A many great things to be thankful for as those of us north of the border celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend.
There are exciting new horizons upon us as the Canadian Hockey League and Memorial Cup were subject to a few major announcements this past week, bringing much potential for which to be grateful for.
Thankful for the recognition are 35 WHL players named to NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary watch list, while 137 WHL Alumni assuredly remain thankful for having found a place on NHL opening day rosters.
We’ve got some big-time achievements, some undefeated Clubs, organizations doing great things both on and off the ice, and much, much more in a Canadian Thanksgiving edition of the WHL XX Journal.
1. Major Canadian Hockey League news dropped on Wednesday afternoon, as the CHL announced Kia as its Official Automotive Partner and presenting sponsor of the Memorial Cup, beginning with the 2019 Memorial Cup in Halifax.
The CHL national championship previously had the title sponsor Mastercard associated with it.
With the new agreement, the annual even for CHL supremacy will be known as the Memorial Cup presented by Kia.
2. On the heels of unveiling Kia as the newest presenting sponsor, the Kelowna Rockets were announced as the hosts of the 2020 Memorial Cup presented by Kia.
Western Hockey League Commissioner Ron Robison made the announcement Wednesday afternoon from the Calgary International Airport following the WHL Board of Governors meeting, in which the decision was made.
The Rockets were in the running alongside competing bids from the Kamloops Blazers and Lethbridge Hurricanes.
The 2020 tournament will serve as the second time Kelowna has welcome the nation to the Okanagan region. The last time the Rockets hosted the Memorial Cup came back in 2004.
3. Speaking of events, Hockey Alberta announced on Thursday that the annual Alberta Cup – a significant step in the identification and evaluation process for Team Alberta’s U16 squad – will be hosted in Red Deer in 2019 and 2020. A great deal of players that will eventually find their way to the Western League will first appear at the Alberta Cup.
What makes this significant?
Red Deer is welcoming the 2019 Canada Winter Games in February, which will also feature a national U16 tournament.
Further to that, the WHL Awards and Bantam Draft will be held in Red Deer in May 2019.
Hockey folks in Alberta are set to become very familiar with Red Deer in the coming years.
4. One day, those youngsters hope to find themselves on a list like this.
Among those provided an ‘A’ classification are Bowen Byram (Vancouver Giants), Dylan Cozens (Lethbridge Hurricanes), Kirby Dach (Saskatoon Blades), Nolan Foote (Kelowna Rockets), Peyton Krebs (Kootenay ICE), Matthew Robertson (Edmonton Oil Kings) and Josh Williams (Medicine Hat Tigers).
The anticipation and expectations for the 2019 NHL Draft are very high out west, thanks to the high-end talent list above and throughout the rest of the league.
5. The WHL continues to produce a great deal of quality players that move along to enjoy successful NHL careers.
With the 2018-19 NHL Regular Season beginning Wednesday evening, a total of 137 WHL Alumni grace the rosters of 31 NHL Clubs, including the likes of first-year pros Sam Steel (Anaheim Ducks), Dillon Dube (Calgary Flames), Juuso Valimaki (Calgary Flames), Henri Jokiharju (Chicago Blackhawks), Michael Rasmussen (Detroit Red Wings), Dennis Cholowski (Detroit Red Wings), Kailer Yamamoto (Edmonton Oil Kings), Jaret Anderson-Dolan (LA Kings) and Brett Howden (New York Rangers).
6. On the topic of first-year pros, former Regina Pats and Kootenay ICE defenceman Cale Fleury put pen to paper on a three-year, entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens and will begin the campaign with the Laval Rocket of the American Hockey League.
Fleury notched 127 points (32G-95A) in 269 career WHL regular season contests and was selected in the third round (87th) of the 2017 NHL Draft.
The product of Carlyle, Sask. is the younger brother of former Carolina Hurricanes first-round pick Haydn Fleury.
7. While the soon-to-be 20-year-old Fleury has seemingly graduated to the professional ranks, there’s a different 20-year-old returning to the Western Hockey League.
The Prince Albert Raiders received a serious boost earlier this week as forward Noah Gregor was assigned to the Club from the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda.
With skill and speed to burn, the product of Beaumont, Alta. has the potential to be one of the most dangerous scoring threats in the WHL this season. He provides an immediate injection of high-end offensive ability to an already soaring Raiders squad.
In 194 career WHL regular season contests, Gregor has 205 points (86G-119A) to his credit. The 6-foot, 185-pound forward registered a career-high 29 goals and 65 points over 60 games split between the Moose Jaw Warriors and Victoria Royals last season.
If you missed it, he was dealt from Victoria to the Raiders in an off-season deal back on July 26.
8. How about those Prince Albert Raiders? At this point, getting Gregor in the lineup is gravy on what has been an outstanding start to the 2018-19 season.
The Raiders are undefeated to start the campaign, having romped to a 6-0-0-0 start on the strength of outscoring opponents by a margin of nearly three goals per game.
Heading into Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, Prince Albert is the top-ranked team in the WHL and they’ve done it with very balanced production from throughout the lineup. A total of eight players in Raiders threads have registered at least five points, including Brett Leason, who leads the Club with 10 points (3G-7A).
On top of balanced production up front, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott was named WHL Goaltender of the Week and finds himself among the WHL leaders in goals-against average (fourth – 1.60), save percentage (fifth – .944) and wins (first – five).
While there was a lot of talk about the young Saskatoon Blades and the crafty Brandon Wheat Kings heading into 2018-19, make no bones about it, the Prince Albert Raiders are for real and they’re going to make a real push to top the WHL’s Eastern Conference this season.
9. RE/MAX presents WHL Suits Up with Don Cherry to Promote Organ Donation is back for a second season.
The newest wrinkle to the very successful campaign in support of the Kidney Foundation of Canada features uniforms with nicknames. Much like MLB’s “Player’s Weekend,” the specially-themed Don Cherry-esque attire will feature fun player nicknames, rather than the traditional surnames.
While the Spokane Chiefs will not be featured in the campaign, they helped influence the latest flair. Back in February 2018, the Chiefs rolled out their own Player’s Choice Nicknames as part of their special edition Breast Cancer Awareness jerseys. Big kudos go out to those in Spokane, not only for their great work towards a great cause, but also for helping bring one of my favourite MLB initiatives to the Western Hockey League.
Seriously – I challenge you to find something better than a hockey sweater that reads “Fish Tank.”
10. How about Portland Winterhawks veteran defenceman Jared Freadrich?
The WHL journeyman was acquired by Mike Johnston this offseason in exchange for little more than a “conditional 2019 WHL Bantam Draft pick.” Now, only five games into the 2018-19 WHL season, the 20-year-old product of Camrose, Alta. sits tied for fourth in scoring among all WHL defenceman, having collected seven points (1G-6A).
For all you mathematicians out there, that has the fourth-year WHL rearguard on pace for a stellar 95-point output (1.4 points per game) in his final season of junior hockey.
For reference, the highest-scoring defenceman at the conclusion of the 2017-18 WHL Regular Season was Medicine Hat Tigers blueliner David Quenneville, who tallied 80 points in 70 contests (1.14 points per game).
Now, I am not suggesting Freadrich’s rate of production is sustainable. But, boy, is it fun to watch.
Since 1996-97, the closest a defenceman has come to hitting the 90-point plateau was back in 1999-2000 when Micki Dupont of the Kamloops Blazers notched 88 points (26G-62A) in 70 outings (1.26 points per game). More recently, Regina Pats defenceman Connor Hobbs registered 85 points (31G-54A) in only 67 games (1.27 points per game).
11. The East Division is home to two of the WHL’s three remaining undefeated Clubs. While the Victoria Royals are 4-0-0-0 in the B.C. Division, the aforementioned Raiders as well as the Brandon Wheat Kings (3-0-0-0) sit with unblemished records.
Conversely, the East Division is also home to the only two teams in the WHL to not have claimed at least one single point. The Regina Pats (0-4-0-0) and Swift Current Broncos (0-4-0-0) will look to stop put an end to that trend this weekend.
12. While the spread in the East Division is significant, the U.S. Division has gotten off to about as highly-contested a start as could be expected.
Through the opening two weeks of the season, one single point separates all five U.S. teams. The Spokane Chiefs and Portland Winterhawks have five points each to their credit, while the Seattle Thunderbirds, Tri-City Americans and Everett Silvertips sit with four points apiece.
Yes, it’s early. But it won’t be surprising to see this closely-contested situation carry on in the U.S. Division well into the year.
13. The Regina Pats continue their winning ways off the ice after unveiling their latest Breast Cancer Awareness Month plan initiative.
With October representing Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the Pats rolled out plans in support of the cause on Thursday, including a very sharp pink goaltender’s mask that will be donned by Max Paddock before being raffled off on October 28 when the Swift Current Broncos visit the Brandt Centre.
VIDEO: The Pats and goalie @paddockmax31 are proud to support Breast Cancer Awareness Month again this season!
The Pats aren’t the only Club engaging in Breast Cancer Awareness month as the Everett Silvertips are set to celebrate their annual Pink the Rink game on October 5 when the Seattle Thunderbirds visit Angel of the Winds Arena.
The ‘Tips will be auctioning off special-edition game worn uniforms that will also be signed by players following the October 5 contest.
14. How about a little throwback for your Thursday?
The Vancouver Giants are set to return to the Pacific Coliseum in downtown Vancouver for two marquee events in the month of December.
Back in May 2016, the Giants moved from the Coliseum to the newer confines of the Langley Events Centre.
December 1 will provide a celebration of 50 years of the Pacific Coliseum as the Tri-City Americans visit. Finally on December 8, the annual Giants Teddy Bear Toss game will be celebrated with the Victoria Royals in town.
15. In the area of odd statistics – the Vancouver Giants and Everett Silvertips each started 2018-19 with three consecutive outings ending in 3-1 scores. The Giants went 2-1-0-0, defeating the ‘Tips twice while falling to the Seattle Thunderbirds. For Everett, they dropped those two outings against Vancouver before rebounding with a win over the Portland Winterhawks to go 1-2-0-0.
The last team to start with three straight games featuring the same scoring was the 2013-14 Kamloops Blazers, as they opened the campaign with three consecutive 5-2 games, going 1-2-0-0.
16. Thursday night, as the NHL season got underway, a couple former WHL defencemen found the scoresheet for their first time in their respective careers.
Former Swift Current Broncos defenceman Max Lajoie, entering only his second season of professional hockey following a 203-game WHL career, just so happened to score his first career NHL goal in the first period of his first career NHL game as his Ottawa Senators faced the Chicago Blackhawks. Not too shabby for a former fifth-round selection. Congrats, Max!
In the second period of his first career NHL contest, former Portland Winterhawks and Prince George Cougars defenceman Dennis Cholowski found the back of the net as his Detroit Red Wings took on the Columbus Blue Jackets. Without question, the former first-round pick is going to have an immediate impact in his first NHL season. Congrats, Dennis!
17. How about a big congratulations for Regina Pats Athletic Therapist Greg Mayer?
The athletic staff and equipment staff members throughout the Western Hockey League might just be the most unsung heroes of them all. Night in and night out, the long hours and tireless efforts are vital to the success of every single Club across the Western Hockey League.
With 1,500 games under his belt, Mayer joins a very accomplished group of dedicated athletic therapists and equipment staff.
Congratulations to Greg!
18. Of the three shutouts recorded by WHL goaltenders heading into Thanksgiving weekend, two came courtesy of rookie netminders.
Vancouver Giants rookie Trent Miner – the 20th overall selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft – secured his first goose egg in his 10th career appearance with a 5-0 win over the Kelowna Rockets on Wednesday night.
Edmonton Oil Kings rookie Boston Bilous – the 80th overall selection from the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft – notched his first shutout in his 18th career appearance with a 5-0 win over the Swift Current Broncos on September 28.
The lone shutout to come from a goaltender without rookie status belongs to 17-year-old sophomore Nolan Maier of the Saskatoon Blades, who blanked the Swift Current Broncos back on opening weekend.
These young kids sure can stop some pucks.
19. Carrying on the conversation regarding goaltenders, veteran puckstopper Brodan Salmond may very well have won himself a full-time job with the Moose Jaw Warriors.
After being released by the Kelowna Rockets, the soon-to-be 20-year-old caught on the Warriors this fall.
The product of Calgary stopped 31 of 32 shots on September 30 in a 2-1 win over the Regina Pats and now finds himself one of three remaining overage players on the Warriors roster after 1998-born defenceman Brandon Schuldhaus was shipped to the Saskatoon Blades in a deal earlier this week.
Salmond, a veteran of 57 career WHL regular season games, joins sophomore Adam Evanoff in the Moose Jaw crease. A former 10th-round selection (219th) of the Rockets at the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft, Salmond has a career mark of 29-19-2-1 with a 3.21 goals-against average, .887 save percentage and three shutouts.
20. Down in Cranbrook, the ICE solidified both their overage and import situation this week, locking in 20-year-old Slovakian defenceman Martin Bodak following the Thursday release of Swiss-born forward Gilian Kohler.
The transaction got the ICE down to the import limit of two – with Finnish defenceman Valtteri Kakkonen joining Bodak on the backend. On the overage front, Bodak accompanies defenceman Dallas Hines and forward Jaeger White.
As for Kohler, this marks a disappointing end to his tenure in North America.
Highly touted as the third overall selection from the 2017 CHL Import Draft, the product of Biel, Switzerland skated in 56 career WHL games, tallying 20 points (8G-12A). Having passed through 48-hour import waivers, the forward is expected to return to Europe.