Monday, 30 May 2016

Rush push Riders into back seat - at least in Saskatoon

Zack Greer celebrates scoring for the Rush.
    For one of those rare moments in Saskatchewan, the CFL’s Roughriders are going to be No. 2 in the sports scene, or at least in Saskatoon.
    As Roughriders training camp enters its early stages, the provincial sports scene is dealing with season creep from a new source in the Saskatchewan Rush of the National Lacrosse League. Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know the Saskatchewan Rush, who are based in Saskatoon, have been doing well in their first campaign in a province that boasts having the “Land of the Living Skies.”
    The Rush have drawn over 13,000 fans to each of their last five home dates. That includes setting a SaskTel Centre record for attendance at a sporting event with 15,192 people coming out to their last home outing on May 21. On the record night, the Rush downed the Calgary Roughnecks 12-9 to sweep the best-of-three West Division final 2-0.
    Thanks to that win, the Rush advanced to the best-of-three Champion’s Cup NLL championship series against the Buffalo Bandits.
    Going into the league title series, optimism was high the Rush could win it all again from the local supporters in Saskatchewan. The Rush won the NLL title last season, when the franchise was still Edmonton.  As the Saskatchewan Rush, they claimed Game 1 of the 2016 Champion’s Cup 11-9 last Saturday in Buffalo.
Fans take part in tailgating before the Rush game.
    Game 2 is set for this coming Saturday at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre, and the Rush have the chance to win it all.
    If you haven’t been to a Rush home game, you have been missing out. You can find tailgating going on in the SaskTel Centre parking lot before games or just outside of the facility’s fences. Games really are one big party, and the action of an NLL contest feels like it is non-stop.
    Saturday’s game has the potential of being an even bigger party. If the Rush win, the fans will be in a euphoric mood due to the fact a league title will be claimed. Not many teams in Saskatoon have had a chance to win something like the Champion’s Cup on home turf.
    If the Rush win, people will pour out of the SaskTel Centre and back into the city most likely looking to celebrate by drinking more alcoholic beverages than former Major League Baseball pitcher David Wells did after a World Series win.
Goalie Aaron Bold is favourite among Rush fans.
    People in Saskatchewan like to party, and a Rush win on Saturday provide ample opportunity to go nuts and likely phone in sick for work on Monday.
    The Roughriders, in contrast, will be a week into training camp this coming Saturday. You might take in a bit of the festivities at their Green and White day function that runs from 2 to 9 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field before venturing off to the Rush game.
    Roughriders season is really in its infancy, and you will have plenty of opportunity to focus on them. Besides, their regular season doesn’t start until June 30, when they host the Toronto Argonauts at 8 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium, and CFL playoffs are way off in November.
    For this week in Saskatoon, it is all about right now. The Saskatoon city buses are driving around flashing “Go Rush Go” signs. Sports fans and bandwagon jumpers alike want to see this story run to its finish.
Mark Matthews checks out the Rush fans celebrating a West final win.
    To be fair, if you travel outside of Saskatoon’s borders throughout the rest of the province, it is harder to find Saskatchewan Rush gear. Rush merchandise isn’t sold at most CO-OP outlets like the ones in “the Bridge City.” You can still find tonnes of Roughriders merchandise at the CO-OPs located outside of Saskatoon.
    Even with that in mind, you don’t care if you live in Saskatoon. Heck, the Roughriders themselves have probably heard news about the Rush and would probably love to check out what all the fuss is about at the SaskTel Centre on Saturday night.
    Right now, the Saskatoon sports fan is thinking, “It is the Rush’s time baby. Let’s go get this won and go crazy.”

Epic finish for Red Deer’s Memorial Cup, other thoughts

Fans show a sign to support Fort McMurray fire victims at Memorial Cup.
    The 2016 Memorial Cup in Red Deer turned out to be the perfect hit.
    The Rebels hosted a fantastic event, which saw fans pack the Enmax Centrium for games and the neighbouring pavilions on the grounds of Western Park for Fan Fest, the Hockey Hall of Fame display and the Molson Hockey House. Off the ice, the Memorial Cup was going to be a success.
    As what seem to be a just reward, the action on the ice turned out to be memorable, when the tournament’s last three games rolled around. In the final round robin game on Wednesday, the host Rebels eliminated the WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings from the tourney as Evan Polei netted the winner in OT in a 2-1 victory. A total of 7,327 spectators packed the Centrium, which is listed as having a capacity of 7,000 in the WHL guide and record book for 2015-16.
    The Rebels put on a strong fight in the tourney’s semifinal contest but fell 3-1 to the QMJHL champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies 3-1. A total of 7,562 spectators turned out for that contest.
Red Deer fans support their Rebels at the Memorial Cup.
    In Sunday’s final, the OHL champion London Knights rallied from a 2-1 deficit against the Huskies to pull out a 3-2 Memorial Cup championship winning victory in overtime on a winner coming from the stick of elite NHL Entry Draft prospect Matthew Tkachuk. A total of 7,384 fans turned out for that match.
    The lowest attendance figure for any of the event’s eight games was 7,181, which came in the round robin clash that saw the Knights down the Huskies 5-2 last Tuesday.
    After closing with an epic championship game, the Memorial Cup in Red Deer becomes a lofty standard bearer for future Memorial Cup tournaments to be measured against. The OHL’s Windsor Spitfires and their organizing committee have a lot to live up to in 2017.
  • On Monday, former Medicine Hat Tigers great Tom Lysiak passed away at age 63 after a battle with leukemia. He played for the Tigers in their first three seasons of existence from 1970 to 1973 collecting 118 goals and 209 assists in 195 regular season games. He helped the Tigers win their first WHL title in 1973 and advance to play in that year’s Memorial Cup at the storied Montreal Forum. After his Tigers days were done, Lysiak went on to play 919 regular season games in the NHL with the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks. When Lysiak passed, he likely took a huge amount of colourful and untold hockey stories with him from a time when the sport was a little more on the wild side. Tigers iconic play-by-play voice Bob Ridley said it best writing on Twitter, “The greatest Tiger ever Tom Lysiak, passed away this a.m. after a long fight with cancer. Condolences to the family.”
  • On Sunday, the Saskatoon Valkyries (3-1) found out they will open the Western Women’s Canadian Football League playoffs against the Manitoba Fearless (1-3) on June 12 at Saskatoon Minor Football Field in a Prairie Conference semifinal match. The other Prairie Conference semifinal that day will see the defending league champion Regina Riot (3-1) host the Winnipeg Wolfpack (1-3). The times of both games is still to be determined.
  • On Monday, It was cool to see guard Laura Dally sign a one-year professional contract to play professional basketball with BG ’89 Avides Hurricanes Rotenburg in Germany. Dally played her final campaign in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport ranks this past season and helped the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s team win their first national title. Dally, who stands 6-feet, was named the most outstanding player in the Canada West Conference, and she was a first team all-Canadian all-star. She has also been selected to join Canada’s senior national team for a European exhibition tournament in June.
  • Switching to something not sports related, here is hoping a major music label signs Saskatoon rock group One Bad Son. I saw them play the Roughriders kickoff party on Friday night at O’Brians Events Centre, and they were amazing. They have to be the best young rock group I have seen in some time. Unfortunately, major labels still seem to push mainly pop acts. This foursome should be way bigger than they are.
  • On front that was uplifting, Gregg Drinnan was a winner of a Paul Carson Broadcast and Media award on Thursday for his Taking Note blog. Taking Note was saluted as B.C.’s best sports related blog from outside Vancouver for a second straight year. Last year, Taking Note was an independent operation and it moved under the umbrella of TheCoachesSite.com last summer. Drinnan’s win is inspiring, and it proves there is life outside of the mainstream media. When it comes to covering the WHL, Drinnan is widely viewed as the best ever. Taking Note can be found right here.
    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Riot rally past Valkyries with late field goal

Saskatoon still finishes first in WWCFL’s Prairie Conference

Morgan Turner kicks the winning field goal for the Riot.
    REGINA, Sask. - It was almost déjà vu for Regina Riot kicker Morgan Turner, who is developing a habit of nailing game winning field goals against the Saskatoon Valkyries.
    On Saturday at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Turner booted a 21-yard field goal with 2:10 to play in the fourth quarter to give the Riot a 27-26 edge over the Valkyries. That score held up as the final outcome of Western Women’s Canadian Football League clash between these provincial rivals.
    Last year, Turner hit a 12-yard field goal into a stiff wind in the final seconds of the Prairie Conference championship game also at Mosaic Stadium to give the Riot a 31-29 win over the Valkyries. Regina advanced on to win the WWCFL title.
    Turner was pumped to come through again in the clutch but noted the circumstances around this winning kick were a lot different than the one a year ago.
    “It wasn’t as much pressure as last time,” said Turner. “We had a little more time, and I have a little more confidence in myself, because of the backing of my team.”
Samantha Matheson runs to daylight on a 56-yard TD score for the Valkyries.
    Saturday’s game also closed the regular season schedule for both clubs. The Valkyries and Riot both finish with identical 3-1 records, but Saskatoon finishes first in the Prairie Conference having outscored the Riot 73-48 in the two clashes between the teams. The Valkyries romped to a 47-21 victory over the Riot on May 22 in Saskatoon.
    Both teams host conference semifinal games on June 12 against opponents that are still to be determined.
    Saturday’s clash began in a downpour of rain that lasted for about the first five minutes of the contest.
    When the weather cleared up, the Valkyries surged out to a 19-0 edge on three rushing touchdowns by power running back Samantha Matheson, who ran the ball in from two, 20 and 56 yards out. Her 56-yard romp was a thing of epic beauty.
    Regina was able to block two of Saskatoon’s conversion attempts, which would haunt the Valkyries later in the game.
Valkyries DB Rienna Rueve tackles Rachelle Smith of the Riot.
    The Riot gained some traction manufacturing a 92-yard touchdown drive shortly before halftime. With 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Riot march finished with star veteran quarterback Aimee Kowalski hitting receiver Claire Dore on a seven-yard TD strike. The two proceeded connect on a short pass on a two-point conversion attempt to cut the Valkyries lead to 19-8.
    “We are very frustrated about the way that the game went tonight,” said Valkyries special teams coordinator Chris Hengen-Braun. “(Give) all credit to the Riot, they did a really good job of game planning for us.
    “We saw a lot of new girls get in there and get a lot of playing time. It was really cool to see. A lot of girls stepped up for us as well too tonight.
    “It was really cool to see a lot of players really fly around and make some good plays. We had a couple of fumbles and a couple of other turnovers that really swung the game for us.”
    The Valkyries were without a number of regulars. Most of their missing players were in Halifax, N.S., playing in the senior flag football nationals including their two regular quarterbacks Alex Eyolfson and Reed Thorstad as well as head coach Jeff Yausie. Stacey Boldt, who was the Valkyries starting quarterback last season, moved back into the signal calling role in Saturday’s loss.
Riot RB Celeste Schnell tries to pull away from the Valkyries defence.
    Despite missing a number of players, the Valkyries still had a solid outing. The Riot just found a way to gut out a win which included converting a number of third down gambles.
    In the third quarter, the Valkyries lead shrank to 19-17 after they conceded a safety and Riot powerback Carmen Agar ran in a score from three yards out.
    On the ensuing series after Agar’s score, Boldt hit receiver Carly Dyck on a deep route resulting in a 54-yard major for the Valkyries. The score put the visitors up 26-17 going into the fourth quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, Riot running back Celeste Schnell powered in from a yard out for a touchdown to cut the Valkyries lead to 26-24. That helped set the stage for Morgan to nail her winning field goal.
    Saskatoon’s final drive fizzled out at about the Regina 42 yard line.
The Valkyries defence sets up during a downpour of rain in the first quarter.
    Having locked up home field advantage through the Prairie Conference in the post-season, the likelihood is extremely high the Valkyries and Riot will face each other in the conference final. Going into playoffs, Hengen-Braun likes the effort he is seeing from his players.
    “The players that we asked to step up today did step up,” said Hengen-Braun. “The girls that did play today they did a really good job for us.”

    If you have any comments you would like to pass on about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Memorial Cup a hit in Red Deer

Nelson Nogier, left, and Jake DeBrusk salute the Red Deer fans.
    RED DEER, Alta. – No matter what happens on the ice, the 98th Memorial Cup in Red Deer will be a hit off the ice.
    When you arrive in town, you can feel that the central Alberta city of just over 100,800 residents in jumping. Major junior hockey’s championship tournament is meant to be held in centres like Red Deer, which are pure junior hockey towns. The citizens seem to get just a little more excited and have a little more appreciation for the fact they are hosting the Memorial Cup.
    In big cities, the Memorial Cup tends to get lost as another event.
    The Red Deer Rebels are completing their 24th season of existence in the major junior ranks, and the WHL franchise has become ingrained in the culture of the Red Deer community. The attachment to the team hit another level back in 1999, when Brent Sutter bought the franchise.
    The members of the Sutter family will always be viewed as hockey heroes in Red Deer as Brent along with his brothers Brian, Darryl, Duane, Ron and Rich all suited up for the now defunct Red Deer Rustlers junior A team before all moving on to lengthy careers in the NHL. Brent’s status in town took huge rise due to the fact he returned to Red Deer once his NHL playing days were finished. Besides owning the Rebels, he took a hands on approach running the club becoming the head coach and general manager.
The fans have been rocking in Red Deer.
    Two years after buying the team, Sutter guided the Rebels to a Memorial Cup championship, when they slipped past the Val-d’Or Foreurs 6-5 in overtime at the 2001 tourney in Regina. The Rebels made it back to the WHL championship series in 2002 and 2003 and the Eastern Conference Championship series in 2004 during those early years under Sutter’s watch. While running the Rebels, Sutter guided Canada’s world junior teams to gold medal victories in 2005 and 2006 as head coach to further cement his status as a Red Deer icon.
    Sutter along with his wife Connie, sons Merrick and Brandon, and daughter Brooke have always been a strong community minded family and that adds another dimension to the ties they have with Red Deer. When the Rebels were named the hosts of the 2016 Memorial Cup, it felt like a sure bet the Sutters would make the event a big success.
    Over the tournament’s first five games, attendance hasn’t slipped below 7,181 at the Enmax Centrium, which is listed as having a capacity of 7,000 in the WHL guide and record book for 2015-16. The atmosphere in the rink has been festive. Along with the fans that has poured in from out of town, people have been focused on celebrating major junior hockey in Canada.
One of the many signs in Red Deer that shows support for the Rebels.
    Besides filling the rink, the fans have packed the pavilion buildings the neighbour the Enmax Centrium on the grounds of Westerner Park to enjoy activities at the Fan Fest and the very popular Molson Hockey House.
    Of course when the Rebels hit the ice, the fans focus on the game is heightened just a little more. The various signs that are up throughout Red Deer kind of show off that fact. The atmosphere at games has been electric, and the energy peaks during contests that involve the host club.
    Fans in Red Deer and area were able to get a little bit more revved up for the tourney due to the fact the Rebels advanced to Eastern Conference Championship series in the WHL playoffs before falling to the eventual WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings.
    The local fans and the citizens of Red Deer have been very friendly and welcoming. The staff at Westerner Park have mirrored both those characteristics, which adds to the fact you want to be in the stands or at one of the pavilion buildings.
Winger Jake DeBrusk breaks into the offensive zone for the Rebels
    On the ice, the London Knights, who are the champions of the Ontario Hockey League, are the team to beat. After their 5-2 victory over the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies on Tuesday night, the Knights advanced to Sunday’s championship game finishing the round robin portion of the tournament with a 3-0 record. They have outscored their opponents 20-5 in those wins and have won 16 straight games going back to the OHL playoffs.
    In some Memorial Cup tournaments, you will have teams like the Knights that are so dominant they throw the competitive balance for a loop. London’s top forward line of Mitch Marner, captain Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk have played beyond spectacular.
    Organizers can’t control the competitive aspect on the ice. As far as organizing everything that goes on around the games, the Rebels and the host committee definitely get and deserve top marks.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

NHL shafting prospects that lack size

Adam Brooks led the WHL in scoring this past season.
    What is old has become new again if you are a small guy trying to make the NHL.
    When I covered the Regina Pats in the last half of the 1999-2000 season and first half of the 2000-01 campaign, two of their most exciting players to watch were Matt Hubbauer and Kevin Korol. Both were heart-and-soul skilled players, had tonnes of speed and competed hard night in and night out. Off the ice, they were gold in the dressing room becoming best friends with all of their teammates.
    Despite all their positive characteristics, you had a gut feeling that no matter how hard or how well Hubbauer and Korol performed they would never play in the NHL because of their size. Hubbauer stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 194 pounds, while Korol was 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds.
    While they played hard, it was viewed players like Hubbauer and Korol would not be able to hold up to the physical pounding a player takes in the NHL. Despite posting solid statistical seasons in their major junior careers, Hubbauer and Korol were never drafted and never played a shift in the regular season or playoffs in “The Show.”
    Fast forward to the current major junior campaign that is nearing completion with the Memorial Cup tournament getting underway Friday in Red Deer. Two of the most exciting players on the Pats this season were Adam Brooks and Cole Sanford. They were key in helping Regina advance to the second round of the WHL playoffs, where the Pats fell in an exciting seven-game series to the Memorial Cup hosting Red Deer Rebels.
Matt Hubbauer used to pile up points for the Pats.
    As a 19-year-old veteran, Brooks topped the WHL in regular season scoring with 38 goals and 82 assists playing in all 72 regular season games. Sanford was an overage right-winger the Pats acquired in a trade with the Medicine Hat Tigers. In 63 regular season games in 2015-16, Sanford had 41 goals and 39 assists. In four seasons in the WHL, Sanford collected 126 goals and 123 assists in 260 career regular season games.
    Both were dynamite in the Pats 12-game playoff run. Brooks pick up seven goals and 16 assists, and Sanford posted seven goals and nine assists.
    Both also have shortcomings in the size department. Brooks stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 175 pounds, while Sanford stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 165 pounds.
    Neither player has been selected in the NHL Entry Draft, and they will likely be camp bodies when NHL training camps open this fall. That will likely be the closest either player comes to appearing in an NHL regular season or playoff game. Barring something unforeseen, Brooks will be back with the Pats next season as an overager.
    It seems like NHL scouts are just looking for players that stand 6-foot-3 and weigh in the neighbourhood of 210 pounds. Gifted Brandon Wheat Kings Centre Nolan Patrick is viewed as a perfect prospect, because he has the size, as he stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 195 pounds, to go along with his outstanding skill. The Winnipeg product isn’t eligible for the NHL Entry Draft until next year, so he will have lots of time to bulk up and fill out.
Cole Sanford (#26) has never been afraid to battle in the hard areas.
    The travesty is the fact the little guys with skill don’t seem to be on the radar of NHL scouts anymore. The WHL might be the most physical of any junior hockey circuit in the world, but players like Brooks and Sanford have still flourished. Both never shy away from battling the corners or other tough areas on the ice.
    They have proven they can play and should be given a real chance to make an NHL roster.
    At one time not long ago, the door was wide open for the little guy. From a period of about 2005 to 2008, there was a serious effort to crack down on obstruction at all levels of hockey. All of a sudden, the little guy with skill became a valuable asset.
    It was during this time that brilliant puck moving defenceman Kris Russell, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds, went from being the WHL’s most valuable player in 2006-07 with the Medicine Hat Tigers to becoming an NHL regular. Over nine NHL seasons, Russell has suited up for 573 regular season games collecting 38 goals and 139 assists.
Jordon Cooke of the Huskies has been the top goalie in the CHL and CIS.
    Forward Tyler Ennis, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 160 pounds, went from being a star with the Tigers to a first round selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. After going 26th overall to the Sabres, Ennis has appeared in 368 career regular season games over seven seasons collecting 92 goals and 131 assists. While he was out most of last season with a concussion, Ennis proved he belongs in the NHL.
    Unfortunately, scouts have a little too much fear that smaller players have a greater chance of suffering injuries like concussions, so that fear helps little guys get overlooked. With that said, a lot of big players have suffered their share of concussion injuries over the years too.
    As a result, you can go to a Canadian university hockey men’s game and watch players like goaltender Jordon Cooke and forward Kohl Bauml shine with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. When you see both of those players perform, you think they should be in the professional ranks but realize they aren’t because of their size.
Kris Russell has played nine seasons in the NHL.
    Cooke, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185 pounds, came to the Huskies after having an outstanding WHL campaign in 2013-14 with the Kelowna Rockets, where he was named the Canadian Hockey League’s goalie of the year. Just think about that for a second. Cooke was voted the best goalie in all of major junior hockey, and he still didn’t get an NHL contract.
    That fact right there shows how difficult it is for the small guy to gain a legitimate chance to make an NHL team.
    Cooke had a spectacular campaign in 2015-16 for the Huskies posting a 19-5 record, a 2.52 goals against average, a .921 save percentage and two shutouts. His win total set a new Huskies regular season team record, and he was named the goaltender of the year for Canadian Interuniversity Sport and was a first team CIS all-star.
    Bauml, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 170 pounds, potted 30 goals and 30 assists in 71 games as an overager with the Everett Silvertips in 2014-15. He topped the Huskies in team scoring as a rookie recording 12 goals and 21 assists in 28 games. The Saskatoon product was named the rookie of the year for the Canada West Conference and was named to the CIS all-rookie team.
    You can keep adding from there to the list of small guys who are not getting a serious NHL look. These players have kicked down the door to prove they can play. All they need is another cycle to arise where NHL scouts come to their senses to allow small players to have legitimate shots to make the league again.

Back in the Express with Nogier

Nelson Nogier will play in the Memorial Cup tournament for a second time.
    I was back in the Saskatoon Express this week with a story I really enjoyed writing.
    I had the opportunity to craft a feature story on my young cousin Nelson Nogier, who is about to appear in the Memorial Cup tournament for a second time. Nogier is a 19-year-old stay-at-home defenceman with the Red Deer Rebels, who are hosting the Memorial Cup. The Rebels open the tournament on Friday against the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights.
    The prospect of the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets was a 16-year-old rookie with his hometown Saskatoon Blades when they hosted the Memorial Cup in 2013. Nogier, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 209 pounds, joined the Rebels via a trade that came shortly before the WHL’s Christmas break in 2014.
    On a personal note, I had a lot of fun interviewing Nogier, and I had so much pride and enjoyed watching him help the Rebels make it to the WHL Eastern Conference championship series, which they lost to the eventual WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings. My story on Nogier can be found right here.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Valkyries look good, can be even better

Julene Friesen (#14) tears down field for the Valkyries.
    The Saskatoon Valkyries look good, but they have the potential to be better.
    That might be a scary observation to make considering the local Western Women’s Canadian Football League team thumped the Winnipeg based Manitoba Fearless 61-1 on Sunday at Saskatoon Minor Football Field. With the win, the Valkyries improved to 2-0 in regular season play and 3-0 overall.
    With 27 first-year players on their roster, the Valkyries are expected to go through some growing pains. During their three solid wins, the growing pains are evident, but it has to be noted that improvement is also visible.
    Saskatoon needs that improvement to continue with two big head-to-head clashes looming with their biggest rivals in the defending league champion Regina Riot. The Riot also sport a 2-0 regular season record and a 3-0 overall mark. They have been dominant in their three outings, which included dumping the Winnipeg Wolfpack 47-0 on Sunday in Regina.
    With their respective 2-0 regular season starts, the Valkyries and Riot will host Prairie Conference semifinal playoff games on June 12. Their regular season ending home-and-home series will determine which side will have home field advantage throughout the playoffs in the Prairie Conference. The Valkyries host the Riot this coming Sunday at 7 p.m. at SMF Field, and the Riot host the Valkyries on May 28 at 7 p.m. at Mosaic Stadium.
Valkyries DL Jaime Lammerding forces a fumble.
    In the win over the Fearless, the Valkyries were impressive offensively, when it came to running the ball. Saskatoon piled up 330 yards on the ground using five different running backs. Each player had strong games running behind an always powerful Valkyries offensive line.
    Veteran Julene Friesen ran the ball for 89 yards on 10 carries, and she scored the game’s opening touchdown on a nine yard scamper. Fellow veteran Samantha Matheson ran for 79 yards on five carries and ran in her squad’s second major slashing through the middle of the Fearless defence on a 31-yard run.
    Rookie Kendal Matheson showed she can run like her older sister, Samantha, and piled up 68 yards on five carries. The younger Matheson ran in a major from 37 yards out in the fourth quarter.
    Fellow first-year runners Tyra Tkachuk and Ricki Obed both had their strong moments as well. Tkachuk had 52 yards on six carries, while Obed had 26 yards on three carries.
Stacey Boldt hauls in a TD grab for the Valkyries.
    Saskatoon’s passing game did look a bit disjointed due to the fact some players in that area have moved around. In hopes of getting more production out of the passing game over the long term, the Valkyries moved last year’s starting quarterback Stacey Boldt back to receiver.
    At quarterback, the Valkyries are using a tandem of two youngsters in rookie Alex Eyolfson and sophomore Reed Thorstad in fashion similar to the way the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders utilized John Hufnagel and Joe Barnes way back in 1981.
    Eyolfson played the first and fourth quarters completing four of five passes for 85 yards. She scrambled for a four-yard rushing major late in the first quarter.
    In the fourth quarter, Eyolfson hit rookie receiver and former University of North Dakota hockey standout Alyssa Wiebe for a 45-yard touchdown pass reception off an intermediate out route. Eyolfson later found Boldt on a shot eight-yard middle pass for a second throwing major.
    Thorstad called signals in the second and third quarters and completed one of seven passes. She was also intercepted by Fearless defensive back Marissa Milani deep on the Manitoba side of the field.
    The Valkyries passing game will smooth out with more repetitions in practice and games as the season moves on. Saskatoon’s passing game will receive another big boost, when veteran receiver Marci Kiselyk returns from injury.
    On defence, the Valkryies limited the Fearless to 68 net yards. In the second quarter, defensive back Shaylyn DeJong returned an interception 47 yards for a major score, while teammate Kelsey Dick had a pick-six of her own from 45 yards out late in that same frame.
Kendal Matheson (#25) runs in a touchdown for the Valyries.
    DeJong and sophomore linebacker Kathleen Kent topped the Valkyries with three tackles each.
    Carly Dyck kicked a 25-yard field goal and the Fearless conceded a safety to round out Saskatoon’s scoring. Fearless kicker Sara Milani accounted for her side’s only point on a 16-yard missed field goal.
    Going forward, the Valkryies will really see where they are at, when they face the Riot. Regina returns star quarterback Aimee Kowalski and star running back Carmen Agar along with sure-handed receivers Amanda Hungle, Claire Dore and Alex Kowalski. The Riot’s defence will be tough.
    Both teams have pushed each other to be better over the history of the WWCFL dating back to 2011. These two upcoming clashes should prove to be no different.

Samantha Matheson in the Express

Valkyries RB Samantha Matheson powers her way through Fearless tacklers.
    I recently caught up with Valkyries running back Samantha Matheson for a feature in the Saskatoon Express.
    In last year’s Prairie Conference final at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Matheson had a game for the ages running for 159 yards on 14 carries and scoring four touchdowns. She helped the Valkyries rally from a 28-7 deficit to the host Riot to take a late 29-28 fourth quarter lead. The Riot took the clash 31-29 on a last second field goal.
    Matheson was going to walk away from football after playing through the 2015 campaign with nagging injuries to her knees. Over the off-season, her knees healed up to the point she decided to return for her third season. Her story can be found right here.

Roller derby in the Express

Action at a recent Saskatoon Roller Derby League practice.
    I had a busy week with the Saskatoon Express.
    Besides the story on Matheson, I also wrote a feature on the Saskatoon Roller Derby League. Since forming in 2007, Roller Derby is moving from a social function into a more serious sport.
    The Saskatoon league hosted its first-ever tournament on Saturday and Sunday at the Legends Centre in Warman billed as the “Attack of the 8-Wheeled Woman.”
    Veteran skaters Mel "Forna Skate" Langeler and Laurel "Bella Von Bastard" Turner talk about their experiences with the local league and the sport. 
    The feature on the league can be found here.

Rush fever to hit new heights

A Rush display at the Saskatoon airport.
    If you thought people in Saskatoon and area were crazy over the Saskatchewan Rush before, you likely ain’t seen nothing yet.
    On Saturday in Calgary, the Rush claimed Game 1 of the National Lacrosse League’s West Division final 16-10 against the host Roughnecks. Game 2 is slated for this coming Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre. In necessary, a series deciding 10-minute mini game will be held right after Game 2.
    The Rush played in front of crowds of over 10,000 people in each of their last six home dates. They drew 15,027 spectators to their last home contest back on April 16, which was an 11-8 victory over the Colorado Mammoth. One has to wonder if the Rush will be able to sneak in a few extra bodies into the SaskTel Centre past the fire marshal this coming Saturday in order to eclipse the attendance mark from the Mammoth game.
    The atmosphere at all nine regular season home games for the Rush has been raucous to say the least. Their merchandise is being worn by fans all over “the Bridge City.”
    “Rush Fever” will likely reach new heights this Saturday. There might even be tailgating in the parking lot with the warm weather. Getting to the SaskTel Centre early definitely seems like a must.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Wheat Kings are the toast of Brandon

Jayce Hawryluk (#8) and Nolan Patrick (#19) enjoy a Wheat Kings win.
  Since winning the WHL championship on Friday night in Seattle, the Brandon Wheat Kings and their fans have enjoyed the spoils of victory, and they should enjoy every good moment associated with that win.
    When the Wheat Kings downed the host Thunderbirds 8-4 in Game 5 of the WHL Championship series at the ShoWare Center on Friday night, Brandon claimed its first league title since 1996 with a 4-1 best-of-seven series victory. The win was followed by a joyous plane fight home and huge upbeat rally at the UTC Pavilion in Brandon on Saturday with the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Between league title wins, the Wheat Kings continued to hold the lofty status as being one of the WHL’s elite franchises.
    In the 20 years since the 1996 WHL title win, the Wheat Kings only missed the playoffs twice. During that time, the Wheat Kings finished first in the East Division on eight occasions, which included this season. The run to stay good included having to rebound from loading up to host the Memorial Cup in 2010.
Nolan Patrick became a game breaker for the Wheat Kings.
    That fact Brandon went 20 years between league title wins is more a testament to how tough it is to win it all in the WHL.
    This season, the Wheat Kings topped the WHL’s Eastern Conference standings and placed second overall in the WHL with a 48-18-4-2 mark. The 102 points they collected in the standings ranks seventh best in team history. Last year, Brandon finish first overall in the WHL with a 53-11-4-4 record, advanced to the WHL final and got swept by the Kelowna Rockets.
    When to comes to wins and losses, the Wheat Kings have had a small number of seasons that were better than the record posted in 2015-16, but the current playoff run seemed to resonate with the local fans on a bit of a higher scale than past campaigns.
    Over 11 playoff home games, the Wheat Kings averaged 5,070 spectators at Westman Place, which seats 5,102. The WHL Guide for 2015-16 states the Wheat Kings’s rink can accommodate 600 people for standing room, but we all know that number depends on how the fire marshal is feeling.
    Brandon’s crowds swelled into the standing room spots on six occasions in the post-season. The Wheat Kings highest attendance figure came when they drew 5,621 spectators to their final home game, which was a 3-2 overtime victory over the Thunderbirds in Game 2 of the WHL title series on May 7.
Jordan Papirny came up with critical saves for the Wheat Kings.
    During the regular season, the Wheat Kings averaged 4,212 spectators per game. In last year’s playoffs, they drew an average of 4,778 spectators for 10 home dates.
    It is hard to pin a reason why the Wheat Kings run this year seemed to do a better job of capturing the attention of the citizens of Brandon. There might have been a new appreciation for the positive characteristics the Wheat Kings bring to the rink night in and night out.
    The Wheat Kings success begins with head coach, general manager and owner Kelly McCrimmon, who is a strong community minded individual. He is good at building chemistry, when you note that seven of the 24 players on Brandon’s current roster arrived via trade including steady captain Macoy Erkamps, who came in a deal with the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Sept 30, 2014. Those additions mixed in with 13 Bantam Draft selections, three list players and one Import Draft pick.
    McCrimmon is like a second dad to his players, and behind the bench, he does a stellar job of remaining composed and focused no matter what happens on the ice. The players mirror that demeanor, which has to help them stay even when things go bad.
Fans packed Westman Place in Brandon for Wheat Kings games.
    The Wheat Kings players have had a history of being know has the favourite road team in the WHL among the hotel and restaurant staffs in other cities. They always carry themselves in a classy and personable manner, and those positive traits also help the team on the ice.
    The club’s assistant coaches in Darren Ritchie and David Anning and goaltending coach Matt Cockell have to be credited for helping build the team to what it is. Brandon also benefited from strong work performed by a scouting staff headed up by Wade Klippenstein, who is the team’s director of scouting.
    During post-game interviews after winning the WHL title, all the Wheat Kings players and staffers said that everyone on the team was a good character individual. When you look up and down their roster, you can see that is an accurate assessment, especially when you look at overage defenceman Mitch Wheaton and 19-year-old rearguard Jordan Thomson.
    Wheat Kings’s fans were able to see a lot of brilliant performances form a number of individuals. Three of the key ones had to come from Nolan Patrick, Jayce Hawryluk and Jordan Papirny.
Wheat Kings captain Macoy Erkamps (#20) battles for the puck.
    Patrick, who was born four days after the cut off day for this year’s NHL Entry Draft, was a star, but the skilled centre became a game breaker, who made key plays at critical times. He topped the Wheat Kings in post-season scoring with 13 goals and 17 assists in 21 games.
    Hawryluk, who was an NHL Entry Draft selection of the Florida Panthers in 2014, further cemented his reputation as being one of the hardest players to play against in the WHL. Standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 194 pounds, Hawryluk actually can play the physical bang and crash game, and he has the ability to be one of those pest/agitator types that knocks opponents off their game.
    The Roblin, Man., product delivers offensively too as he collected seven goals and 22 assists in 21 playoff games. In the victory that clinched the WHL title, Hawryluk had one of those special nights firing home a hat trick and collecting a pair of assists in an 8-4 win.
    In goal, Papirny delivered the big saves when the Wheat Kings needed them the most, and performed like a money goalie in the playoffs on most nights. His 2.93 goals against average and .897 save percentage doesn’t do justice to show how good the Edmonton product was. When Papirny had a bad game, he rebounded the next night in spectacular style.
Defenceman Mitch Wheaton is a character player for the Wheat Kings.
    On Monday, the Wheat Kings return to practice to gear up for their next big challenge, which is the Memorial Cup tournament in Red Deer. Brandon enters that four-team event as an underdog squad. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights will be pegged as the favourites.
    The Huskies topped the final Canadian Hockey League Top Ten rankings posting a 54-9-3-2 regular season record. They recorded a 16-4 playoff record in their run to a QMJHL title.
    The Knights were third in the final CHL rankings after posting a 51-14-2-1 regular season record. They were 16-2 in their run to winning the OHL championship.
    London opens the Memorial Cup this coming Friday against the host Red Deer Rebels. The Rebels finished sixth overall in the WHL with a 45-24-1-2 regular season mark, and they made it to the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series before falling to Brandon.
The Wheat Kings next focus is capturing the Memorial Cup.
    The Wheat Kings open play at the Memorial Cup this coming Saturday against the Huskies. The tournament’s championship game is slated for May 29.
    Brandon has never won a Memorial Cup. The Wheat Kings come a long way to gain a rare opportunity to capture major junior hockey’s biggest prize.
    Everyone associated with the team will note there is no point stopping now, and they might as well finish things off by going all the way. The Wheat Kings are battle hardened and will prove to be a tough out on the national stage.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Wheat Kings put Thunderbirds on ropes

Seattle’s mental toughness faces huge test in WHL finals

The Wheat Kings mob Jayce Hawryluk (#8) after his OT winner.
    BRANDON, Man. – Jayce Hawryluk potted one of those ugly overtime winners that drove a dagger through the hearts of the Seattle Thunderbirds.
    With the host Brandon Wheat Kings locked in a 2-2 tie in overtime with the Thunderbirds in Game 2 of the WHL championship series on Saturday night, Hawryluk had the puck in the right corner of the Seattle zone. The Roblin, Man., product tried to hit linemate Nolan Patrick with a backdoor pass for a scoring chance. 
    Hawryluk’s pass banked off the inside of one of the pads of Thunderbirds goaltender Landon Bow and bounced into the Seattle goal 6:56 into extra time. The marker gave the Wheat Kings a 3-2 victory before 5,621 delirious onlookers at Westman Place, which seats 5,102.
Ethan Bear gave Seattle a short-lived lead.
    Brandon takes a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, which moves to Seattle for Game 3 on Tuesday. The Thunderbirds aren’t dead as they also host Game 4 on Wednesday and a potential Game 5 on Friday, but they are on the ropes. Saturday’s loss has to be a tough pill to swallow, as even the winning goal scorer himself admitted he wasn’t trying to put the puck in the net with his pass attempt.
    “I was trying to hit Patrick backdoor,” said Hawryluk. “I saw him going in. It caught a fortunate bounce.”
    That positive bounce marked the second straight overtime victory for the Wheat Kings, who took Game 1 a night earlier by a similar 3-2 outcome. Brandon centre Tanner Kaspick netted the winner in the series opener, when he showed great hand-eye coordination in knocking a puck out of the air into the Seattle net.
    Seattle’s mental psyche is being tested like it never has before in the 2016 post-season. Over the first three rounds of the WHL playoffs, the Thunderbirds won 12 out of 13 games. Now, they have lost two straight overtime games in a battle for the Ed Chynoweth Cup, and they drop two contests they could have won, if they had just a couple of breaks go their way.
Jayce Hawryluk finds a way to come through for Brandon.
    On Saturday, the Thunderbirds never trailed until Hawryluk’s winner went in. Seattle led 1-0 and went up 2-1, when a point shot from defenceman Ethan Bear found the back of the Brandon goal. Donovan Neuls scored Seattle’s first marker just a minute into the second period.
    The Wheat Kings, who were swept out of last year’s WHL title series by the Kelowna Rockets, found a way to get it done, and that has ultimately made the difference so far in this year’s league title series.
    Just 81 seconds after Neuls’s goal, Patrick wired home his 12th of the post-season on a two-on-one break to tie things up at 1-1. Patrick’s goal came when the Thunderbirds were on the power play.
After Seattle went up 2-1, Wheat Kings left-winger Tyler Coulter netted the equalizer with 5:20 to play in the third to force a 2-2 score.
    Wheat Kings goaltender Jordan Papirny proved to be a Thunderbirds nemesis making 37 stops to earn the win in goal for Brandon. Bow, who had a stellar night outside of Hawryluk’s winner, turned away 36 shots to take the loss in goal for Seattle.
The Thunderbirds couldn't crash in a potential winner late in the third.
    Right now, the Wheat Kings, who have won 14 of their 18 post-season games, have to be feeling they can overcome every obstacle that comes their way. Some doubt has to be creeping in the minds of the Thunderbirds, who don’t have a whole lot of history of recent long playoff runs.
    Game 3 is a must win for the Thunderbirds. If the Thunderbirds fall, a sweep will likely be in the cards for the Wheat Kings.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

The magic of "right now" revisited in Brandon

Wheat Kings gave home faithful a night to remember

The Wheat Kings celebrate a goal from Nolan Patrick.
    If you were inside Westman Place in Brandon on Friday night, you couldn’t help but be swept up in “the now.”
    In an age where one is bombarded with social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it seems like people forget to interact with or even enjoy the actual real world around them. It feels like people keep seeking instant gratification of getting a tidbit of information in 140 characters or getting a post out there about something they have on their mind.
    For those that saw the Brandon Wheat King play at Westman Place on Friday night, you were reminded that the real world can still be a cool place to be.
    A total of 5,605 spectators packed into the Wheaties home rink that seats 5,102, and they had to admit they saw something special when the home side claimed the WHL Eastern Conference title with a 5-2 victory over the Red Deer Rebels. A couple of days later, you get a better appreciation for how cool it was to be focused on the current moment over a period of three hours.
    The Wheat Kings entered Game 5 leading the best-of-seven series 3-1. There was an excitement in the air throughout Brandon and the atmosphere in Westman Place moments before game time was giddy. People decked out in Brandon jerseys and #Goldrush T-shirts were anticipating the Wheat Kings would win the conference title that night and advance to the WHL championship series for a second straight year.
The "Gold Men" celebrate the Wheat Kings conference title win.
    During the singing of O Canada, the crowd gave an emphatic yell of the words “true north” and from that moment on you could feel the passion of the Manitoba-based hockey fan.
    The Wheat Kings fed off the energy of the home crowd, and for the first seven minutes of the game, the Rebels rarely got out of their own zone.
    The visitors were able to withstand that opening surge scoring the first goal of the contest and exiting the first period with a 2-1 edge. The Rebels were only delaying the inevitable.
    Just 86 seconds into the second period, Wheat Kings star centre Nolan Patrick drove hard to the net and converted a nice setup pass from linemate Jayce Hawryluk to tie things up at 2-2. The tally was Patrick’s second of the contest.
    He potted his hat trick goal with 3:41 to play in the second to put the hosts up 3-2. As hats rained down to the ice, it hit you that the 17-year-old Winnipeg product was indeed having one of those spectacular individual performances in a big playoff game that you would always remember. It would be the item that led almost all the media reports about that night’s game.
The Rebels could not stop Nolan Patrick (#19) of the Wheat Kings.
    Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 195 pounds, Patrick has the physical dimensions for a forward that are an NHL scouts dream to go along with his exceptional skill.
    Due to his late in the year birthday, Patrick isn’t draft eligible until next year, which made his performance on Friday night look that much more amazing. Patrick’s big night also came from playing inside of Brandon’s system, and his stellar chemistry with his linemates produced the offensive outburst.
    With 47.2 seconds to play in the second, Patrick became the setup man. He assisted on John Quenneville’s short-handed goal to put the Wheat Kings up 4-2.
    Brandon’s momentum continued in the third when netminder Jordan Papirny stoned Rebels captain Luke Philp on a breakaway. The Wheat Kings proceeded to go up 5-2 with 7:52 to play, when Patrick hit pinching defenceman Kale Clague with a beautiful back door feed, and Clague roofed home a goal during a period of four-on-four play.
Part of the 5,605 at Westman Place begin to celebrate the Wheat Kings win.
    The celebration started. With 5:30 to play in the third, the fans pulled a classic and started singing the “Goodbye” song to the Rebels. If anyone in the rink was dealing with worries regarding work or their home life, those worries were far from their minds at that moment.
    The party hit a fever pitch when the final seconds expired and the Wheat Kings poured off their bench to mob Papirny.
    Some laughs ensued during the presentation of the WHL Eastern Conference championship trophy. To superstitiously avoid bad luck, Wheat Kings captain Macoy Erkamps ensured he didn’t touch the trophy and snuck his hand underneath it to shake the hand of WHL vice-president of hockey Richard Doerksen.
    Big cheers erupted a couple of times, when the Wheat Kings players raised their sticks to salute the fans.
    The people in Westman Place that night were enjoying a big community moment they would always remember. All that mattered was right now, and it was a pretty good place to be.

Random observations – Valkyries get youth infusion

Valkyries newcomer Emmarae Dale takes down a Storm ballcarrier.
    There are a lot of new young faces among the Saskatoon Valkyries women’s football team this season.
    The Valkyries have 27 new players on their roster this season. A large number of the newcomers appear to be coming from the girls’ flag football league that exists in the Bridge City.
    With the newcomers on the field, the Valkyries opened their 2016 campaign on Saturday downing the Edmonton Storm 30-17 in an exhibition tilt. Like a lot of early season football, the Valkyries had their moments when they looked good and other moments when you could tell some improvement was needed.
    Under head coach Jeff Yausie and his staff, the Valkyries always improve a huge amount as the season goes along, and you can expect this campaign will be no different.
    The Valkyries open their Western Women's Canadian Football League regular season this coming Sunday on road in Winnipeg against the Wolfpack, and their regular season home opener is set for May 15 at 1 p.m. at Saskatoon Minor Football Field against the Manitoba Fearless.
  • I wonder how many people are anxious to get their next Saskatchewan Rush hit. The local National Lacrosse League team won’t play again at the SaskTel Centre until May 21st at 7:30 p.m., when they host Game 2 of the Western Final. The Rush topped the Western Division standings with a 13-5 record. They have played in front of crowds of over 10,000 in each of their last six home games, which included drawing 15,027 to their final regular season home game on April 16, when they downed the Colorado Mammoth 11-8. I suspect a few people will avoid a lake trip during the May 21st weekend.
  • I have a feeling that the magical 2015 Major League Baseball season for the Toronto Blue Jays will be a one off. The 2015 campaign came out of nowhere, and it was the Jays first post-season appearance since they won their last World Series in 1993. From 1985 to 1993, the Jays made the playoffs on a frequent basis. They currently don’t have that type of history and it might be showing in their 12-14 start. Expect them to miss the playoffs entirely this year.
  • Expect the best-of-seven WHL championship series between the Wheat Kings and Seattle Thunderbirds to be must watch TV. Both clubs have exciting and talented rosters. Game 1 from Brandon is set for Friday at 7 p.m. Saskatchewan time on Sportsnet. Shaw takes over the rest of the way starting with Game 2 on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Saskatchewan time.
  • It would be sweet of the Saskatoon Blades are successful in getting an inner city outdoor rink built in Saskatoon. One of those classic Canadian experiences is playing shinny on an outdoor rink during winter. I believe that type of facility would be well used. If you build it, the people will come.
    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.