Thursday, 11 May 2017

Bear’s backers are the best

Thunderbirds defenceman has great support from home

Ethan Bear’s family and friends tailgate at the Brandt Centre parking lot.
    Ethan Bear’s supporters have delivered one of the best stories and sights in the WHL over the past four seasons.
    Way back in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Bear was selected by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the second round and 25th overall. That meant the rearguard from Saskatchewan’s Ochapowace First Nation would only get to make one road trip a season to play five games in home rinks of foes from the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    Since making the Thunderbirds as a 16-year-old rookie back in the 2013-14 season, Bear’s supporters from Ochapowace have relished the time he spends playing in driving distance to home. Anytime the Thunderbirds make a road trip to play teams in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, you often saw somewhere between 30 to 40 supporters from Ochapowace wearing Thunderbirds jerseys with Bear’s name and number on them.
    The first time I saw that sight was way back on Oct. 4. 2013, when the Medicine Hat Tigers hosted the Thunderbirds at the Tigers storied former home rink, The Arena. 
Ethan Bear breaks up ice for the Thunderbirds.
    Including one appearance as a 15-year-old call up, Bear was playing his just his fifth WHL regular season at the time, and he hitting the ice for his first contest in a WHL Eastern Conference rink.
    Among the sellout crowd of 4,006 were at least 30 family members and friends wearing Bear’s #25 Thunderbirds jersey. It was pretty neat looking and seeing three rows of people all wearing the same visiting jersey in one section right by the glass near the blue-line. I could see the gathering clearly from my press box, when I covered the Tigers for the Medicine Hat News.
    Bear finished with a plus-one rating in the plus-minus department that night, and a young Thunderbirds squad erased a 4-3 Tigers lead with just under 30 seconds to play in the third period and claimed a 5-4 victory in overtime.
    Since that time, Bear grew into one of the league’s star defencemen. In June of 2015, Bear was selected in the fifth round and 124th overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the NHL Entry Draft. 
A couple of supporters cheer Ethan Bear on at the Brandt Centre.
    In early of June 2016, the Oilers signed Bear to a three-year NHL Entry-Level contract after he helped the Thunderbirds earn a berth in the WHL Championship series in May of that year.
    This season, Bear, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 205 pounds, appeared in 67 games for the Thunderbirds recording 28 goals, 42 assists and a plus-34 rating in the plus-minus department. He won the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s defenceman of the year and was also named to the WHL’s Western Conference first all-star team.
    In the post-season, Bear was instrumental in helping the Thunderbirds reach the WHL Championship series for a second straight year.
    All through the journey over the years, his friends and family members kept showing up in large numbers, when the Thunderbirds visited rinks in the WHL’s Eastern Conference.
    When the Thunderbirds traveled to Regina for Games 1 and 2 of this year’s WHL title series with the Pats, Bears supporters were there. They tailgated in the Brandt Centre parking lot with other family members of Thunderbirds players and were as friendly as can be. Actually, Bear’s supporters are one of the most sociable groups you will find around anywhere.
Ethan Bears looks to start a rush up ice for the Thunderbirds.
    With the series tied 2-2 following the Thunderbirds 6-1 win in Game 4 at the ShoWare Centre in Kent, Wash., on Wednesday, there will be a Game 6 in Regina on Sunday at 6 p.m. local time at the Brandt Center. You can already envision Bear’s family and friends arriving to support Ochapowace’s favourite son.
    Bear has recorded six goals, 16 assists and a plus-seven rating in 15 post-season games during the current run with the Thunderbirds.
    The Game 6 gathering and a possible Game 7 gathering on Monday night also see the conclusion of this tradition. Bear will be an overager next season, and with having an NHL deal signed with the Oilers, he will most likely be in the professional ranks in the Oilers system.
    There will definitely be mixed emotions to see the gatherings for Bear at WHL rinks come to an end. They have been one of the WHL’s great feel good stories. The family and friends got to see Bear grow and excel to the point that he will have an NHL career, so that was pretty special.
    The family and friends have been to Edmonton to see Bear play in the WHL. It would be cool to see those gathering continue one day in Edmonton in the NHL.

WHL title series a toss up despite lopsided Game 4

Seattle’s Mathew Barzal, left, slips past Regina’s Sam Steel.
    Whatever happened in Game 4 in the WHL Championship series will be contained in Game 4.
    While Game 1 to 3 between the Regina Pats and Seattle Thunderbirds were decided each by one goal, the Thunderbirds put on a show and took the Pats out to the woodshed posting a 6-1 romp in Game 4 of the series before 4,652 spectators at the ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash.
    Seattle held a 36-19 edge in shots on goal to add further insult to injury in a one-sided romp on Wednesday.
    With how good coaching is these days in the WHL, the likelihood of the Thunderbirds carrying any momentum from Game 4 into Game 5, which is set for 7:30 p.m. local time on Friday at the ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash., is slim.
Netminder Tyler Brown turns away a shot in goal for the Pats.
    You can expect Regina’s veteran head coach and general manager John Paddock will ensure the Pats players quickly move past the disappointing outing in the best-of-seven series. The Thunderbirds can’t transfer any goals from Game 4 into Game 5.
    In Game 4, it seemed like way too many Pats players had an off night, where they were just not focused or seemed to think the Thunderbirds would go away after Pats star centre Sam Steel gave the visitors a 1-0 first period lead. To the Thunderbirds credit, they pounded on the Pats after Steel scored replying with six unanswered markers.
    Some of the Seattle goals were a result of the Thunderbirds being aggressive on the forecheck, and the Pats played a little too comfortable thinking a lot of situations were going to be routine.
    Even Pats star goaltender Tyler Brown had the puck stolen off his stick by Thunderbirds winger Sami Moilanen, who wrapped in what turned out to be the game-winning tally with 3:35 remaining in the first period putting the hosts up 2-1.
Thunderbirds D Turner Ottenbreit, left, wires a shot at the Pats goal.
    A Game 5 bounce back is expected from the Regina side even if star overage captain Adam Brooks isn’t able to return from injury. Brooks was injured after being leveled with an open ice hit by Thunderbirds defender Turner Ottenbreit in Game 1 of the WHL title series. The blowout loss will likely work as a wakeup call to get the Pats playing with more focus and energy.
    The Pats have progressed through the playoffs without standout centre Jake Leschyshyn, who has a knee injury, and defenceman Dawson Davidson hasn’t played since Regina’s Game 7 victory over the Swift Current Broncos in the second round due to injury.
    The Thunderbirds have been without star overage netminder Dylan Toth for the entire post-season due to a lower body injury. 
Carl Stankowski controls a loose puck in goal for the Thunderbirds.
    Carl Stankowski, who is in his 16-year-old rookie season, has filled in as the starter in spectacular fashion posting a 14-4 record, a 2.42 goals against average and a .913 save percentage playing every minute in the playoffs for the Thunderbirds.
    The rest of the contests of the WHL Championship series should resemble the outstanding action from Games 1 to 3.
    As the Pats and Thunderbirds continue to battle, the field for the Memorial Cup tournament, which is slated for May 19-28 in Windsor, Ont., is starting to take shape. The Spitfires are in as the host team, and Saint John Sea Dogs will be there as the champions of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.     
    The Erie Otters led the best-of-seven Ontario Hockey League title series 3-1 over the Mississauga Steelheads and will try to close out that set in Game 5 on Friday in Erie.

Officials have been way better than the fans think

Linesman Chad Huseby, left, drops the puck for a faceoff.
    Between the playoffs in the NHL and the WHL, it seems the fans are really upset with the men who wear the stripped uniforms, especially if you check out the chatter on social media.
    On the NHL front, I haven’t seen enough games in person or on television to make any judgments there. I have probably seen three complete NHL playoff games in total.
    I have seen a whole pile of WHL post-season games. I know this might freak some fans out, but on an overall level, I have been satisfied with the officiating in the WHL playoffs.
    I think the games have had great flow to them. For the most part, I believe the officials are nailing the black and white and the over the line calls –especially those that require a lot of judgment. 
    I believe the officials have let the soft calls go, which is a good thing. 
The officials move in to control a scrum in Game 1 of the WHL Finals.
    The officials have done great in basically distinguishing the difference between what is a trip and what is someone just accidentally slipping over an opponent’s stick.
    I also believe the officials have done a great job at being consistent and usually that is the big thing competing teams look for.
    In past post-seasons, I have seen games were officials started calling all the tick-tack soft calls and stick with that the entire game. You ended up with a contest where each side has 10 power plays, and those games are usually way more frustrating to players, coaches, team management and fans compared to what has been taken place so far in the 2017 post-season.
    I think most people in the public believe officials take a class on the rules of the game and are just sent on the ice to make the calls. There is way more to officiating than that.
    There is a whole other side to the craft that includes positioning, communicating with coaches, players and sometimes management, and reading players and coaches to determine how they feel emotionally. All these factors go into helping an official read the game.
    Over the years, I have had a lot of great talks with numerous officials including former referees Chris Savage, Nathan Wieler and Devin Klein, current NHL referee Chris Schlenker and young WHL linesman Marcus Gerow. When you talk with these individuals, you realize how enormous the craft of become a good official is, how many variables you track and how you have to have skills outside of knowing how to call penalties.
Linesmen break up a scrum in Game 2 of the WHL Finals.
    You also realize these individuals have a great passion for the game that is equal to any player, coach or manager. Officials don’t want to make a mistake that will affect the outcome of a contest.
    In modern officiating, the officials on the ice at the WHL level are overseen by officiating supervisors and WHL director of officiating Kevin Muench. They work with the officials like good coaches work with the players. They are constantly teaching various tips to officials on how to do things better and also give encouragement when something is done well.
    From talking to veteran officials, they have often said Muench is really good at pointing out different ways unexpected situations on the ice can be handled, and you don’t realize it until the situation comes up and he points it out. The lower levels of hockey officials are guided by supervisors these days, and those efforts have enhanced the quality of games overall in the sport.
    The officials always consider themselves the third team on the ice, and like the participating clubs, they are constantly making adjustments.
    There will always be situations that arise where fans will freak out like the tussle between Lethbridge Hurricanes captain Tyler Wong and Regina Pats winger Dawson Leedahl, where Wong said he was bit on the finger by Leedahl in Game 4 of the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series between the two clubs.
Officials ensure potential hot spot stays cool in Game 2 of the WHL Finals.
    There will always be times not all will be pleased with a call like late in Game 3 of the WHL Championship series where Pats centre Wyatt Sloboshan was tangled up with Seattle Thunderbirds star centre Mathew Barzal. Sloboshan was given a minor for hooking and Barzal went off with a minor for embellishment in that encounter. Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk voiced his displeasure over the call on Barzal in a media conference after the game.
    Those situations always involve tight judgments, where fans on one side or the other will agree to disagree.
    After those two respective series resumed, the teams didn’t engage in any outright brawls or look for ways to make any payback. The steady flow in the games continued, which meant the officials were able to get communication and understanding across to the clubs.
    Officiating in the WHL is light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago and that is due to the fact the approach to the craft has evolved just as players and coaches have evolved.
    The art of officiating will always be a work in progress, and in the WHL, I believe the guys in the stripped uniforms are coming out on the correct side of things when it comes to doing their jobs well.

Leedahl earned NHL deal with Rangers

Winger Dawson Leedahl, left, drives a shot on goal for the Pats.
    Whispers that the NHL might come calling became a reality for Saskatoon product Dawson Leedahl on Monday, and he deserved that reality.
    On Monday, Leedahl, who has had a breakout season playing left wing for the WHL’s Regina Pats, signed a three-year NHL entry-level contract with the New York Rangers. When a blockbuster off-season trade brought Leedahl to the Pats in the off-season from the Everett Silvertips, he was just looking to have one last memorable year in major junior hockey.
    In four complete seasons with the Silvertips, Leedahl, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 193 pounds, appeared in 226 regular season games, recorded 37 goals, 64 assists and a minus-one rating in the plus-minus department.
    During his overage season with the Pats, Leedahl nearly matched all his career point totals in Everett piling up 35 goals, 54 assists and a plus-45 rating in 71 games in Regina playing on a line with star centre Sam Steel and extremely talented rookie right-winger Nick Henry.
    In the playoffs, Leedahl has had a huge impact for the Pats netting 11 goals, 12 assists and a plus-10 rating. He has picked up points at key times, but he positively impacted final outcomes in other ways.
Pats winger Dawson Leedahl (#71) has earned an NHL entry-level contract.
    In Regina’s 3-2 Game 3 win in the WHL Championship series over the Seattle Thunderbirds on Tuesday in Kent, Wash., Leedahl didn’t put up any points, but he might have had one of his best performances of the post-season. He was blocking shots, getting in the right positions to break up passing or transition plays by the Thunderbirds and made smart decisions when he had the puck.
    All of those gritty plays by the graduate of the Saskatoon Contacts midget AAA program allowed the Pats to preserve victory on that night.
    Leedahl, who turned 21 in March, gets involved in the feisty and dirty areas of the game, but when the game ends, he is pretty likable off the ice.
    His play in the WHL post-season was definitely the tipping point that made NHL teams come calling. He also showed the door doesn’t necessarily close on the NHL dream if you go unselected in the NHL Entry Draft.

Clark makes Canada’s centralized roster

    Saskatoon product Emily Clark is a step closer to playing in her first Winter Olympics.
    On Thursday, she was named to Hockey Canada’s centralized roster for the 2017-18 season in preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
    Clark, who is a star forward with the University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team and a graduate of the Saskatoon Stars female midget AAA program, has been part of Canada’s women’s  national team program since 2012. That year, she helped the under-18 squad win gold at the under-18 worlds in the Czech Republic in January.
    The 21-year-old has been part of Canada’s senior national team for the past three campaigns.
    In 2016-17, Clark finished playing her third season with the Badgers posting career highs in assists (26) and points (46) in 37 games. Playing a power-forward role, Clark, who stands 5-foot-7, has piled up 56 goals and 62 assists in 111 career games with the Badgers. She still has one season of National Collegiate Athletic Association eligibility remaining.
    The centralize women’s team will be based out of Calgary and starts preparations for the Winter Olympics later this month with fitness testing. The current roster of 28 players will be cut to a final roster of 23 players in late December. The Winter Olympics run from Feb. 9 to 25 in the new year.
    Clark suited up for the Stars for three seasons from 2009 to 2012 collecting 45 goals and 46 assists in 82 regular season games.

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