturday and Sunday at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and 21st Street in downtown Saskatoon, droves of people turned out to see the local side play. Two sets of portable stands were brought in from the SaskTel Centre and some smaller sets of stands were built to accommodate the spectators. When Team Saskatoon played, the stands overflowed and people were jam packed in the streets leading up to the venue.
    It was obvious a lot of the locals still remembered what took place with the Huskies in 2010. A number of faces were in the crowd that are regulars at Huskies basketball games.
    When athletes graduate from the Canadian university ranks, it is not very often they continue their athletic career at an elite or high level. Moving on to another phase of life as a non-athlete is the norm.
Michael Linklater drives the lane for Team Saskatoon.
    Over the past five years, the Saskatoon side has played on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour winning two event titles and posting three second place finishes. Word spread in Saskatoon that the Huskies grads were doing well on the circuit.
    The World Tour stop marked the first time the trio would play competitive games together as a unit in Saskatoon since the 2010 U Sports championship win. There was a big curiosity factor to see how Team Saskatoon would do. Could a team made up of mostly Huskies grads stand up in an elite three-versus-three tournament run by FIBA containing some top teams from around the world?
    To the joy of the local fans, Team Saskatoon won four straight games to advance to Sunday’s tournament championship game. In the final, they fell 21-14 to Team Ljubljana from Slovenia.
Nolan Brudehl goes in to hit a layup for Team Saskatoon.
    While a victory by Team Saskatoon would have put a nice capper to the weekend’s events, the local fans had every right to leave proud knowing their side fits right in with the best the FIBA 3x3 World Tour circuit has to offer.
    When the local side hit the court for their two round robin games on the event’s opening day on Saturday, the atmosphere had a very Huskies nostalgic feel to it. The giant Huskies blow-up dog was at the entrance of a fan fest area, the Huskies had a booth in that area as well, and a number of people were wearing Huskies gear. It seemed the fans came to see the local side do all the things they used to do wearing Huskies green and white.
Steve Sir was a sharpshooter for Team Saskatoon.
    While Sir wasn’t from Saskatoon and had never been a member of the Huskies, he became an adopted Huskie when he dropped in seven points in Team Saskatoon’s 15-11 opening victory over Team Winnipeg.
    Team Saskatoon’s second game on Saturday had even more of a Huskies feel to it. The local side was introduced to the crowd pretty much in the same identical way the Huskies hoops teams are introduced for their games. The University of Saskatchewan Alumni Association handed out green and white thundersticks to the spectators.
    With the noise the crowd made, you felt like you were at a soldout or near soldout hoops playoff game at the Physical Activity Complex on the U of S campus. In that match with Team Hamilton, it seemed like the players from Team Saskatoon were trying too hard to make things happen at the start and missed a bunch of shots early on.
    After trailing early, the locals eased into the flow of the game and pulled out an electric 14-13 overtime win. When you saw the crowd rise to its feet and explode into pandemonium, it felt like the clock was turned back to the Huskies days in 2010.
    Team Saskatoon rolled off two more wins on Sunday, which featured all the playoff round action.
Michael Lieffers (#5) makes a block for Team Saskatoon.
    In the quarter-finals, the locals slipped past Team New York Harlem from the United States 17-15 and dumped Team Gurabo from Puerto Rico 21-10.
    As Team Saskatoon rolled, Sir was knocking down shots, Linklater was dishing out assists and driving to the rim, Lieffers was throwing down jams and Brudehl was scoring from the inside and the outside. They all showed great hustle on defence as well.
    A hot shooting Ljubljana squad stopped the host side’s homecoming from having a storybook ending. Tomo Cajic and Jasmin Hercegovac each scored eight points in the championship victory for the Slovenian side.
Fans salute Team Saskatoon after an OT win on Saturday night.
    Team Ljubljana, which posted a 5-0 record at the tourney, claimed a first place US$20,000 prize, and Hercegovac took tournament MVP honours.
    Linklater topped Saskatoon with six points in the championship game.
    Team Saskatoon took home a US$10,000 cheque for second.
    Overall, the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Saskatoon Masters tournament was a success in its first go.
    The overflow crowds that came out for the Team Saskatoon games ensure the stands were filled for all the event’s other matches.
The members of Team Saskatoon salute their fans.
    Organizers for the 2018 and 2019 editions of this tournament in Saskatoon have to be very optimistic about what is to come.
    For the inaugural event, the foursome that comprised Team Saskatoon made their mark.
    For the trio of Linklater, Lieffers and Brudehl, everything that happened on Saturday and Sunday had to be very spine tingling familiar.
    For a short two-day period, it was great to go back in time and relive the past.

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Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Anything is possible at Ignite Athletic Conditioning

Local company makes big impact on Saskatoon sports scene

Nolan Brudehl does resistance training at Ignite Conditioning.
    At Ignite Athletic Conditioning, the goal of the staff is to make the impossible possible for the athletes who train there.
    The Saskatoon-based company is co-owned by former athletes Jordan Harbidge and Joel Lipinski, who both made an impact on the provincial sports scene. Harbidge played football and basketball at Saskatoon’s Holy Cross High School before enjoying a strong five-year career with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s basketball team from 2003 to 2008.
    Lipinski, who is from Regina, played post-secondary football with the University of Regina Rams (2004-2006), the Vancouver Island Raiders of the Canadian Junior Football League (2007) and the St. Mary’s University Huskies (2008). The star defensive back moved on to enjoy short CFL stints with the Saskatchewan Roughriders (2009) and the Edmonton Eskimos (2011).
Michael Linklater works out on the squat rack at Ignite Conditioning.
    Having lived lives as elite-level athletes, both wanted to train athletes and help them achieve their dreams.
    “It is pretty cool to have a job where you get to work with like local athletes, and you just kind of like wish something like this was around when you were that age,” said Harbidge. “It is pretty cool to offer something like that to local kids around here and give them the opportunity to try to reach their athletic potential or dreams.”
    “If it is just making like their high school football team or making their U-18 team or if it is like playing post-secondary or even later like play pro, all those like small goals along the way are just like huge milestones that are just cool to see,” said Lipinski. “This job is honestly one of the best jobs you could ever possibly have.”
    Ignite was formed as company in 2010 and trained a small group of about eight athletes at the start. 
Nolan Brudehl pushed a sled training at Ignite Conditioning.
    Fast forward to today, the company is run out of its own facility on the 400-block of Lauriston Street just south of 33rd Street, and between 600 to 700 athletes train with Ignite.
    To help with training, Ignite recently hired Donovan Dale, who wrapped up his football career graduating from the U of Saskatchewan Huskies after this past season.
    Originally, the company was founded by former U of S Huskies football stars Ryan Gottselig and David Stevens. Both had decorated careers with the Huskies in the early to the middle of the 2000s and were well known in Saskatoon.
    In 2011, Gottselig moved to Moose Jaw after accepting a teaching job there, and he established an Ignite branch in that centre. Stevens joined the City of Saskatoon’s fire department, but he still owns a small part of the Saskatoon branch.
    Lipinski and Stevens became friends while playing for Canada’s team at the International Federation of American Football senior tackle world championship in Austria in 2011. 
Michael Linklater lifts a dumbbell at Ignite Conditioning.
    Lipinski ended up settling in Saskatoon after that tournament and bought into the company.
    Harbidge joined Ignite in 2012 after returning to Saskatoon having been an educator and an assistant strength coach at a private boys’ school in Vancouver.
    As Stevens’ firefighting career took off, Harbidge and Lipinski bought majority ownership of the Saskatoon branch. In order to allow Harbidge and Lipinski to take off with the company, Stevens worked hundreds of hours for free at the beginning.
    As a result of Stevens’s efforts, Harbidge and Lipinski ensured the elusive and speedy former running back still had a part ownership stake in the branch.
    In running Ignite, Harbidge said there have been times the sense of accomplishment has come in unassuming ways.
    “Originally, we were all kind of like we want to train pros,” said Harbidge. “We want to train a lot of the high level athletes.
    “A lot of the most rewarding things for us have been like last year we had a kid in eight weeks lose 35 pounds and get stronger. It is little things like that where you can actually change someone’s life that was pretty rewarding.”
    Ignite has programs for athletes aged 11 and younger where the focus is on building agility, balance and coordination through game-type activities.
Nolan Brudehl works on his movement at Ignite Conditioning.
    Training programs are catered to athlete development at various progression levels all the way up to more sports specific training for professional athletes.
    The Saskatoon Hilltops of the Canadian Junior Football League were one of the first massive groups that trained with Ignite. The staff at Ignite has worked with 40 Hilltops player per year in each of the last three years.
    The Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League were one of the first large female groups to train out of Ignite. At the moment, female athletes make up 40 per cent of Ignite’s clientele.
    When Ignite started, most of the other elite training companies in Saskatoon focused on hockey, so Ignite built a reputation training athletes in all other sports outside of hockey.
    Ignite has training contracts with U of S Huskies women’s soccer, Huskies men’s basketball and Huskies football. Harbidge is the strength and conditioning coach for the Huskies men’s basketball team, and Lipinski is the strength and conditioning coordinator and defensive assistant coach with the Huskies football team.
Michael Linklater works on a resistance machine at Ignite Conditioning.
    Besides the university teams, Ignite trains athletes from numerous sports groups like Basketball Saskatchewan, Ringette Saskatchewan, Saskatoon Minor Football, Canoe and Kayak Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Badminton Association and the local elite volleyball academy in Saskatoon.
Along the way, Ignite is starting to pick up a handful of Western Hockey League players as well.
    “Everyone kind of tried to get hockey and train hockey, and we just went for everything else,” said Harbidge. “We started with a niche which was football. Now we’ve kind of expanded to everything even hockey.
    “We try to really rebrand ourselves as athletic trainers not just football specialists, which was kind of our brand early on. It has been such a crazy dynamic, but it has been pretty cool.”
    Lipinski said the staff at Ignite tries to take an interest in an athlete’s life outside of sports as well. It was a trait he, Harbidge and Dale all learned from the respective coaches they had along the way in their careers as athletes.
Joel Lipinski is one of the co-owners and coaches at Ignite Conditioning.
    “You end up talking about things that are actually more than like obviously just sport,” said Lipinski. “You figure out what is going on in the athlete’s life.
    “You end up kind of almost being like a councillor at this position here too. To be honest, we end up like enjoying that aspect of it like just as much as the actual training side.”
    Harbidge said it has been great to find a niche to give back to the local sports scene, and in his case, his hometown.
    “I was originally planning to be a teacher, but now I am just like a specialist teacher,” said Harbidge. “I teach every day, but I get to teach what I am passionate about.
    “I feel very fortunate. Coming home from Vancouver, I get to work with the community I grew up in, which is pretty cool too.”

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Saturday, 8 July 2017

Football Huskies in good hands with new coaches

U of Saskatchewan might surprise a few in U Sports ranks

Huskies head coach Scott Flory, right, meets fans as part of a charity event.
    The University of Saskatchewan Huskies football team has the coaching staff to take them into the future.
    There were huge bumps in the road that made the process of creating a new coaching staff a painful one. The departure of legendary Huskies head coach Brian Towriss late last December wasn’t handled in the smoothest fashion to say the least. A joint statement had to be posted on the Huskie Athletics website from U of S president Peter Stoicheff and Towriss that saw Stoicheff apologize for how the news of Towriss’s resignation was handled.
    Towriss will be officially inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame on Sept. 15 in Hamilton, Ont.
    Former CFL and Huskies star player Scott Flory, who had been the Huskies offensive coordinator, was named the team’s new head coach on March 13. Since that time, Flory, who will turn 41 on July 15, has taken the ball and run with it putting his stamp on the team. Flory has put in the ground work to create optimism.
    He revamped the coaching staff, and the staff is likely deeper overall than it was during Towriss’s final season. Including Flory, only six people from the 16 person coaching staff last season remain to be part of the 14 person staff this season. The five other holdovers include Dan Houle, Lane Bryska, Cody Halseth, Braden Suchan and Paul Woldu.
    Flory brought in long-time veteran CFL quarterback Marcus Crandell as the new offensive coordinator. Crandell was a member of the Calgary Stampeders Grey Cup winning team in 2001 and the Saskatchewan Roughriders Grey Cup championship team in 2007. Those that knew Crandell during his years in Regina speak highly of him, and you can expect him to give the offence great guidance.
    Warren Muzika joined the Huskies as the team’s new defensive coordinator. Muzika played for first the Canadian Junior Football League’s Saskatoon Hilltops and then the Huskies establishing a reputation of being a “Terminator” type linebacker in the 1990s.
    The graduate of Saskatoon’s Walter Murray High School helped the Hilltops win the Canadian Bowl in 1991 and the Huskies win Vanier Cups in 1996 and 1998. He played five seasons in the CFL split between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers from 1999 to 2003 and was on Hamilton’s Grey Cup winner in 1999.
Kyle Siemens (#19) fires a pass downfield for the Huskies.
    After returning to Saskatoon once his CFL career wrapped up to pursue a teaching career, Muzika spent time as a defensive assistant with the Hilltops playing a major part in shaping that team’s linebackers. He never had a sizable role on the Huskies coaching staff until now. It is great that Flory is re-establishing some stronger links with old alums and storied former Huskies players like Muzika, who now gets to play a more significant role with the program.
    The other new assistant coaches Flory brought in who had significant playing careers with the Huskies include Duane Dmytryshyn and Tony Michalchuk. Jeremy Long and Tye Mountney are two new assistants that spent a short time with the Huskies as players. Mountney is better remembered as a star linebacker with the Hilltops in the 1990s helping them win a Canadian Bowl in 1996.
    The Huskies saw another old face return to the fold when Jerry Friesen rejoined the team as the special teams coordinator. Friesen played five seasons with the Huskies in the 1970s and was an assistant coach for 10 years starting in 1986. He spent time coaching the U of Calgary Dinos, U of Alberta Golden Bears and University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in his lengthy career before rejoining the Huskies.
    Friesen, who was the head coach of the Golden Bears during his stop at U of A, brings tonnes of valuable experience to the Huskies.
    The current Huskies staff is rounded out by Ignite Conditioning co-owner Joel Lipinski, who is the strength and conditioning coordinator and a defensive assistant. Before making CFL stops as a player with the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Eskimos, Lipinski made his mark in the U Sports ranks as an all-Canadian defensive back first with the U of Regina Rams and then with the Saint Mary’s University Huskies in the 2000s.
    Since becoming head coach, Flory has been visible on many fronts in the community. He is pretty active in reaching out to team supporters either in person or through electronic correspondence.  His messaging to his players has been great as he tells them everything matters on and off the field including demeanor, words, actions, decisions and academics.
    Having talked to a couple of the current Huskies football coaches in public settings, it sounds like the Huskies new coaching staff has developed chemistry quite quickly and the atmosphere with the staff is very upbeat. It is conceivable the Huskies could have a strong year in 2017.
The Huskies defence gets set for action.
    The new coaching staff also doesn’t have to rebuild the program from the ground up. They take over a Huskies squad that posted a solid 5-3 regular season record in 2016 before getting thumped 47-17 in a Canada West semifinal playoff game to the Dinos. The Dinos went on to fall in the Vanier Cup to the Universite Laval Rouge et Or 31-26.
    The Huskies are slated to return a number of key players including quarterback Kyle Siemens and defensive lineman Matt Kozun. The Dogs might not experience that many growing pains. The Huskies first game is a pre-season contest on Aug. 25, when they travel to Hamilton, Ont., to face the McMaster University Marauders.
    With that said, the competition in the Canada West Conference is always tough, so success is never guaranteed. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Huskies went out and had a memorable campaign.

Two youngsters, one great vet take Valkyries awards

Alex Eyolfson is the Valkyries offensive MVP.
    The Saskatoon Valkyries women’s football team gave nods to two members of their youth moment and one to standout veteran at their team awards on Thursday night at Saskatoon Minor Football Field’s clubhouse complex.
    The Valkyries offensive and defensive MVP awards went to two of the Valkyries young sophomore players. Quarterback Alex Eyolfson was named the Valkyries offensive MVP.
    The 19-year-old assumed the role as the full-time starter in her second campaign with the team. The graduate of Saskatoon’s Holy Cross High School has grown significantly over the past two seasons with the team and has a good command of the team’s offence.
    Linebacker Emmarae Dale was named the team’s defensive MVP. Since joining the Valkyries last year, Dale, who is a graduate of Saskatoon’s St. Joseph High School, immediately became a force on the defensive side of the ball. Also a member of the U of Saskatchewan Huskies track and field team, Dale reads and reacts quickly to plays and moves swiftly from sideline to sideline.
    The Valkyries presented their Green and White award to sixth-year standout defensive lineman Melanie Harris for her overall dedication to the team and the women’s game. Harris lives in Outlook, Sask., and drives into Saskatoon for all the team’s practices and games. Each of those round trips takes two hours out of Harris’s day.
    Harris has become a realizable fixture on the defensive line helping the Valkyries win Western Women’s Canadian Football League titles in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. She retired from playing with the Valkyries at the conclusion of the 2017 campaign.
    This past season, the Valkyries posted a 5-2 overall record, and both of their losses came to the Regina Riot, who won the WWCFL title. The Valkyries fell 34-24 in the WWCFL Prairie Conference championship game in Regina to the Riot on June 4, and closed the season with a 44-20 victory in a WWCFL consolation final over the Edmonton Storm on June 10 in Saskatoon.

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Let’s not lynch Roughriders’ kicker over recent misses

Crapigna has been CFL club’s most consistent performer

Tyler Crapigna (#21) boots a winning field goal for the Riders in 2016.
    Dumping kicker Tyler Crapigna will not cure all that ails the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
    The 24-year-old Nepean, Ont., product has come under fire from some in Rider Nation due to a pair of late game field goal misses, which have contributed to the club’s 0-2 regular season start. In the Roughriders 17-16 regular season opening loss to the Alouettes in Montreal on June 22, Crapigna missed a 45-yard field goal attempt on the game’s last play, which would have given the visitors victory.
    When the “green and white” held their first regular season game at new Mosaic Stadium on Canada Day, Crapigna hit the upright on a 33-yard field goal attempt on the Roughriders’ second overtime possession to cause a battle with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to remain tied. Bombers kicker Justin Medlock hit the winning field goal from 28 yards out on his team’s ensuing possession to lift his side to a 43-40 victory to disappoint most of the sellout crowd of 33,350.
    Overall, Crapigna has hit 7-of-9 field goals this season, which means his only misses have been those two late game attempts. He has taken way more heat than deserved from the loud vocal minority.
    In the loss to the Bombers, Crapigna hit a 30-yard field goal on the Roughriders first overtime possession to force a 40-40 draw to keep the contest going and show his past reputation for hitting kicks in the clutch.
    Since making his regular season debut in the Roughriders third last regular season game of the 2015 campaign, Crapigna has connected on 47-of-55 field goal attempts for an 85.5 per cent success rate. At this moment, Crapigna would rank as the CFL’s fourth all-time most accurate field goal kicker, if he had 100 career attempts under his belt. Medlock ranks first at 87.9 per cent.
    Compared to a few others who have played at some time with the Roughriders, Crapigna’s career field goal percentage bests the 81.38 per cent career rate put up by Christopher Milo, the 80.47 per cent career rate of Paul McCallum, the 80.34 per cent career mark of Luca Congi and the 78 per cent success rate posted by all-time great Dave Ridgway.
Tyler Crapigna on the scoreboard at Taylor Field last season.
    Any CFL general manager that releases a kicker that is making close to 86 per cent of his career field goals has to have his head examined. Since Crapigna made his debut with the Roughriders, the team has posted a 6-17 regular season record and hasn’t managed to appear in any playoff games.
    It can be argued all of Crapigna’s field goal attempts are clutch kicks, because they are needed to help keep the Roughriders in games.
    As far as late game heroics are concerned, Crapigna started to establish a good reputation in the last of his three appearances in 2015. In the Roughriders final regular season game in 2015, he nailed a 39-yard game tying field goal with eight seconds to play in the fourth quarter help his side go to overtime with the Alouettes in Montreal locked in a 24-24 draw. Saskatchewan won that contest 30-24 with an OT touchdown catch from star receiver Weston Dressler, who now plays for the Bombers.
    Last season, Crapigna made three game winning field goals for the Roughriders. In Week 5 on July 22, 2016 at Taylor Field, Crapigna hit a 53-yard field goal with 69 seconds to play to give the Roughriders a 30-29 victory over the eventual Grey Cup champion Ottawa Redblacks.
    In Week 14 on Sept. 24 at Taylor Field, Crapigna hit a 29-yard walk off field goal to give the Roughriders a 20-18 victory over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. In Week 16 on Oct. 7, 2016 at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Crapigna hit a 39-yard walk off field goal in overtime to give the Roughriders a 32-30 victory over the host Redblacks.
    The only game Crapigna struggled in during the 2016 campaign was the 28-25 Labour Day Classic loss to the visiting Bombers on Sept. 4, 2016. In that contest, Crapigna was 1-for-3 in the field goal department. When the Roughriders tied that game at 25-25 on an 85-yard punt return touchdown from Kendial Lawrence with 48 seconds to play, Crapigna missed the conversion that would have given Saskatchewan a one-point lead.
    The miss there didn’t matter much, because Medlock kicked a field goal on the contest’s final play to win it for Winnipeg.
Tyler Crapigna nails a kick off during training camp in June in Saskatoon.
    Despite the odd hiccup, Crapigna has been the Roughriders most reliable player. Saskatchewan has to get a lot better at finishing more offensive drives with touchdowns and stopping the pass on defence before worrying about the placekicker.
    If Crapigna does have a 1-for-3 or 1-for-4 outing when the Roughriders host the Tiger-Cats this coming Saturday at 8 p.m. at new Mosaic Stadium, the kicker questions will be raised again, which is the nature of professional sports.
    At the moment, his two misses this season create fears that a franchise that is 8-30 since the start of the 2015 campaign could spiral downhill to miss the playoffs for a third straight year.
    In the present, Crapigna should be backed with a vote of confidence. In the place kicking department, he is the Roughriders guy, and he has done enough to create belief. A betting person would put money down thinking the McMaster University grad is going to have a long and successful career in the professional ranks.

Hilltops’ Schnitzler added to Roughriders roster

Tom Schnitzler returns a fumble for a touchdown for the Hilltops in 2015.
    Saskatoon Hilltops defensive end Tom Schnitzler is getting a big head start in preparing for his Canadian Junior Football League season.
    The 21-year-old Saskatoon product was added to the Saskatchewan Roughriders practice roster on Tuesday as a territorial junior player at linebacker. The graduate of Saskatoon’s Bishop James Mahoney High School has been a key part in helping the Hilltops win the last three straight CJFL championships.
    Last season, Schnitzler recorded 21 tackles, 2.5 sacks and knocked down five passes in eight regular season games with the Hilltops. In 2015, he posted 10 tackles, four sacks and returned a fumble for a touchdown in eight regular season games.
    The Hilltops open their regular season on Aug. 12, when they travel to Regina to face the Thunder at 7 p.m. at new Mosaic Stadium. Their home opener is slated for August 26 at 7 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field against the Ottawa Sooners. Schnitzler is in his final year of CJFL eligibility.

Murphy statue to be unveiled at Bombers home field

    The Winnipeg Blue Bombers will honour the late Cal Murphy with a bronze statue of his likeness at the team’s home stadium, Investors Group Field.
    Murphy, who was an iconic coach and general manager in the CFL, passed away on Feb. 18, 2012. He spent over 30 seasons in the CFL collecting nine Grey Cup rings.
    During his time in the Canadian professional football ranks, Murphy was best remember for his 14 seasons with the Bombers from 1983 to 1996. Over that span of time, Murphy was either the Bombers head coach or general manager, and he was a key figure in helping Winnipeg win Grey Cup titles in 1984, 1988 and 1990.
    He is second all-time in Bombers history in career coaching victories posting an 86-51-1 record with the team as the sideline boss. After leaving the CFL having served as the head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 1999, Murphy became a scout for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in 2001, and he help that position until his death. He earned a Super Bowl ring during his time with the Colts.
    The Bombers will unveil the statue of Murphy on Sept. 21, 2017, and it will be located outside Gate 3 of Investors Group Field and will be surrounded by a seating area for fans.

Back in the Express with Huskies hoops grads

Michael Linklater, left, and Nolan Brudehl are all set for 3x3.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week with a story on a trio of graduates from the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s basketball that continue to play the sport on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour.
    Michael Linklater, Michael Lieffers and Nolan Brudehl were all members of the Huskies team that won the 2010 U Sports national championship tournament, and they form the core of a team that plays on the FIBA 3x3 World Tour.
    The Saskatoon side is rounded out by Edmonton product Steve Sir, who used to play professionally in Europe.
    The foursome will compete in the FIBA 3x3 World Tour Masters event that is slated be held in Saskatoon on July 15 and 16 in conjunction with the Taste of Saskatchewan festival.
    The FIBA 3x3 games are played at a very fast pace.
    The story the FIBA 3x3 team and the upcoming hoops event can be round right here.

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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Expect Blades’ Fiala to get real look from Red Wings

Evan Fiala zips down the ice for the Blades.
    The Saskatoon Blades man with the giant smile might be sitting on a giant opportunity.
    On Friday, the team announced rugged defensive defenceman and local area product Evan Fiala received an invite to the development camp of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. The camp start this coming Friday and runs through to July 11 in Traverse City, Michigan.
    There are a number of cases where an NHL development camp invite means a player is showing up to be a camp body. When you show up at a Red Wings camp, that isn’t the case.
    The Red Wings are one NHL team that has a reputation for finding players all over the map. Those that show up at a Detroit camp will receive an honest evaluation and have an actual shot to make that organization.
    Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 205 pounds, Fiala has the physical gifts most scouts look for in a defensive defenceman. After spending about two-and-a-half seasons with the Spokane Chiefs, Fiala came to the Blades last season in a trade around the middle of last December.
    Playing just over half a season with the Blades, he logged a lot of minutes, and he really helped “the Bridge City Bunch” play a lot more sound in their own zone. Between the Chiefs and the Blades, Fiala appeared in 70 regular season games posting four goals, 15 assists, 139 penalty minutes and a plus-11 rating in the plus-minus department.
    Fiala rarely gets flustered on the ice. Actually, he seems to always carry a huge smile no matter what he is doing, which includes battling in the corner or in front of the net. He even wears his big grin in fights.
Evan Fiala controls the puck at the point for the Blades.
    The 20-year-old is one of those old school character players that always feels it is great day to be at the rink. It is fun attitude the mirrors former enforcers like the late Dave Semenko of the Edmonton Oilers, who recently passed away of pancreatic cancer, Grant McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders or Blades tough guy Darcy Hordichuk.
    Fiala is one of those players that is front and centre in doing community appearances for the Blades. He has made a few of those in the off-season along with teammate Gage Ramsay, who is another local product.
    The development camp invite won’t be a new experience for Fiala. He attended the development camp for the NHL’s Florida Panthers in 2015, so that experience should help a little going into the Red Wings development camp.
    If Fiala can earn a rookie camp invite or a main training camp invite, that would be another huge bonus.
    No matter what happens on the NHL front, the likelihood if fairly high Fiala will be one of the Blades three overage players next season as a key part of the club’s blue-line. At the moment, the Blades don’t have any other defencemen who are entering their 20-year-old season, which makes Fiala’s presence that much more valuable.
    Fiala is a strong character player who has worked hard at his game, so it is always good when that work and positive outlook results in any NHL opportunities.

Canada put up fight in final in football women’s worlds

    Canada’s National women’s football team didn’t get the upset win they were seeking, but they gained a measure of respect.
    On Friday in Langley, B.C., the Canada took on the powerhouse United States in the gold medal game of the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship tournament. Canada put up a big fight, before the United States pulled away 41-16 victory.
    The Canadian side led 3-0 for a short time when Carly Dyck, who plays for the Saskatoon Valkyries, booted a 38-yard field goal in the game’s first quarter. The United States stormed back to score the next 21 straight points to push ahead 21-3.
    Right before halftime, Canadian quarterback Aimee Kowalski hit sister Alex Kowalski with a 39-yard bomb pass for a touchdown to pull Canada to within 21-9. Both are members of the WWCFL champion Regina Riot.
    Early in the third quarter, the United States push its lead out to 27-9. Canada answered back with a defensive score, when U.S. quarterback Lisa Horton fumbled the ball, and Canadian defensive back Becky Heninger, who plays for the Calgary Rage, recovered it and ran 76 yards for a major to cut the United States lead to 27-16.
    The United States rounded out the scoring with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away for good.
    Canada opened the tournament with a 31-6 victory over Australia on June 24. They blanked Great Britain 35-0 last Tuesday to advance to the gold medal game.
    A total of seven members from the Valkyries were members of the Canadian team including Dyck, Julene Friesen, Samantha Matheson, Alyssa Funk, Jaime Lammerding, Shaylyn de Jong and Beth Thomson. A total of nine members from the Riot were part of the Canadian side including the two Kowalski sisters, Carman Agar, Ashley Viklund, Claire Dore, Katie Hungle, Emilie Belanger, Artemis Kouropoulou and Adrienne Zuck.
    The United States claimed the other two world tournament held in 2013 in Finland and 2010 in Sweden.
    Mexico downed Great Britain in Friday’s bronze medal game 19-8.

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Friday, 30 June 2017

Blades grad Shynkaruk would be great add to hockey Huskies

Jesse Shynkaruk (#14) celebrates scoring a goal for the Blades last season.
    Jesse Shynkaruk and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team would be a great match for each other, if that ultimately comes to pass.
    The 21-year-old centre exhausted his WHL eligibility last season playing for his hometown Saskatoon Blades. He had a breakout year netting career highs in goals (31), assists (25) and points (56) in 58 regular season games. Shynkaruk came through in the clutch as 10 of his tallies ended up being game winners.
    In his first three major junior seasons split between the Kamloops Blazers and Moose Jaw Warriors, Shynkaruk appeared in 196 regular season games recording 23 goals and 25 assists.
    Recently, Tyler Wawryk, who is the Blades manager of communications and community relations, caught up with Shynkaruk and inquired if the speedy forward was going to join the Huskies. Shynkaruk said he was one of three players battling for two spots on the Huskies.
    It would be great if both Shynkaruk and the Huskies could make things work out. Shynkaruk did so well last season with the Blades you almost wish he had one more season to play in the major junior ranks.
    With that said, a number of factors come into play when it comes to a major junior player joining a U Sports team. Thanks to two strong recruiting classes from the past two seasons, the Huskies have a fairly deep team. They came up just short of winning a Canada West title and dropped a 5-3 decision to the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds in the U Sports championship game.
    Shynkaruk, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 171 pounds, would bring a number of good intangibles to the Huskies. One is the fact he would likely really appreciate being on the team. Heading into training camp last season, Shynkaruk was without a major junior home after being released by the Warriors.
    Had he not made the Blades as a walk on player, the likelihood was high Shynkaruk’s time in major junior hockey would have been over.
Jesse Shynkaruk (#14) sets up for a scoring chance for the Blades.
    With the Blades, Shynkaruk rediscovered some of offensive touch from his final midget AAA season, when he netted 22 goals and 29 assists in 43 regular season games with the Saskatoon Contacts in the 2012-13 campaign. Shynkaruk helped the Blades make a serious push for a playoff berth.
    The Blades ultimately finished ninth overall in the WHL’s Eastern Conference and five points back of a playoff berth with a 28-35-7-2 record. Shynkaruk became a fan favourite, and he was also a good representative for the team at community events.
    When the Blades were on the road, he consistently left a good impression with the media that worked in other WHL cities. That has to be viewed as impressive, because Shynkaruk doesn’t get to interact with media members in other WHL centres on a regular basis like he does with the media members in Saskatoon. He always left a good impression with the hometown media members as well.
    After his final home game on March 17 when the Blades downed the archrival Prince Albert Raiders 5-3, Shynkaruk gave a heartfelt final post-game press scrum to the media in attendance. From that press scrum, it was easy to tell Shynkaruk generally cared about what was going on.
    Under the WHL scholarship plan, Shynkaruk doesn’t have to play with a U Sports team to use the four years of paid post-secondary schooling he has earned. If he wanted to, he could just attend a post-secondary institution and focus just on classes.
    For every season a player plays in the WHL, that player receives a scholarship package that sees all his tuition, compulsory fees and textbooks paid for a school year. Shynkaruk has four school years of paid tuition, compulsory fees and textbooks to use.
    As it stands, Shynkaruk would be a great addition to the Huskies or any other U Sports team. The hometown fans have to hope he will wear the “green and white” in the fall.

Blades pump out Monday updates

    For a little over a month the Saskatoon Blades have been pumping out Monday updates on their website, and they have been pretty well done.
    Tyler Wawryk, who is the team’s manager of communications and community relations, has been crafting the updates. The writing part reflects a style you once saw in WHL notebooks, which were commonly produced in mainstream media outlet newspapers. With these outlets often being cut to one or two staffers, the WHL notebook is rarely seen these days.
    The Blades update gives a roundup of various happening with the team and the club’s alums. The notebook points are usually accompanied by graphics.
    With most mainstream outlets in Canada having undergone severe cuts, the pressure falls on teams like the WHL’s Blades to do more coverage on themselves through their own website and social media platforms. The same holds true for every high level competitive sports program in Canada that is not an NHL franchise.
    Ultimately, Canadian sports leagues need to follow the lead of NFL teams, which have been covering themselves on a league and individual franchise basis for at least two decades. The NFL was pretty much the first league that did a lot of media coverage on itself on the Internet in the late 1990s.
    While most to almost all Canadian elite sports teams or groups do not have anywhere near the money the NFL brings in, the cold reality is they have to cover themselves, if they want to have a bigger presence in the public. Fans will read and view what is posted.
    The Blades have done a good job in trying out different tweaks on their website and social media platforms. The Monday update is a nice addition. I imagine creating all this content makes Wawryk extremely busy, so here is hoping he can keep it up.
    The last Monday update can be round here.

Love the vintage look

    When the Saskatoon Blades put out their Twitter post announcing their home opener against the Swift Current Broncos, you had to love the graphic that contained the classic logos.
Braylon Shmyr looks to make a pass for the Blades.
    Actually during the off-season, the Blades have gone full out using their vintage blue and goal “Pac-Man” logo that was the team’s primary look through the 1980s and early 1990s. The team’s website was changed to use the retro blue and gold colour scheme as a primary look as well.
    The Blades have used the retro jerseys with the old “Pac-Man” logo as an alternate for some time. Among the team’s fans, that has always been the most popular look, and there has been a longing to make the retro jerseys the club’s full-time look once again.
    While official word hasn’t come yet, it seems with all the hints this will come to pass.
    Actually over the last decade, a number of pro teams in all sports and major junior teams have reverted to a past look, which has been received with a lot of praise. The Blades face one of those teams opening the regular season against the Broncos on Sept. 22 at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    Before the start of the 2014-15 campaign, the Broncos ditched their black and blue modern looking jerseys for their classic blue, green and white look with the horseshoe, bucking bronco logo. The Broncos had this look when the franchise returned to Swift Current in 1986 after spending 12 seasons in Lethbridge. The switch to the retro look has been popular with Broncos fans.
Tyler Steenbergen zips into the offensive zone for the Broncos.
    This past season, the look was part of many pieces coming together for a Broncos revival. Other things that have powered the revival is the fact Sheldon Kennedy, who was the captain of the Broncos 1989 Memorial Cup winner, has been back to Swift Current a number of times in recent years and labelled as a real Canadian hero for his public work on the child advocacy front over the years.
    The small city also built a beautiful monument to remember players Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff who died in a team bus crash on Dec. 30, 1986.  The monument is located near the crash site on the outskirts of town.
    All of these things have come together to give the Broncos a new level of support the team likely hasn’t seen in some time. The Credit Union i-Plex, which is the Broncos home rink, was likely the loudest building in the WHL playoffs last season. Swift Current advanced to the second round and lost a heartbreaking seven-game series to the Regina Pats.
    It is always cool when a team brings a popular past look back into the future.

Brooks showing small guys can still play

Adam Brooks signed with the NHL’s Maple Leafs
    Recently graduated Regina Pats captain Adam Brooks had a moment which seemed at one point in time it might not come to pass.
    On Thursday, Brooks signed a three year NHL entry-level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The 21-year-old Winnipeg product was selected in the fourth round and 92nd overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by the Leafs.
    Brooks graduated from the Pats as one of the club’s most beloved heart and soul players. Over five seasons, he played in 317 regular season games collecting 119 goals and 216 assists. His 335 career regular season points make him the 10th all-time leading scorer in Pats history.
    The skilled centre stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 175 pounds, and for a while, it seemed like the NHL started drifting away from players that didn’t stand at least 6-feet in height and be at least 200 pounds in weight.
    Brooks topped the WHL in scoring as a 19-year-old in 2015-16 netting 38 goals and 82 assists playing in all 72 regular season games. Despite his stellar season and being arguably one of the top three forwards in the league, it was conceivable Brooks might not be drafted. The fact the Leafs picked him was a big milestone.
    He returned to Regina to captain the Pats as an overager collecting 43 goals and 87 assists to finish a point behind teammate Sam Steel for the WHL scoring lead. Brooks helped the Pats top the WHL’s overall standings at 52-12-7-1 and advance to the WHL Championship series, where they fell 4-2 in a best-of-seven set to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
    The fact Brooks signed NHL contract is another big milestone. With the Leafs having Mike Babcock as head coach, Brooks a real look to one day make the NHL.
    His story has to give confidence to other players that are short in stature. In this year’s NHL Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers selected Spokane Chiefs winger Kailer Yamamoto in the first round and 22nd overall. Yamamoto, who turns 19 in September, stands 5-foot-7 and weighs 146 pounds. Despite being small, he piled up 42 goals and 57 assists in 65 regular season games this past season with the Chiefs, who are his hometown WHL team.
    The winger established himself as one of the WHL’s most exciting players. He might get to duplicate his accomplishments in the professional ranks one day.

Getting Semenko a piece of video history

Dave Semenko, back row centre, in an old Oilers team picture.
    The world let along the sport of hockey lost one of its best characters on Thursday when famed Edmonton Oilers enforcer Dave Semenko passed away from pancreatic cancer at age 59.
    I never met Semenko, but I was still sad to hear of his passing. I also got a chuckle remembering the various colourful interviews he did over the years.
    In a round-about way, I helped contribute indirectly of getting him a piece of hockey history. During my first year living in Medicine Hat cover the WHL’s Tigers in the 2004-05 campaign, I met former Tigers and Winnipeg Jets standout Morris Lukowich at an old timers’ charity game.
    I had a VCR copy of the last contest ever played in the history of the World Hockey Association, when the host Winnipeg Jets defeated the Edmonton Oilers in Game 6 of the WHA title series to win the Avco Cup. Lukowich was a member of that winning Jets team.
    When I handed him the tape in order to get the cover autographed, he asked if that tape really had a copy of the game on it. I said it did, and he asked if I could mail him a copy of that tape to his place. I made a copy of that game and sent it to Lukowich.
    Later on that season, I ended up calling Lukowich for a throwback story for the Medicine Hat News. When the interview was done, we ended up talking about that tape. Lukowich thanked me for sending it to him.
    Having a few video machines at his place to use for coaching, Lukowich told me he made copies to send to all his former Jets teammates and coaches. He then told me he made a copy and sent it to Semenko, who was on that Oilers team that lost to the Jets.
    I laughed and couldn’t believe it. The Jets won that contest in a 7-3 romp at the old Winnipeg Arena, and I thought Lukowich might have been trying poke some fun at the legendary pugilist.
Lukowich laughed and said they were good friends. He added Semenko scored the final goal in that contest, which was the final goal ever in the history of the WHA. Lukowich thought it would be a nice keepsake.
    With that knowledge, I contributed to delivering a memory to Semenko about one of his historic hockey moments.

Huskies duo completes Banff Marathon

    Lauren Zary and Kaitlin Willoughby showed their athletic prowess isn’t limited hockey, and they went to Banff to display that fact.
    Back on June 18, the pair completed the Banff Marathon. Zary, who just exhausted her eligibility with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s hockey team, crossed the finish line in four hours, 25 minutes and 30 seconds, and Willoughby, who is a star centre entering her final season with the Huskies, finished officially one second back of Zary.
    For anyone to complete a race that is 42.2 kilometres in length is impressive, so a big congratulations is passed on to the pair. Both Zary and Willoughby accomplished something most people in the world won’t do. As an added bonus, they did it in the scenic mountain terrain of Banff.

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