Thursday, 14 December 2017

Blades’ Hajek expects to play sizable role with Czech world junior team

Libor Hajek is at the Czech Republic’s world junior training camp.
    A new head coach likely equals a new opportunity for Saskatoon Blades defenceman Libor Hajek, when it comes to cracking the Czech world junior team.
    Hajek departed from Saskatoon early Wednesday morning for the training camp of the Czech Republic’s world junior team, which is being held in Niagara Falls, Ont. The 19-year-old was cut from the Czech Republic’s world junior team roster last season, but he is optimistic about having a good role with the squad this season under new head coach Filip Pesan.
    “I talk with the coaches, and I’m probably going to be more leader there,” said Hajek, who had eight goals and 16 assists in 32 regular season games with the Blades in the current campaign. “This is my last year for playing world juniors, so I’ll be a leader and show my experience from the NHL (and) from Canadian Hockey League.”
    Hajek, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 210 pounds, has deep roots with hockey in his home country. Like many Canadians, Hajek took up hockey at an early age, and his biggest influence in helping him along was his father, David.
    “I was like four-years-old,” said Hajek, who is in his third full season with the Blades. “My dad just play hockey, and he was a hockey player.
    “He just put me on ice pushing a chair. He is like my biggest coach in my life. He still is watching my every game.
Libor Hajek has had a strong season with the Blades.
    “We always talk about the game after the game. He is like the best for me. He is like my best coach.”
    Hajek said he grew up watching good hockey in his local area and enjoyed playing for HC Kometa Brno.
    He relished playing for the Czech Republic’s national team at the under-16, under-17 and under-18 levels. One of his biggest disappointments was failing to make the Czech world junior team last season.
    “It was kind of sad,” said Hajek. “I didn’t make the team there. It was kind of frustrating, mad.”
    At last season’s world juniors held in Montreal and Toronto, the Czech team posted a 1-1-2 record in round robin play suffering overtime losses to Switzerland and Denmark. The Czech team’s run at the tournament ended with a 5-3 setback to Canada.
    The performance of the Czech team was met with disappointment. As a result, Pesan was installed to replace Jakub Petr as the head coach of the Czech team for the upcoming world juniors, which begin Dec. 26 in Buffalo, New York. The Czech Republic opens the tournament against Russia.
    Hajek said there was excitement back in the Czech Republic hockey circles now that Pesan is the head coach of the world junior team, and the skilled two-way rearguard’s hopes to be with the team were heightened.
    “It is always my pleasure to play for the Czech national team,” said Hajek. “Hopefully this year we’ll make (it) better.” 
Libor Hajek works the point on the power play for the Blades.
    Blades head coach Dean Brockman would love to see Hajek crack the Czech world junior roster.
    “He (Hajek) wants to play his best right now and kind of peak towards that event,” said Brockman. “We certainly think he has a real good chance to make it, but you never know.”
    Hajek, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round and 37th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, believes he handled being cut from the Czech Republic world junior team in a mature manner. He focused on his return to the Blades, and for his efforts, he signed a three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Lightning last March.
    “I just play harder and better here in Saskatoon, and it helps,” said Hajek. “I went home to take some rest. I played better here (in Saskatoon).”

Kubic back in the fold to create crease dilemma

Goalie Ryan Kubic has returned from injury for the Blades.
    Veteran 19-year-old goalie Ryan Kubic is back in the Saskatoon Blades fold, and his return has created a good problem for the team.
    Kubic last started a game for the Blades on Nov. 18, when he turned away 31-of-36 shots in a 6-3 setback against the Warriors in Moose Jaw. The St. Andrews, Man., product was forced out of the team’s lineup after that game due to a knee injury.
    On Tuesday, Kubic returned to the Blades lineup, but he served as the backup goalie in the team’s clash with the Lethbridge Hurricanes. The Blades went with the hot hand of 16-year-old Nolan Maier for a 10th straight start in goal, and he turned away 28 shots in a 5-3 victory.
    The Yorkton, Sask., product’s play has constantly improved every time he has been given a start in Saskatoon’s goal. With Maier playing at a high level, Blades head coach Dean Brockman plans to use both netminders in the team’s last three games before getting embarking on the WHL’s Christmas break.
    “Nolan (Maier) is on a little bit of a role here, but he is not going to be able to play all three,” said Brockman. “We will have a practice or two to decide on it.”
    Currently, the Blades have two 19-year-old forwards on their injury list in Gage Ramsay (groin, slated to return after Christmas break) and Caleb Fantillo (knee, 5-to-7 weeks).
    The Blades (13-16-2-1) travel to Regina on Friday to take on the Memorial Cup host Pats (16-15-2) at 7 p.m. at the Brandt Centre. On Saturday, the Blades return home to host the Kelowna Rockets (18-11-2-1) at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre.
    On Sunday, the Blades host the Pats at 4 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre in their Secret Santa game. Fans are invited to bring a new unwrapped toy to the contest as a donation to the Secret Santa Foundation.

“Pats Regiment” feeling uneasy in Regina

Sam Steel and the Pats face doubters this season.
    If you follow social media or hear the noise from sports talk radio shows based in Regina, a number of fans of the Regina Pats, who are known as the “Pats Regiment,” are starting to feel really worried.
    The Pats host the 100th edition of the Memorial Cup from May 17-27, 2018, and the team is hovering around the .500 mark with a 16-15-2 record. At the moment, the Pats, who have six sellouts this season, hold the first wildcard position in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    If the Pats lose their last three outings in regulation before they go on their WHL Christmas break, it is possible they could be sitting out of a playoff position.
    Last season, the Pats had a dream campaign finishing first in the WHL’s regular season standings for the first time since 1974 with a 52-12-7-1 record. The 52 wins set a franchise record for the regular season.
    They were rated first in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 rankings for most of that campaign and topped the final ratings released on March 22.
    In the playoffs, the Pats made the WHL Championship series for the first time since 1984, but fell 4-2 in the best-of-seven set to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Thunderbirds import centre Alexander True scored the overtime winner in Game 6 of the WHL title series to give his side a 4-3 victory in that contest.
    The Pats were a team that was built to have a special campaign last season. Going through a sizable turnover in key players including the loss of star overage captain Adam Brooks, the Pats should have been tagged for a reload or a rebuilding type season in the current campaign.
Josh Mahura was one of the standouts the Pats got back from the pros.
    With the Pats celebrating their 100th anniversary as an organization in 2017-18, they decided to make a bid for the 100th Memorial Cup. They were awarded that event on February 18.
    For Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock, he was really put in a bind, when it game to preparing the club’s roster to be a Memorial Cup host. The Pats were locked in to make their run through the 2017 playoffs.
    The host announcement came way after the WHL trade deadline of Jan. 10. Even if the announcement came before the trade deadline, you couldn’t see the Pats blowing up their chances to win it all in 2016-17 by dealing away players like Brooks and fellow overagers Dawson Leedahl and Chase Harrison to gain strong 1998 born players to prepare for the current campaign.
    In the Pats defence, Memorial Cup host squads are usually given favours from NHL squads, who like to see their drafted and signed prospects playing important games in May. The Pats have received almost no favours on that front outside of getting 19-year-old star centre Sam Steel and 19-year-old defenceman Josh Mahura back from the Anaheim Ducks.
    Steel, who was the WHL’s most valuable player and scoring champion last season, has been a target for fan criticism this season. The 19-year-old star centre has collected 14 goals, 21 assists and a plus-seven rating in 27 games, but he isn’t scoring at the same rate as last season.
    The Sherwood Park, Alta., product is at the training camp to try and make Canada’s world junior team along with Mahura, and some fans say Steel doesn’t deserve to make that squad.
    Regina could have had defenceman Connor Hobbs and left-winger Austin Wagner back for their overage seasons in theory. Hobbs, who is signed by the NHL’s Washington Capitals, is playing in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears.
    Wagner, who is signed by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, is playing for the AHL’s Ontario Reign.
At the WHL level, Hobbs was a star defenceman who stood out in the offensive and defensive zones, and Wagner had speed few could match in the major junior ranks.
Connor Hobbs was a player the Pats didn’t get back from the pros.
    The Pats had traded for the WHL rights of 19-year-old centre Tyson Jost, but he is playing in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche.
    If the Pats had Hobbs, Wagner and Jost, they would likely have seven to eight more wins. With that said, that trio was ready for the professional ranks.
    At the moment, the worry among fans in Regina is reminiscent of the worry that surrounded the Pats when they last hosted the Memorial Cup back in the 2000-01 campaign. In that season, the Pats were hovering around .500 near the WHL Christmas break before executing a number of deals before the WHL trade deadline.
    It might be tougher for the Pats to make a string of deals this time around, so it will be interesting to see what happens to the club over the next four weeks. The WHL trade deadline is slated for Jan. 10, 2018.

Watch out for the Blazers

Right-winger Garrett Pilon, right, has piled up the points for the Blazers.
    The Kamloops Blazers have done a stellar job to make their 0-9 start look like a fade memory.
    Since dropping their first nine straight games, the Blazers have gone 15-7-0-1 to hold the second wildcard playoff spot in the WHL’s Western Conference at 15-16-0-1. With the type of hockey the Blazers are playing, they might end up being a major threat to make a run when the WHL playoffs roll around.
    At the moment, the Blazers are showing they can play a skilled game on top of playing a hard hitting and physical game.
    Saskatoon product and star right-winger Garrett Pilon tops the Blazers in scoring with 17 goals and 23 assists. Power forward Jermaine Loewen, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 221 pounds, is a wrecking ball on the ice, but he can score as well. The 19-year-old has 13 goals and 11 assists in 26 appearances this season.
    The Blazers are also getting stellar goaltending from Las Vegas Golden Knights draft selection Dylan Ferguson.
    Blazers head coach Don Hay has 735 career regular season victories, and he is closing in on former Portland Winterhawks head coach Ken Hodge for the WHL record in career regular season victories at 742.
    If the Blazers keep up their pace from their last 23 games, Hay will become the WHL’s all-time leader in career regular season wins and should be a favourite to win the WHL’s coach of the year award.

Back in the Express with Epoch

Libby Epoch has rocked for the Huskies.
    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express with a story on Libby Epoch, who is the star point-guard of the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women’s basketball team.
    Epoch, who stands 5-foot-7, is a 19-year-old product from Moose Jaw, Sask., who is in her second year with the Huskies. Besides playing for the Huskies, she has been part of Canada’s national team program and played for Canada at the U-19 Women’s Basketball World Cup last July in Italy winning a bronze medal.
    As a rookie, she helped the Huskies win the Canada West championship last season.
    This season, Epoch has helped the Huskies roar out to a 9-1 start to be rated sixth in the U Sports Top 10 rankings.
    Epoch has started in all of the Huskies 10 regular season games and is averaging 8.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
    The story on Epoch can be found here.

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Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Blades’ Dach will be Hebig’s wingman any time

Kirby Dach (#77) and Cameron Hebig (#9) skate to the bench after a goal.
    Kirby Dach will never say no to the chance to be Cameron Hebig’s wingman.
    On Tuesday, the 16-year-old Dach, who has played extensively at centre for the Saskatoon Blades, was moved to play right wing on a line centred by star overager Cameron Hebig with Brad Goethals filling in at left wing. That moved paid off in spades as that trio combined for four goals and five assists to power the Blades past the visiting Lethbridge Hurricanes 5-3 in a WHL regular season clash before 2,628 spectators at the SaskTel Centre.
    “It helps my game a lot,” said Dach, who had a goal and three assists in the win. “It helps me open up the ice, because they know if they give me the puck I am going to give them the puck right back.
Kirby Dach settles the puck down in the offensive zone.
    “That is something that I think I needed for a confidence boost was to play with those guys to start producing points.”
    Hebig had two goals and two assists on Tuesday, while Goethals had a single.
    Dach had some obvious chemistry with Hebig, and that was best shown on the club’s final goal of the night. With the Blades holding a 4-3 lead, Hebig gave the puck to Dach, and Dach dished to back to Hebig, who potted a huge goal to seal the final outcome with 4:35 to play in the third period.
    Blades head coach Dean Brockman put Hebig and Dach on a line together for the third period of Sunday’s 3-2 home ice victory over the Prince Albert Raiders to seal out that game. The bench boss kept those two together on Tuesday hoping the Blades would get an offensive spark, which they did receive.
Cameron Hebig speeds into the offensive zone for the Blades.
    “They know where to put the puck,” said Brockman. “Obviously, they are talented and very skilled. It makes it a very lethal combination.”
    The Blades jumped out to a quick start building a 3-0 lead by the 9:29 mark of the first period. Goethals scored Saskatoon’s first goal popping home a rebound from a wraparound attempt by Hebig.
    Hebig accounted for the Blades second goal and his first of the night, when he converted a setup pass in the slot from Dach during a power-play chance. The surge concluded when 18-year-old right-winger Josh Paterson netted his 10th goal of the season.
    “I think we had some jump,” said Brockman, whose team is playing their third game over a nine day period. “Obviously, we had our legs.
Hurricanes goalie Stuart Skinner watches Kirby Dach score for the Blades.
    “We stressed a quick start, because we knew we were going to fade. Just with all the games that we’ve had, we needed to jump all over them.”
    Standout 16-year-old rookie centre Dylan Cozens got the Hurricanes on the board scoring at the 2:52 mark of the second period to cut Saskatoon’s lead to 3-1.
    At the 9:35 mark of the second, the Blades jumped in front 4-1 on a spectacular power-play goal from Dach. Dach got in alone in close against Hurricanes star netminder Stuart Skinner, put a toe drag move on the puck stopper and tucked the puck into an empty cage.
    The tally was Dach’s fourth goal of the campaign, and Brockman said the Blades coaches have been encouraging the young rookie to not always look for the pass in the offensive zone.
Dylan Cozens had a goal for the Hurricanes.
    “We’ve been trying to get him to shoot a little more all the time,” said Brockman. “He has to put himself in good spots as well.
    “He is starting to figure that out. He is starting to figure out where teams are going to be consistently. He is finding the holes and good for him.”
    The Hurricanes didn’t go away. Before the second period ended, Hurricanes 17-year-old sophomore defenceman Calen Addison wired home a midrange shot to cut the Blades lead to 4-2.
    At the 3:57 mark of the third, Hurricanes left-winger Jake Elmer knocked home a loose puck in the crease of the Saskatoon goal to further cut the host side’s edge to 4-3. That was as close as the visitors got to evening things up.
    Shortly after Hebig put the hosts up 5-3, Blades Russian import defenceman Mark Rubinchik and Hurricanes left-winger Jordy Bellerive engaged in a short but spirited fight. 
    Nolan Maier, Saskatoon’s hot 16-year-old goalie, turned away 28 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Blades (13-16-2-1). Skinner turned away 36 shots to take the setback in goal for the Hurricanes (14-14-2).
    Blades import defenceman Libor Hajek, who departs Wednesday morning to join the training camp for the Czech Republic’s world junior team, has been impressed by Dach and Maier.
    “Kirby (Dach) scored a nice goal and had a nice pass,” said Hajek, who had an assist and was a plus-two in the plus-minus department in Tuesday’s win. “He helped us lot. Nolan (Maier) in the net was amazing again.
Cameron Hebig (#9) of the Blades is denied a personal third goal of the night.
    “That is future for Blades for sure. They are amazing players. It is nice to watch them.”
    Dach said his game is helped by the fact he has a veteran like Hebig to emulate.
    “He (Hebig) is a great player and a tremendous person off the ice,” said Dach. “He has helped me so much this year just grow and learn about the league and how to hold myself on the ice and how to act off the ice as well in front of the media.
    “He is a great mentor for me to learn from.”
    The Blades return to action on Friday, when they travel to Regina to face the Memorial Cup hosting Pats at 7 p.m. at the Brandt Centre.

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Sunday, 10 December 2017

Rookie Maier steals show for Blades once again

16-year-old netminder makes 34 stops in 3-2 win over Raiders

Blades netminder Nolan Maier makes one of his 34 saves on Sunday.
    Nolan Maier had cautious expectations venturing into his first full season of junior hockey as a 16-year-old rookie.
    Starting 10 straight WHL regular season games for the Saskatoon Blades wasn’t part of those expectations. With Blades veteran 19-year-old goalie Ryan Kubic out day-to-day with a knee injury, Maier made his 10th straight start playing goal for the club on Sunday at the SaskTel Centre in the team’s annual “Teddy Bear Toss” game.
    The Yorkton, Sask., product turned away 34 shots to help the Blades pull out a 3-2 victory against their archrivals, the Prince Albert Raiders, before 4,023 spectators. Maier, who has made 12 appearances for the Blades, seems to keep raising his level of play with each game of experience he adds.
Blades goalie Nolan Maier turns away pressure from the Raiders.
    “Playing in pre-season, I didn’t feel like I played to my potential, and I wasn’t comfortable there,” said Maier. “Now, I am playing these games, and having my confidence up, I feel really good about my game.
    “I know I can play at this level.”
    Maier came up with big saves for the Blades early and often.
    In the first period, he denied Raiders star overage centre Jordy Stallard on a couple of big chances. First, Maier stoned Stallard in close and then the puck stopper made a smart save on a flip shot from the Raiders forward.
    With the Blades holding a 3-2 edge in the third, Maier had to come up with a big bailout stop. A Saskatoon defenceman gave the puck away in his own zone to Raiders 17-year-old rookie left-winger Nikita Krivokrasov.
Blades goalie Nolan Maier turns away a shots during a net scramble.
    Krivokrasov had a breakaway on the Blades goal, but he was robbed by Maier’s glove hand.
    “He (Maier) has done really well,” said Blades star overage centre Cameron Hebig. “He has been battling hard for us.
    “Coming in as a 16-year-old, he prepares well, and he carries himself well. It is nice to have a goalie like that who cares and wants to win for us and battles hard for us.”
    Sunday’s contest was a back-and-forth one. At the 4:58 mark of the first period, Hebig tucked home the “Teddy Bear Toss” goal popping home a feed that came across the front of the Prince Albert net from linemate Braylon Shmyr.
Cameron Hebig, front row centre, scored the Blades teddy bear goal.
    “I think everyone was excited to get going, especially with the teddy bear toss,” said Maier, whose team improved to 12-16-2-1. “We wanted to do it for our fans.
    “It felt really good coming out of the first period (up) 1-0.”
    The Raiders pulled even at 1-1 at the 3:48 mark of the second, when Stallard roofed a power-play goal top corner on Maier.
    The Blades jumped back in front 2-1 almost three minutes later, when Czech defenceman Libor Hajek sprung right-winger Brad Goethals on a breakaway with a stretch pass.
    Goethals’ first shot was stopped by Raiders netminder Ian Scott, but the Saskatoon forward knocked home the rebound to give the host side the lead.
Overage centre Cameron Hebig jets into the offensive zone for the Blades.
    Prince Albert forced a 2-2 tie heading into the second intermission, when Raiders captain Curtis Miske knocked home a greasy goal by the left side of the Saskatoon net during a net scramble situation.
    The Blades went ahead for good at the 5:04 mark of the third, when 18-year-old left-winger Alec Zawatsky roofed home his third of the season to put the hosts up 3-2.
    Scott turned away 21 shots to take the setback in goal for the Raiders (12-12-5-2).
    The Blades pulled to within four points of the Raiders in the standings for the second wildcard playoff berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    “It was a really gutsy effort on our half,” said Blades head coach Dean Brockman. “Guys found a way to get it done.
Overage centre Jordy Stallard had the Raiders first goal.
    “It certainly wasn’t pretty, but a win is a win. This is the team we are trying to catch, so that was big for us.”
    Brockman said he has been pleased with how Maier has come on. The netminder started the regular season in the junior A ranks with his hometown Yorkton Terriers and joined the Blades on a full-time basis on Nov. 14 after play for Team Canada Black at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge held jointly in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, B.C.
    “He is a super kid,” said Brockman. “I would have never have guessed that he could start 10 in a row and play the way he did today.
    “I can’t say enough about him. He gives us a chance to win, and that is all I can ask.”
    So far this season, Maier, who stands 6-feet and weighs 168 pounds, has appeared in 12 games posting a 4-6-1 record, a 3.78 goals against average, a .894 save percentage and one shutout.
Alec Zawatsky scored the winning goal for the Blades on Sunday.
    Maier said he didn’t really think about the fact he was making his 10th straight start and just focuses on his next upcoming game.
    “I didn’t think I would be getting much of a shot I’ve got at the very start like I am now,” said Maier. “In saying that, I feel great with the opportunity Dean (Brockman) gave me.
    “It sucks that Ryan (Kubic) is hurt, but I am just trying to make the most of my opportunity now.”
    Brockman said he might not fully realize how amazing Maier’s start has been, when you consider the netminder is still a 16-year-old rookie. The bench boss said you can tell Maier is getting more used to the WHL game.
    “Obviously, he is going to improve and get better,” said Brockman. “I think it is just more comfortability.
    “He just has a composure about himself, and he’s got that will to win, and that is what I love about him.”
    The Blades return to action on Tuesday, when they host the Lethbridge Hurricanes (14-13-2) at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre. The Raiders also resume their schedule on Tuesday, when they travel to Swift Current to take on the Broncos (22-7-2).

Hanna delivers kick butt talk before “Girls Rock Game”

Claire Hanna give a girl empowerment talk on Saturday.
    Former Canadian national women’s volleyball team player and Global sports reporter Claire Hanna captivated an audience that filled two lower bowl sections at the SaskTel Centre.
    Hanna deliver a girls empowerment talk before the Saskatoon Blades “Girls Rock Game” on Saturday. Hanna gave her speech before the host Blades fell to the visiting Kamloops Blazers 4-1.
    During her address that was taken in by a number of young girls, Hanna told how the first sport she took up was badminton before switching over to volleyball. She talked about what it was like to overcome the disappointment of being cut by the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds women’s volleyball team.
    Hanna told the story of how she switched positions from middle to libero and returned to the team’s active roster to become part of three straight U Sports national championship victories from 2008 to 2010.
A number of young girls listened in on Claire Hanna’s speech on Saturday.
    She also talked about the power of speaking up and told how she confronted the decision makers at the UBC student newspaper after they buried the story of her volleyball team’s national championship win in 2008. Hanna went into detail of how that encounter ended up with unexpected positive results in helping the student newspaper with sports coverage.
    Besides discussing her university days, Hanna talked about her time playing for Canada and transitioning to her career in media. Hanna did a tremendous job in delivering an uplifting message, and it should have made the little girls in the audience feel good about what they can do in their respective futures.

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Saturday, 9 December 2017

Blazers bully Blades

Blades D Jackson Caller, left, fights Blazers LW Jermaine Loewen.
    The Kamloops Blazers made the boards at the SaskTel Centre shake harder than at any point in the current WHL season.
    Just seconds into Saturday’s regular season contest against the host Saskatoon Blades, the Blazers dumped puck into the Saskatoon zone, and Kamloops left-winger Jermaine Loewen, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 221 pounds, hammered a Blades defenceman into the boards behind the Saskatoon goal. Loewen’s thunderous check set the tone for the evening before 4,024 spectators.
    As is the case with any team that is guided by Don Hay as head coach, the Blazers came to assert themselves physically. They finished their checks way harder than any opponent the Blades have likely faced all season.
    The physical play of the high tension Blazers was definitely on the edge, and at times it appeared to be over the edge. There were a few instances where a Blades player got hit a second or two after he passed the puck up ice.
Jermaine Loewen threw high-tension hits for the Blazers.
    When the dust settled, the visiting Blazers hammered out a 4-1 victory.
    Due to seeing the Blazers only once a season, the Blades didn’t seem to know what they were in for and played on their heels for most of the game. There aren’t too many teams in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, which the Blades are part of, who play a hard hitting style like the Blazers do coming out of the Western Conference.
    Saskatoon missed feisty forward Caleb Fantillo, whose agitating type style would have helped counter some of the Blazers play. Fantillo is out six-to-eight weeks with a knee injury.
    Kamloops cranked up the physical play in the first period, and the boards seemed like they were shaking the whole frame. Loewen, whose play was reminiscent of former Vancouver Giants high tension power forward and former Hay charge J.D. Watt, threw a large share of the thunderous checks with a style that was very on the edge.
    At the 11:45 mark of the first period, the 19-year-old Arborg, Man., product hammered Blades overage captain Evan Fiala into the boards drawing the attention of Fiala’s teammate Jackson Caller, who is an 18-year-old defenceman. 
The Blazers and Blades engage in a second period scrum.
    Caller, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 189 pounds, engaged Loewen in a fight, while Fiala slowly left the ice under his own power.
    Caller hung in with Loewen for a little bit, but the larger Blazers forward overpowered the Blades rearguard and worked him pretty good in the bout. Loewen received a charging minor for hitting Fiala and a fighting major, while Caller was given an unsportsmanlike minor penalty and a fighting major.
    With 1:05 to play, Kamloop’s pressure resulted in a goal from 19-year-old right-winger Luc Smith.
Nolan Maier stopped 25-of-28 shots fired his way in goal for the Blades.
    Blades 16-year-old rookie netminder Nolan Maier had a sensational opening 20 minutes robbing Blazers 17-year-old left-winger Brodi Stuart twice on rushes. After the Blazers scored, Maier turned away Blazers Czech import defenceman Ondrej Vala and made a big glove stop on utility player Tylor Ludwar.
    The Blazers switched to a different part of their game in the second. While Hay’s teams traditionally bring the physical game, they can play with speed and skill and get up and down the ice as well.
    At the 1:43 mark of the second, the Blazers buzzed in the Blades zone causing a net scramble situation. The puck popped out to Blazers 17-year-old defenceman Luke Zazula at the left side of the Saskatoon goal, and he popped home his second goal of the season past a fallen Maier to give the visitors a 2-0 edge.
Dylan Ferguson kicks out a shot for the Blazers.
    The Blazers went ahead 3-0 at the 11:53 mark of the second, when captain Nick Chyzowski scored on the power play.
    Kamloops netminder Dylan Ferguson, who saw action in one game with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights this season, was at the top of his game in the second, where the Blades had seven shots but four quality scoring chances.
    With the Blazers holding a 2-0 lead, Ferguson made a stop on a dangerous drive by Blades Czech import defenceman Libor Hajek.
    After the Blazers went ahead 3-0, Ferguson kept the Blades at bay making a glove save on overage star centre Cameron Hebig, denying rookie 16-year-old centre Kirby Dach on a screen shot and turning back star overage left-winger Braylon Shmyr in close before heading into the second intermission.
Libor Hajek had the Blades lone goal on Saturday night.
    The Blazers resumed their physical work in the third. Ludwar nailed Blades 18-year-old right-winger Josh Paterson from behind into the boards in the Saskatoon end, but the hit didn’t result in a penalty.
    Shortly after that collision, Blazers 19-year-old right-winger Quinn Benjafield wiped out Blades Russian import defenceman Mark Rubinchik.
    Saskatoon got life at the 11:21 mark of the third, when Hajek blasted home a mid-range drive to cut the Blazers lead to 3-1.
    The physical play didn’t stop. Blazers 18-year-old defenceman Nolan Kneen nailed Dach with a high hit, and Fiala took down Loewen.
    Fiala was penalized for tripping with 2:06 to play, but the Blades pulled Maier to ice five skaters in order to push for the tie. 
Garrett Pilon, right, celebrates scoring the Blazers fourth goal.
    That allowed Saskatoon product Garrett Pilon to score the rare empty-net, power-play goal for the Blazers with 1:43 to play to round out the final outcome.
    The contest’s tension still seemed high, where the Blazers looked to be going for high hits on three separate occasions but laid off for no contact in the final 1:43.
    Maier turned away 25-of-28 shots to take the setback in goal for the Blades (11-16-2-1). Ferguson stopped 23 shots to pick up the win in goal for the Blazers. The Blazers, who opened the campaign with nine straight losses, are now 14-15-0-1.
    The Blades return to action on Sunday for their annual “Teddy Bear Toss” game, when they host their archrivals the Prince Albert Raiders (12-11-5-2) at 2 p.m. at that SaskTel Centre.

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Friday, 8 December 2017

Blades’ Maier shows he isn’t your ordinary 16-year-old

Yorkton product starting to make a mark in Saskatoon’s goal

Nolan Maier is growing with the Blades as a 16-year-old rookie.
    Nolan Maier has had a baptism in fire to start his WHL career.
    The Yorkton, Sask., product was added permanently to the roster of the Saskatoon Blades on Nov. 14 after playing goal for Team Canada Black at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge held jointly in Dawson Creek and Fort St. John, B.C. In three appearances, Maier posted a 1-2 record, a 3.02 goals against average, a .917 save percentage and one shutout. He had the best save percentage among netminders who started three or more games.
    As a 16-year-old goalie with the Blades, Maier was slated to see apprentice type action playing goal behind 19-year-old veteran Ryan Kubic. Maier had played his first regular season game with the Blades on Oct. 7 against the Pats in Regina, and he made 34 saves and gave up seven goals in a 7-3 loss to this season’s Memorial Cup hosts.
    Still, Maier made some big saves, and you could see why the Blades selected him in the second round and 25th overall in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft. During the pre-season and that first regular season outing, you could tell Maier had talent, and all he lacked was experience playing in the WHL. He started the campaign in the junior A ranks with the Yorkton Terriers.
    When WHL clubs have a 16-year-old rookie goalie on their roster, those teams try to get that puck stopper’s feet wet and gradually working him into a more active role. Besides learning the league, 16-year-old goalies like all 16-year-old players are adjusting to living away from home usually for the first time and juggling high school studies with hockey responsibilities.
    WHL teams usually want all 16-year-old rookies to gain experience with the league and temper expectations on those players, especially if they are a high Bantam Draft pick.
Nolan Maier made 48 saves in a shutout of the Portland Winterhawks.
    The Blades best plans took a turn shortly after Maier returned to Saskatoon in November. Kubic went down with a knee injury, and Maier was pushed into the starting role.
    He has started the last eight straight games for the Blades and is blossoming right before the team’s eyes.
    Maier has statistics that are typical for a 16-year-old netminder. In 10 appearances, he has posted a 3-5 record, a 4.03 goals against average, a .890 save percentage and one shutout.
    The quality of his play has improved pretty much each time he has taken the ice to play goal for the Blades.
    The first obstacle was to get Maier, who stands 6-feet and weighs 168 pounds, his first career win. The Blades accomplished that on Nov. 24 at the SaskTel Centre, when they scored three times in the last 1:56 of the third period to erase a 5-3 deficit and down the visiting Brandon Wheat Kings 6-5.
    With his first win nailed down, Maier’s next challenge came playing every contest on the team’s five-game road trip through the WHL’s U.S. Division. He stopped 171-of-185 shots over those five contests for a .924 save percentage. The Blades posted a 2-3 record, but Maier gave Saskatoon a realistic chance to win every time out.
    His most impressive performance came last Sunday in Portland, when he made 48 stops in a 4-0 win over the host Winterhawks. The Winterhawks top the WHL’s Western Conference with a 20-8-1 record and are rated fourth in the Canadian Hockey League’s Top 10 rankings.
    Maier has played big when the Blades have needed him to, and he performed well beyond what a 16-year-old rookie should. Still, he is a 16-year-old rookie, and he will likely face some adversity. It would still be wise to temper expectations.
Logan Maier has started eight straight games for the Blades.
    Kubic is listed as being out day-to-day with a knee injury, so Maier’s string of starts might be close to an end. If Maier does keep his run of consecutive starts for the Blades going, the team in front of him can feel confident the young netminder is improving rapidly, and he gives the club a chance to win every night even against the toughest teams in the league.
    The Blades (11-15-2-1) return to action on Saturday when they host the Kamloops Blazers (13-15-1) at 7 p.m. at the SaskTel Centre. That contest is the team’s “Girls Rock Game,” and it features a girl empowerment talk from Claire Hanna, who is a former member of Canada’s national women’s volleyball team and a sports reporter for Global Saskatoon. Hanna’s talk is slated to run from 5:30 to 6 p.m. pre-game at the SaskTel Centre.
    On Sunday at 2 p.m. at the SaskTel, the Blades host the arch-rivals the Prince Albert Raiders in their annual “Teddy Bear Toss” game. Spectators are invited to throw stuffed animals on to the ice surface after the Blades score their first goal.

Blades hand down injury update, make trade

The Blades traded Joel Grzybowski to the Victoria Royals.
    Heading into action this weekend, the Blades posted an injury update on Friday.
    While 19-year-old goalie Ryan Kubic is listed as out day-to-day with a knee injury, the Blades have three forwards on their injury list including 17-year-old Michael Farren (shoulder, day-to-day), 19-year-old Gage Ramsay (groin, slated to return after Christmas break) and 19-year-old Caleb Fantillo (knee, 6-to-8 weeks).
    Big kudos to the Blades for releasing this information. Players usually receive a lot more get well wishes from the fans, when the fans know what a players’ injury is. The players can feel less guarded in letting information slip, and it allows them up to more freely represent the team during community appearances.
    In Fantillo’s case, he is a fan favourite, so news of his injury will give team supporters that much more initiative to wish him a speedy recovery.
    Besides the injury update, the Blades traded 18-year-old netminder Joel Grzybowski to the Victoria Royals for 18-year-old goalie Hunter Arps. Arps, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 165 pounds, was playing in the junior A ranks with the Melfort Mustangs posting a 6-1-1 record, a 2.66 goals against average, a .903 save percentage and one shutout in 10 appearances.
    Grzybowski, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 172 pounds, saw action in six games for the Blades this season posting an 0-1-1 record, a 4.31 goals against average and a .841 save percentage. He appeared in three games with the Battlefords North Stars in the junior A ranks posting a 3-0 record, a 2.32 goals against average and a .915 save percentage.

Huskies quartet to face Canada’s world junior prospects

Kendall McFaull, left, and Jordon Cooke deserve pro shots.
    A quartet from the University of Saskatchewan Huskies men’s hockey team are hoping to give the prospects for Canada’s world junior team a stiff test and maybe gain some interest from the professional ranks in the process.
    Netminder Jordon Cooke, defenceman Kendall McFaull, who is the Huskies captain, and forwards Josh Roach and Logan McVeigh will join a U Sports all-star team that will face the prospects looking to crack Canada’s world junior roster in a two game series. The U Sports all-stars will arrive in St. Catharines, Ont., for a training camp beginning on Monday. They will face the prospects for Canada’s world junior team in live game action on Wednesday and Thursday.
    Cooke, McFaull, Roach and McVeigh have all played a key part in helping the Huskies post a 13-2-1 record to sit second in the Canada West Conference. The Huskies are rated third in the U Sports Top 10 rankings.
    Cooke has posted an 11-2 record, a 2.34 goals against average, a .917 save percentage and two shutouts so far this season. His 54 career regular season victories ranks second on the Huskies all-time career list.
    McFaull is in his fifth year with the Huskies and has posted four goals, three assists and a plus-11 rating in the plus-minus department in 15 games.
    Roach is also in his fifth campaign with the U of S and has posted nine goals, 17 assists and a plus-14 rating to lead Canada West in scoring. His nine goals is a career high and his 26 points matches a career high achieved last season.
    McVeigh is in his third year with the Huskies and has posted six goals, 15 assists and a plus-six rating.
    All four are worthy of earning a professional contract and a spot on the U Sports all-star team. They should give Canada’s best major junior players all they can handle.
    This season’s world juniors run Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Buffalo, New York.

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Thursday, 7 December 2017

Tigers clash with Raiders a stellar display for WHL

Max Gerlach (#16) centres a pass for the Tigers.
    The WHL got a gem of a game on Wednesday night at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert.
    Before 1,750 spectators, the host Raiders fell 5-4 after a tiebreaking shootout to the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers in a thrilling contest where both sides jetted up and down the ice. 
    In the immediate aftermath, you miss the fact WHL games are no longer shown on Shaw across Western Canada, because Wednesday’s contest between the Raiders and Tigers was a prime example of how great and entertaining that major junior circuit can be.
    The 2017-18 campaign was supposed to be the final season Shaw showed WHL games under a contract the two bodies had, but the television network bought itself out of showing games in what is now the current campaign.
Goalie Jordan Hollett had a stellar game for the Tigers.
    While the Raiders versus Tigers game wasn’t on television, it should be referred to as a selling feature of how great games in the WHL can be. Whether news of the game spreads by word of mouth or by fans over social media channels, it was a game that is worthy of water cooler chat.
    That contest had so many turning points you could point to almost anything in being the difference in the game.
    Besides the teams getting up and down the ice, the biggest talking point would have been the goalies, who were both outstanding. Ian Scott, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 168 pounds, had a solid night making 34 saves over 65 minutes before the game went to a shootout, where he was beaten twice. The quality of saves Scott made were high, and the Calgary product showed he is one of the circuit’s elite goalies.
Ian Scott of the Raiders showed he is one of the WHL’s elite goalies.
    Tigers netminder Jordan Hollett, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 210 pounds, was even better turning away 49 shots over 65 minutes and both shooters he faced in the shootout. The Langley, B.C., product, who was the Regina Pats backup goalie last season, proved he is ready for a primetime starting role.
    If video of Hollett’s performance made it down to Regina, you would likely have some Pats fans gripping the 18-year-old puck stopper should have been the goalie the Pats kept in a season where that team hosts the Memorial Cup this coming May.
    The star players came out to play on both sides. Overage centre Jordy Stallard, who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 179 pounds, potted a pair of goals to continue to lead the Raiders in scoring with 21 goals and 20 assists in 29 games. Stallard’s play was complimented by Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid post-game.
Jordy Stallard tops the Raiders in scoring.
    “He (Stallard) plays quality minutes,” said Habscheid, whose team is 11-11-5-2 so far this season. “He plays a lot of minutes, but he responds.
    “He has scored some big goals for us, and he has been a good player for us.”
    Tigers overage captain Mark Rassell, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 186 pounds, scored twice, picked up an assist and potted his team’s first goal in the tiebreaking shootout. He leads the Tigers in scoring with 27 goals and 12 assists in 29 games. Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston said Rassell has been another one of those skilled and speedy players the team seems to constantly find that overlooked.
    “He is such a great story for so many young players, and we’ve had a few of them,” said Clouston, whose team is 17-11-1. “He is the next guy who didn’t play at (age) 16.
    “He wasn’t drafted. He was a list player and undersized. He just happened to grow, and now he is one of our bigger guys.
    “He just stayed the course, stayed positive. He was in and out of the lineup at 17 and became a full-time player at 18 and then at 19 tore it up. He has picked up where he left off last year and even taking it up a notch.”
    There were key performances by others. Eric Pearce, who is a 16-year-old rookie centre, tipped home the Raiders fourth goal of the game.
Captain Mark Rassell has been lighting it up offensively for the Tigers.
    The Raiders showed they have a couple of players that can move the puck well from the defence in Vojtech Budik and Max Martin.
    Tigers rearguard David Quenneville might be the best offensive-defenceman in the WHL. The 19-year-old veteran picked up his 10th goal of the season on Wednesday to go with his 24 assists in another outstanding campaign.
    Right-winger Max Gerlach showed he still has one of the best shots in the league, when he wired home the shootout winner.
    No matter who you cheered for on Wednesday night, the clash between the Raiders and the Tigers was a showstopper, and it is always worthy of discussion.

Goalies rule Canada West women’s hockey

Huskies goalie Jessica Vance has a .955 save percentage so far  this season.
    The goalies have to be give their due in the Canada West Conference in U Sports women’s hockey.
    With a little over half of the regular season now in the books, goal scoring has been a challenge for the eight teams in the Canada West Conference. Only star forward Venla Hovi of the University of Manitoba Bisons is averaging a point a game with four goals and eight assists in 16 appearances.
    On the other end, five of the conference’s goalies have a save percentage that is .950 or better. Kelsey Roberts of the University of Calgary Dinos has the best save percentage in the conference at .959 to go with her 6-7-1 record, 1.46 goals against average and five shutouts.
    The goalies are straight out just getting it done.
    The Dinos are tied with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for giving up the fewest goals in the conference at 23.
    The Huskies have three second-year goalies who have combined for six shutouts. Jessica Vance has three shutouts, Chloe Marshall has two shutouts and Jasey Book has one shutout.
Vance has the third best save percentage in Canada West at .955 to go with her 4-2 record and 1.18 goals against average.
    To further show just how tough it has been to score in Canada West, Kaitlin Willoughby, who is the third all-time leading scorer in the history of the Huskies, has five goals and five assists in 14 appearances, but sits only four points back of Bisons forward Jordyn Zacharias for the conference’s scoring lead.
    There are a tonne of good goalies in the Canada West Conference in women’s hockey and right now they are a step ahead of the conference’s point producers.

Kish makes a step up with Cougars

Jane Kish has brought her game up another level playing for the Cougars.
    Jane Kish is one of those elite performers who keeps getting better.
    The third-year goalie with the University of Regina Cougars women’s team has brought her game up another level from the previous season. While she had a great campaign in her sophomore season, Kish, who stands 5-foot-4, had a tendency to go down a little early playing the butterfly style and due to her short height, the top part of the net was exposed.
    The book to beat Kish was to shoot the puck high and put it over her shoulders.
    This season, Kish is still playing the butterfly style but is staying upright to take away the top part of the net. Now, the Weyburn, Sask., product has become that much more of a difficult goalie to beat.
    During the Cougars last two games against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, Kish was beaten only once by a gritty net scramble power-play goal. She turned back 54-of-55 shots in those two contests.
    On the season, Kish has posted a 6-4-1 record, a 1.26 goals against average, a .951 save percentage and two shutouts. Her goals against average is the third lowest in the conference and her save percentage is the fourth highest.
    Back in 2014, Kish backstopped her hometown Weyburn Gold Wings to an Esso Cup title for female midget AAA hockey national supremacy. She has the mental toughness to take a team all the way. It wouldn’t be a surprise if she repeated what she did in midget AAA at the university level.

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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Wow! – Tigers, Raiders burn up the ice in WHL thriller

Medicine Hat claims 5-4 victory after tiebreaking shootout

Tigers captain Mark Rassell (#27) scores in the third period.
    PRINCE ALBERT – It was a WHL game that was made for a national television broadcast.
    On Wednesday at the Art Hauser Centre, the visiting Medicine Hat Tigers and the host Prince Albert Raiders tore up and down the ice in a fire wagon type contest, where the goalies on either side also stood on their respective heads. The two clubs went to overtime locked in a 4-4 draw.
    In the three-versus-three extra session, the first whistle came when there was 8.5 seconds remaining in the frame.
    In the tiebreaking shootout, captain Mark Rassell and star right-winger Max Gerlach scored on the first two shot attempts for the Tigers to allow the visitors to take the session 2-0 and escape the overall game with a 5-4 victory before 1,750 spectators.
Centre Jordy Stallard had a pair of goals for the Raiders.
    “That is the thing about junior hockey is these games are always exciting,” said Rassell, who had two goals and an assist in regulation. “There is so much passion in the air.
    “It is just so fun to win those games. Obviously, we’d like to hunker down a little more defensively and not give up as many goals as we did. We’re happy with the two points in the end.”
    The Raiders had the majority of the best scoring chances in the contest as Tigers starting netminder Jordan Hollett made 49 saves thru 65 minutes and turned away both Raiders shooters he faced in the shootout.
    Prince Albert netminder Ian Scott had a strong outing as well turning away 33 shots over 65 minutes before being beaten by Rassell and Gerlach in the shootout.
Mark Rassell (#27) had two goals and an assist for the Tigers.
    The Tigers controlled play in the first outshooting the Raiders 14-8 in the frame. The visitors got the only goal in the first 20 minutes as left-winger Ryan Jevne knocked home a pass across the face of the Prince Albert goal from linemate Ryan Chyzowski for his 10th of the season.
    The contest really opened up in the second with the Raiders outshooting the Tigers 19-11 in the frame, and the host side entered the second intermission holding a 3-2 lead. Overage centre Jordy Stallard scored twice for the Raiders in the second period, while Czech import defenceman Vojtech Budik fired home a shot from the top of the left faceoff circle with 22.7 seconds to play in the frame to break a 2-2 tie.
    Rassell had the lone reply for the Tigers in the second.
    The second period also contained a spirited fight between Jevne and Raiders defenceman Brayden Pachal.
    “I thought both teams started out a little careful,” said Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid. “There wasn’t much tempo.
    “Then as the game went on, it got better. It turned out to be a pretty good hockey game. We had more shots, and I thought we had more chances.
Raiders goalie Ian Scott (#33) stops Tigers forward James Hamblin.
    “In overtime, outside of their one break there, I thought we had numerous chances. I thought their goaltender played real good. He was the difference.”
    At the 3:11 mark of the third, Tigers offensive defenceman David Quenneville fired home his 10th of the season to tie the contest up at 3-3. Rassell potted his second goal of the contest at the 8:28 mark scoring in close at the right side of the Raiders goal to put the visitors up 4-3.
    The Raiders didn’t go away. With 6:58 to play in the frame, 18-year-old defenceman Austin Crossley fired a point shot on goal that was tipped home by 16-year-old rookie centre Eric Pearce to pull the Raiders into a 4-4 tie with the Tigers.
Goalie Jordan Hollett makes an OT save for the Tigers.
    For the past 15 years, the Tigers have built a reputation of playing a type of game where they transition up and down the ice with speed and skill. The Raiders haven’t traditionally played that type of style over that same timespan, but Habscheid believes he has the players to play that type of game.
    “We’ve been trying to play fast,” said Habscheid. “We’ve got some players who have some good feet, so we are able to play that way.
    “We just try to compile something that fits your group. We think we can play a little faster this year.”
    The Tigers just outshot the Raiders 5-4 in an extremely high tempo overtime frame. Raiders 18-year-old right-winger Parker Kelly had two big chances to score the winner at the end of the extra session, but he was denied by Hollett.
    Rassell said it was intense to play almost the entire three-on-three frame without a stoppage.
    “It is nerve-racking,” said Rassell. “Three-on-three and game is on the line.
    “If you are on the ice, you’re the guy they are counting on to stop them from scoring and get it done yourself. With that craziness with no faceoffs, there is no time to rest. There is no time to think.
    “You just have to trust your instincts and play.”
Raiders D Brayden Pachal fights Tigers LW Ryan Jevne.
    The win allowed the Tigers, who sit first in the WHL’s Central Division, to improve to 17-11-1. The Raiders record moved to 11-11-5-2 to hold the second wildcard spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    “They are a good team,” said Habschield. “They play with pace.
    “We had some turnovers, which plays right into them. They got some offence off of that and some energy off of that.
    “I thought we got better as the game went on. As the game went on, I thought our pace was better than theirs.”
    Tigers head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston said he wasn’t surprised the Raiders are trying the play an up-tempo style. The veteran bench boss said the Raiders played his side tough last season and you could see the structure and speed the Prince Albert club was developing as a young team. With the Raiders returning a number of players from last year with an extra year of experience, Clouston expected them to be a tougher opponent this season.
    Wednesday’s game marked the first time the Tigers have defeated the Raiders in the current campaign in three head-to-head meetings.
The Tigers celebrate their 5-4 victory after a tiebreaking shootout.
    “We’ll take the win,” said Clouston. “I thought we got tremendous goaltending especially down the stretch.
    “Going into the third being down a goal and coming out with two points is a real positive. I thought we gave up a couple of really quality chances and Holly (Hollett) kept us in there. We probably spent a little more time in the D-zone than we wanted to, but we hung in and blocked some shots.
    “It wasn’t the prettiest at times, but we got through it.”
    The Tigers return to action Friday, when they travel to Brandon to face the Wheat Kings (20-7-0-1). The Raiders host the Kamloops Blazers (13-15) on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser centre in their annual “Teddy Bear Toss” game.

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