Last Wednesday’s announcement of the final schedule for play at the Regina Hub was another crucial step toward Game Day No. 1 on March 12, which for the Moose Jaw Warriors will be a lead-off afternoon tilt with the Brandon Wheat Kings.
The details are available below.
Our complete 2021 East Division Hub Schedule has been released.
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) March 3, 2021
DUBNetwork caught up with Moose Jaw Warriors’ Head Coach Mark O’Leary on a wide range of topics last Thursday, the whole conversation of which you can catch on the Neugsie Sportscast HERE.
The busy sked
Moose Jaw will play 24 games over a span of 46 days, between March 12 and April 26, as long as everything goes as planned.
With four back-to-backs, mostly only a single day of rest between contests, and without a single fan in the stands or anything like a ‘home game’, the club might be forgiven for at least a small sense of bracing itself for the hurricane to come.
But, they simply aren’t.
“I keep coming back to the notion (with the team) that circumstances do not change responsibilities,” said head coach Mark O’Leary.
“We expect the players to compete, to pay attention to the details and have that pack mentality, and work together, no matter what. I think this is a great opportunity for the players because I think the camaraderie is going to happen in a hurry, whether it’s from hanging out at the rink or the dorms. Everything will be escalated; every game means that much more…and I think it’ll be great (once we get to playing games).”
That all seven teams at the Hub will be in the same grind is a sentiment that was repeated by many around the club, and there is a very real sense that the Warriors, armed with the fresh legs of youth, are chomping at the bit to prove to the Moose Jaw fans, and the world at large, that last year’s disappointments are far in the past.
“Last year was honestly a really tough year for all of us,” said Hunt to DUBNetwork, “but in saying that we learned from it, we got older, we added some new 20-year-olds, and so we are a better team today. It is a very busy schedule (ahead) for sure, we’re going to be tired, but we are so excited and hungry to play, and we are ready to go. It’s going to be really fun.”
It was noted in last week’s Preview Part 1 that O’Leary and GM Alan Millar purposefully included 25 players on the squad to ensure they had enough players to manage the expected bumps and bruises of the grueling schedule, but it should go without saying that all things being equal, Hunt should not be one of those coming in and out of the roster.
For the 18-year-old captain fresh off a stint where he played about 12-minutes-per-game in three contests with the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, the workload will be welcome.
“Going from playing 30 minutes or so a night to 12 was a good lesson for me, in that it taught me to be prepared me to be ready whenever my bell is called,” Hunt said.
“Going back to playing a lot of minutes again in the Hub will be great for my development too, and with my body feeling great, I find that the more I play, the better I get, so I’m excited.”
“All the teams are going to be the same boat,” Hunt added, “so it’ll be about remembering every shift is a new one.
“We haven’t played all year, so why save the gas in the tank? Might as well burn it all out as much as we can in this Hub!”
Is Korczak the O-Kor?
Projected NHL first or second-round draft pick Ryder Korczak’s 18 goals and 67 points accounted for a staggering, and WHL-high 17.2 per-cent of the club’s offensive output a year ago.
So, will he need to do that again, or more, for the Warriors to hit their stated goal of 12 wins, at the very least, in the Hub?
“I think we were pretty young last year,” said Eric Alarie, a 2003-born draft-eligible power forward, to the WHL’s official podcast.
“We had about 10 rookies up front, so just the experience of having a year for a lot of us is going to really help a lot. I think we’re going to be a lot better this year, and I really feel like we’re going to be really deep (as we continue to grow together).”
Along with Alarie, the likes of highly touted rookie Brayden Yager, who has already been very impressive by many accounts in practice, Riley Krane, a proven 20-year-old WHL goal scorer acquired from Regina in the off-season, and others, it appears the Warriors are equipped to put their money where their mouth is as far as goals are concerned.
“I am really happy with the way the whole group looks (in practice),” Hunt said.
“Some guys have not seen the rink for a couple of months, so obviously not everything is going to be smooth sailing, but I thought we have a really good jump in our step and we have been executing well. I am really proud of the guys, we have come a long way, and we’re just getting better every day.”
The other offensive young gun coming in alongside Yager to watch is Jagger Firkus, a dynamic 2004-born winger, who has 12 games as a Moose Jaw call-up under his belt already and was considered by many to be the most dominant U18 forward in Alberta with 2.75 points-per-game to start this campaign with his Lloydminster Bobcats AAAs.
The new-old guys
As any Canadian Hockey League GM and coach will tell you, getting the right three 20-year-olds is crucial for the success of any club.
Scrappy centreman Tate Popple, who is set to play his 175th regular-season game as a Moose Jaw Warrior Friday night, represents the only one of the chosen trio back from last year; the aforementioned Krane, and Brad Ginnell, brought in from Spokane, were imported in the off-season.
O’Leary is thrilled with the early returns from the new overagers.
“It could have been easy to just bring all younger players in here,” he said.
“But I think there is real merit in players like that that have played through the league, been in some tough situations, and the ups and downs of what it’s like to play in the WHL, for our young guys to see. More importantly, they’re good people and come with great pasts in terms of what they were like on their old teams, in terms of their character, so I think there is a real advantage to having those games in practice, in the room, in games, everywhere.”
Ginnell, of Calgary, is the son of Las Vegas Golden Knights scout Erin, and the grandson of long-time WHL coach/GM Pat, and is sitting on 230 games in the league with Portland, Kootenay/Winnipeg, and Spokane.
Warriors’ assistant coach Gord Burnett was very familiar with the pivot as Burnett was an assistant in Kootenay between 2015 and 2019.
Krane, who was brought in from down the road as mentioned above, scored 16 goals and added 16 helpers on a Pats club that similarly did not find scoring easy, and will bring his 135 games, all in Regina, to the table.
The leadership group, with Hunt the captain, also features Popple, Logan Doust, Korczak, and Calder Anderson.
Daemon Hunt (@DaemonHunt22) has been named the 34th Captain in Warriors history.
Tate Popple, Logan Doust, Ryder Korczak, & Calder Anderson have been named Assistant Captains
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) February 18, 2021
“We have so many leaders in that room, from the older and the younger guys,” said Hunt.
“Everyone has a role to lead. For myself, I am the go-to guy and I am ready for that responsibility, but I like my assistant captains a lot. Popple has been in Moose Jaw since he was 15, (the other guys) and those other guys are really bought in. I love our group all around, they all know their roles, so it’s a great group.”
Returnee Boston Bilous, who recently turned 20, looks to get a significant amount of the early load in the net.
A Langley, B.C. native who stands at 6-foot-3, Bilous did play one game earlier this year for the Estevan Bruins Junior A of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, shutting out their rivals the Weyburn Red Wings.
Back at the rink. Season Opener is Friday, 4pm, against Brandon pic.twitter.com/S9skGzHPpK
— Moose Jaw Warriors (@MJWARRIORS) March 9, 2021
He will share the net with the highly-thought-of 17-year-old Brett Mirwald, who was a standout for the high-powered Saskatoon Blazers U18s the last three years in his hometown.
While the veteran is slated to take the ball out of the gates, the door appears wide open for Mirwald to push for ice time as far as he can earn it, especially in such a condensed schedule.
“(Our goaltending situation) is a perfect example of managing that development and competitive side,” said Coach O’Leary.
“Mirwald is a 17-year-old rookie, but we expect him to be a really good goalie moving forward, so to find out where he’s at in his development, we want to make sure we’re playing him enough games, and against good competition. The plan is Bilous is still the Number 1 guy coming back from last year, but there will be every opportunity for Brett to play games. He is going to get looks regardless and he can certainly earn more with how he’s playing. That’s just the nature of competition: the young guys need to be nipping at the heels of the older guys.”
It all kicks off in the Regina Hub Friday afternoon, 4 P.M., as Moose Jaw takes on the Brandon Wheat Kings live at CHL TV online, or Country 100 on the radio with James Gallo, the Voice of the Warriors, on the call!