It’s nearly 9pm… the Blazer bus sits outside the Sandman Centre almost ready for a departure to the prairies. The guys have all arrived early for the biennial excursion to Saskatchewan.
It’s always an exciting time… it marks the last stretch before the Christmas break, and for six players on this year’s roster it’s a chance to play a rare “home” game or two. Garrett Pilon, Tylor Ludwar, Devan Harrison, Connor Zary, Carson Denomie and Jermaine Loewen (Manitoba) are all headed home.
The bus is loaded both on top and underneath. The Blazer billets have loaded down the players and staff with all sorts of Christmas goodies for the journey as well. There’s two shopping bags full at my feet…and it doesn’t take much to tempt this radio guy.
The Blazer staff is short one body for this trip. Director of Hockey/Video/Media Tim O’Donovan isn’t on the trip. He leaves for St. Catharines, Ontario for Canada’s World Junior Selection Camp. As video coach for Team Canada, it means he’ll miss the swing entirely. He’ll return in the New Year hopefully with a gold medal.
That’s big news for the rookies up front…because it means it frees up a seat. What would normally be a “double-up” for two young players, now means another seat for someone to stretch out on. It doesn’t take long for 6’4′ Ryley Appelt to take advantage. Shortly into our overnight journey he’s strewn out across seats and aisles doing anything to get comfortable for the trek.
Bus driver “Al” has us for the first leg. He’ll take us to Edmonton where the team will switch drivers. Regular driver “Roger” will take over from there. Al takes us through Jasper in the wee hours of the morning. He gets the job done for the team and his duties are over.
There’s a sense of security with Roger at the wheel. He’s like an old glove. He’s been driving the Blazers off and on since the late 80’s. He knows the staff and gets the job done promptly and safely. Roger has been a life long driver and heavy duty equipment operator. He reminds me of “Gene” from my favorite show “Gold Rush” – a show he watches as well. He’s stubborn and likes things done his way and isn’t afraid to tell you. I often joke with him that after the hockey season we are going to head up together to the Klondike and mine for gold. He’ll be on the excavator and I’ll be barking orders at him to hurry up and pick up the pace. A scenario he doesn’t quite agree with. “no bloody way are you going to be telling me what to do!” he says.
It’s kind of our joke…. it keeps the mood light.
About 10 hours later and a pair of time changes (and about six xmas goodies…but who’s counting), we get to North Battleford. The club gets off the bus with the landscape changed immensely from where the team departed from. It’s cool, but not cold. We hit up a local diner. They are waiting for the team with a soup and sandwich. We are quick. In and out…and back on the road bound for Saskatoon.
The team gets to Saskatoon just after 1pm local time. They quickly unload at the rink before heading off to an indoor soccer facility nearby in North Saskatoon for an off ice workout and a chance to get the legs going.
Toledo runs a two-ball soccer game and as always it gets competitive. Quinn Benjafield scores the overtime winner to end a spirited contest.
The team then checks into the Saskatoon hotel with a team dinner planned for later Wednesday evening.
Thursday, December 7th
Our trivia to begin the day at breakfast focuses on Saskatchewan geography and Sask WHL teams. It’s always interesting to see what the players know about the rest of the league, the cities and their history.
It’s a postcard Saskatchewan morning. Sunny, crisp with the sun low in the horizon. It’s perfect. Two guys on the trip have never been to Sask…Brodi Stuart and Jackson Shepard. It’s a good experience for these guys to see the rest of the league and country.
This has to be special for 16 year old Saskatoon native Connor Zary. Four years ago when the Blazers played here, he was an 11 year old hockey fan. He came to the game that night…and sat behind the Blazer bench. The story goes he asked Toledo for a stick on the bench. Toledo told him if he cheers really hard for the Blazers and we win…he’d get a stick at the end of the night. Sure enough, the Blazers stomped on the Blades. Zary cheered loud and Toledo got him a stick used by Cole Ully that night. Connor says he still has it in his room. A prized possession.
Fast forward four years and here he is, playing with the Blazers in the same rink. What are the odds of that?
The Blazers have three prospects joining them for the morning session. 15 year-old 1st round bantam pick Josh Pillar. 15 year-old 8th round pick Ethan Ironside and 16 year-old signed goalie prospect Rayce Ramsay will all participate.
Pillar is having a good season with the Prince Albert Mintos of the “AAA” midget league. 14 goals, 13 assists for 27 points in 22 games as he plays against players two years older than him. They know practice is going to be at a higher tempo than they are used to but what an experience for them.
Later today the guys will head to the mall for lunch before returning back to the hotel to prep for the Prince Albert Raiders Friday night at the Art Hauser Centre.
We’ll have more stories from the road as we continue the journey…