As far as the Western Hockey League’s East Division Hub Centre in Regina goes, it appears all systems are go.
The teams began arriving on Saturday, have been isolating at the University of Regina dorms, and have undergone Covid testing this week. On a Zoom media availability on Thursday, Regina Pats head coach Dave Struch said their fingers are crossed regarding the test results.
“I think that we’ll get them back before (Thursday) evening and hopefully we do so that we can get out of the rooms and meet up with the guys and get a little acquainted before we get into the real world a little bit,” Struch explained.
The Pats’ first practice is scheduled for Friday evening in the Brandt Centre – site of the seven-team Hub – but until then the players have been kept busy all week with virtual meetings.
“We’ve done lots of Zooms,” Struch explained. “I think this is the only time we’ll have a routine throughout the two months. We get up, we eat at 10:00, the players workout on Zoom at 11:00, and then we have lunch at 1:00. We Zoom at 4:00, and then we’ve had a couple presenters present to us via social media.
“In the evenings we eat at 7:00 and this week we’ve had Sheldon Kennedy present to all seven teams within the Hub – a remarkable presentation on his life and some things that he’s gone through. For me, that was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen or been involved with. And then last night Sam Cosentino from Sportsnet was a presenter for five of the teams and ours was one of them. So we’ve kept busy with routine because, after Friday, things are going to change. Meals and practice times are different and then the games are at different times.”
For the Pats, and likely the other six teams in the Hub, the Pats aren’t looking too far down the road. Struch is just excited to finally have his team together under one roof and to hit the ice this weekend.
“For me, it’s the group of people that we have here,” Struch smiled. “We’ve never been able to do what we’ve done with the existing players that are here for the past three, four months. We’ve usually had a training camp, lots of numbers. We started doing systems-stuff before Christmas. Our preparation this week, as far as Zooms with the players has been all about how we want to play without the puck, Hockey IQ things.
“It’s something we haven’t been able to do, and you wouldn’t be able to do, because you’ve got 50, 60, 70 players at training camp. So I think we’ll be ahead of the game in that aspect. And then just really, getting on the ice. I know it’ll be sloppy and ugly at first, but once we get our feet underneath us and get some touches, the excitement is there for us.”
Can you imagine the elation the players are feeling after waiting to get back on the ice for a year? By the time Regina hits the ice next Friday, March 12 at 8:00 pm against the Prince Albert Raiders (8:00 pm, AccessNow TV, 620 CKRM), it’ll be 366 days since their last game.
“I feel like we’ve all waited for so long and especially with it going on and off with us hopefully playing and then it being canceled, I think that everybody now, especially that we’re here, now that we’re only 24 hours away from practice and hanging out with all the guys, I think we’re just super-excited to be around each other,” offered 20-year old Pats defenceman Kyle Walker, a 20-year old from Leduc, AB.
Veteran Pats forward Logan Nijhoff shared Walker’s enthusiasm.
“I think everyone’s extremely excited,” the Comox, BC product said on the same Zoom call. “As a hockey player, you’re kind of used to having a schedule every day. All of us since the age of 4, we’ve had our winters packed with hanging out with the guys and having skates and practices every day. It’s been a big learning curve for all of us, learning how to cope without a regular schedule. As far as excitement levels, I think everyone is extremely excited. Like you said it’s been 366 days so everyone should be in the best shape of their life!”
This season my eyes will be particularly focused on Roddy Ross in the Pats’ crease. The 20-year old from Meadow Lake, SK was acquired from Seattle with the idea of giving the rebuild a nitro boost.
“I’m definitely excited to be out there and I know the guys are too,” revealed the Philadelphia Flyers prospect. “I’m really excited to see all of them battle. I know we’ve got 24 games and we’re gonna work with what we got. I’m excited to see everyone battle for their playing time. I know it’s not a lot but I think there’s going to be a lot of guys putting that extra work in. I’m really excited to see how it turns out in the end.”
As yet no playoffs are planned after this 24-game venture. The WHL has said they’ll wait to see how well they’re able to pull it off, Covid-free. But these teams are made up of competitors, and it’ll definitely be like a regular-season once the puck goes down.
“Fitness, for sure, is going to factor into everything,” Struch said of preparing for next Friday’s season-opener. “Timing, execution. For the little amount that the players have been doing in the different zones with the health authorities restrictions, there are going to be guys that are ahead of the others.
“Even with the two weeks off. But the fact that we’ve had seven days to get ourselves conditioned, and with the timing and execution, that’s gonna be the most difficult part. But I think in the end everything that we’ve done on our Zoom calls with systems, the way we want to play, our core values, that’s going to be a good start for us. But there’s nothing that can compare to getting on the ice and battling and competing in practice. We’re a long ways off, but we hope that the steps we’ve taken that we’ve gotten ahead.”
Pats General Manager John Paddock participated in the Zoom call and has a different perspective than Struch. He shopped for the groceries and now it’s up to Dave to make the meal. But Paddock will also be closely-dissecting the other six teams in the Hub to see what groceries they may have on sale.
“It’s definitely unique,” Paddock said. “At this point, I don’t know what would go into it to make moves going ahead. But I think that it’s great to evaluate other teams’ players. We’re going to get a chance to watch them. As condensed as it is for the players playing, it’s going to be condensed to evaluate and scout seven teams a lot of times in a short period of time. I think we’re excited about players that are starting to join the organization all at the same time like Whitehead, Feist, and Bedard. There’s lots that’s going to be very neat to see.”
In an interview on The Rod Pedersen Show this week, Moose Jaw Warriors GM Alan Millar hinted that the WHL might announce some sort of Challenge Cup to be awarded for the top team in the East Hub. Until then, the teams will have to manufacture that competitive spirit.
“I think without there being a championship, it is going to be a bit different but as far as for myself, I’m not taking any different thought process going into every game,” Nijhoff continued. “Individually for us, it’s still a big opportunity with not much other junior hockey going, to maybe get an extra look from a scout or have that opportunity to develop with this many games in such a short period of time.
“Without a championship, it is a bit of a bummer but for all of us and the team as a whole, it’s super exciting to progress on the end of last year and just kind of get out of that rebuild stage and prove to some teams that we’re here to compete.”
Struch concluded that – make no mistake – they’re out to win games and continue the steps to being that franchise that captured the 2017 Eastern Conference title and hosted the Memorial Cup in 2018.
“I mean we’re here two-fold,” Struch surmised. “We talked about bringing the young guys in and having a bigger roster for the short period of time. The development of the young kids is huge but I think that for the development of our organization, it’s time for us to win more.
“I think no matter how you look at it, winning hockey games is a show of doing things the right way. The more right things you do, the better the outcome. I think that winning hockey games can be the biggest, and possibly the best, developer this year.”
Let’s go! See you next Friday on AccessNow TV.
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