1. There was little surprise when Medicine Hat Tigers Coach and General Manager Willie Desjardins announced the overage group for the upcoming 24-game Western Hockey League season. The three 20-year-old players will be forwards Brett Kemp and Ryan Chyzowski, along with defenceman Cole Clayton. It’ll be the last WHL hurrah for the trio and it will end in odd fashion without the likelihood of post-season play. Almost a year ago in March, the junior hockey careers of overagers James Hamblin, Parker Gavlas, and Dylan Plouffe ended cruelly when the season was cancelled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. Kemp skated early on this season in his hometown with the Yorkton Terriers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. In six games, he scored three goals and added seven assists before the SJHL was put on pause. Before the shutdown last season, Kemp was a key offensive contributor for the Tigers with 30 goals and 47 assists in 62 games. The Tabbies can expect more of the same from the shifty forward in the coming weeks.
3. I think “Cowboy” Clayton is a great choice for this shortened campaign. The right-hand shooting rearguard blossomed offensively last season with 30 points in 63 games. At 6’2 and 200 pounds, Clayton and fellow defenceman Daniel Baker (6’4; 185 pounds) created some wingspan as a pairing along the blueline last season. Both are big and mobile with the kind of long reach that can shut down passing and shooting lanes in the defending zone. And don’t forget that Baker chipped in with 38 points in 62 contests last season. With quietly efficient Eric Van Impe returning, along with Dru Krebs and Damon Agyeman, the Tigers blueline brigade would appear to be in good order despite graduating Plouffe and Gavlas.
4. Chyzowski was very good last season, collecting 69 points in 62 games. One has to think the veteran of 257 regular-season games will be an important voice in the room with the Tigers. Chyzowski also demonstrates patience and maturity when called upon by the media. It’s a skill many WHL players are able to hone during their junior careers.
5. Any examination of the Tigers roster requires mention that a few faces from last season will not be in the mix. Forwards Jonathan Brinkman and goaltender Mads Sogaard are back home in Denmark, on the outside looking in because WHL teams in Canada will not be using import players. For his part, the 6’8 Sogaard has appeared in 13 games for the Esbjerg Energy, compiling a .934 save percentage as he continues to vie for an NHL job. The Ottawa Senators selected Sogaard in the second round, 37th overall, at the 2019 NHL Draft. Brinkman, who is eligible to return to the WHL next season, is skating with his hometown Aalborg Pirates.
6. Another player plying his trade outside the Canadian border is forward Cole Sillinger. He committed to play for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL in January and will not return to the Tigers until the Stampede’s season ends. Sillinger is one of the WHL’s real showstoppers and his presence will be sorely missed. Of note is his dual citizenship, said to be an advantage of sorts in navigating some of the current day COVID-19 protocols. Predictably, he’s lighting it up in Sioux Falls with 12 goals and nine assists in 14 games. Sillinger, who is eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft, left for the USHL with the Tigers blessing.
7. Goaltender Garin Bjorklund will take the reigns as the go-to-guy between the pipes. In 28 appearances during his rookie campaign, Bjorklund compiled a 20-5-1 record with a 2.91 goals-against average and one shutout. He was a competent fill-in for Sogaard, who was away at an IIHF tournament for a portion of the season. The Washington Capitals selected Bjorklund in the sixth round, 179th overall, at the 2020 NHL Draft. The Grand Prairie, Alberta-native, who seems bigger in the cage than his 6’2 frame, will start ahead of 17-year-old newcomer Beckett Langkow. The Tigers signed the youngster on April 29, 2020. He is the son of Scott Langkow, who appeared in over 150 WHL games as a member of the Portland Winterhawks.
8. Among other returnees are a handful of experienced forwards including Corson Hopwo, who led the team with a plus-38 rating last season. Lukas Svejkovsky, selected in the fourth round, 108th overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2020 NHL Draft slots in as a versatile forward with high-end puck skills. Nick McCarry, Caleb Wilms, and Noah Danielson are back in the mix.
9. The Tigers open the season on the road in Red Deer Friday night, then welcome the Rebels to the newly-branded Co-Op Place in Medicine Hat on Saturday. The following weekend, the Tigers and Edmonton Oil Kings will play a home-and-home set. With fans yet to be allowed to attend the games, visit the WHL Live page in the coming days for streaming details for watching games online. Beyond March 6, the Tigers’ schedule has yet to be confirmed. Last season, the Tigers averaged 2,947 fans through 32 games.
10. If there is a Medicine Hat Tigers personality who could aptly suggest he has “seen it all”, play-by-play man Bob Ridley might very well be the guy. Ridley has broadcast 3,998 WHL games and his role as the bus driver and broadcaster with the organization over 50 years has been well-documented. Ridley was named to the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame in 2019. It was a tremendous disappointment for Tigers supporters when the cancellation of the 2019-20 regular season cost the organization an opportunity to celebrate a broadcasting milestone. Plans had been in place to honour Ridley on the occasion of his 4,000th WHL game last March in Medicine Hat, but that highlight will now take place this weekend in an empty Co-Op Place. Catch the broadcast on CHAT 94.5 FM on your radio dial.
(Glen Erickson is a long-time freelance writer with ties to the WHL over the past 35 years. He covered the WHL extensively in Kelowna between 2005 and 2019, in addition to four CHL Top Prospects Games and a pair of IIHF World Junior Championships. Erickson provided coverage of Rockets home games for the Kelowna Daily Courier during the 2018-19 season, before relocating to Medicine Hat.)