By Darren Steinke/Special to the CHL
What is old is new again for the Prince Albert Raiders.
In the small northern Saskatchewan city of about 36,000 people, the citizens carry the romanticized vision of the Raiders close to their hearts.
The Raiders are the team of Mike Modano and Dave Manson. They are a team of speed and skill mixed with incredible toughness.
Thanks to those ingredients, the Raiders, who were born in 1971, built a dynasty in the junior A ranks winning national titles in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982.
Following the 1982 championship, the Raiders jumped to the WHL. In just their third season as a major junior club in 1984-85, they topped the WHL standings with a record of 58 wins, 11 losses and three ties, captured the WHL championship and won the Memorial Cup. A handful of Raiders also played on Team Canada’s gold medal team that year at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
Since that time, the Raiders had a number of good seasons making the semifinal round in the WHL playoffs on seven occasions, but a league final berth proved elusive.
After advancing to the Eastern Conference Championship series in 2005, the Raiders went through a 13-year stretch where they missed the playoffs seven times and were eliminated in the first round six times.
Partway through the 2014-15 campaign, Marc Habscheid joined the Raiders as head coach. Curtis Hunt – a defenceman on the 1985 Memorial Cup winner – came on board before the start of the 2015-16 campaign as general manager.
They worked on a master plan to rebuild the Raiders through the draft and make smart additions via trades. The hard work has resulted in a 2018-19 campaign that mirrored the romanticized version of the team’s past.
The Raiders topped the WHL regular standings with a 54-10-2-2 mark and were rated second in the final Kia CHL Top 10 rankings. In the playoffs, they advanced to the WHL final for the first time since that cherished campaign in 1985.
Habscheid said the biggest task for the coaches was to guide the players through the challenges of being on top.
“This is the first year that they’ve had this success,” said Habscheid. “To see them deal with it, the newness of it, the new experience of it has been lots of fun. You try to be a mentor and help them understand how to deal with it.”
The two biggest stars to rise from the Raiders are right-winger Brett Leason, who turned 20-years-old in late April, and veteran netminder Ian Scott, who has signed an NHL entry level contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Both found their way on to the roster of Canada’s World Junior team.
Leason, now in his second season in Prince Albert after a move from the Tri-City Americans, topped the Raiders in regular season scoring with 36 goals and 53 assists, while posting a plus-55 rating. Leason appreciated that the Raiders coaches quickly put him into offensive roles. This season, he enjoyed playing on a line with Sean Montgomery and Aliaksei Protas skating along left wing.
“It is really great,” said Leason. “The linemates are working hard. We’re clicking together and just getting lots of chances. That is all it comes down to.”
Scott appeared in 49 regular season games posting a 38-8-3 record, a 1.83 goals against average, .932 save percentage and a team record eight shutouts. He also scored a goal and collected two assists offensively. The puck stopper said he has come a long way with the team since joining the Raiders as a 16-year-old rookie.
“I think it is pretty crazy,” said Scott. “The past few seasons probably weren’t the strongest. Just coming in this season, I think it is a real eye opener about a lot of personal things I have worked on. I think this season it would just be confidence. I think that has been the big key for me this season, and I just keep rolling with it.”
The Raiders scored the most goals in the WHL during the regular season at 307 and have a deep group up front. Over-age centre Noah Gregor, who has been signed by the San Jose Sharks, was second in team scoring with 43 goals and 45 assists. Left-winger Cole Fonstad, who was drafted by the Montreal Canadians, was third in team scoring with 29 goals and 44 assists for 73 points.
Protas, who is in his rookie season, scored as many goals over the first three rounds of the playoffs as he did in the regular season at 11.
Parker Kelly, who has signed with the Ottawa Senators, is the Raiders classic power forward. He posted 35 goals and 32 assists to go along with big hits he dished out during the campaign.
“Usually I get one good one once a game,” said Kelly. “I think that is just something that I have always had. I just have to use that to my advantage and kind of wear the other team down. Obviously, that is something I need to be doing every game. That kind of helps me get engaged, and I think helps create chances for my linemates and myself.”
The Raiders were stingy defensively giving up the second fewest goals in the WHL at 156. To compliment the stellar goaltending of Scott, the Raiders built a solid starting six on defence in captain Brayden Pachal, Zack Hayes, Max Martin, Sergei Sapego, Jeremy Masella and Kaiden Guhle.
Guhle is the youngster in the group skating through his 16-year-old rookie season, while the rest are all playing in their 19-year-old campaigns.
Pachal and Hayes play against opposing team’s top lines on a nightly basis and posted respective plus-76 and plus-71 ratings. Pachal topped all Raiders blue-liners in scoring with 15 goals and 36 assists to go along with 113 penalty minutes. The Estevan, Sask., product is the perfect example of the Raider player being both skilled and tough. He is aware of how much his team’s magical season has meant to the fans.
“Obviously, small market P.A. hasn’t seen a team like this in a while,” said Pachal. “It is fun to be back on the map. The city is buzzing all the time. It is a fun and a tough rink to play in back at the Hauser. You get the chills when you’re coming on to the ice, and they’re that loud. Every hit, every goal, every penalty, everything, it was crazy loud.”
Ultimately, Habscheid said his club wants to go all the way and win the Memorial Cup as a thank-you to the fans. The Raiders averaged standing room crowds of 2,615 spectators at the 2,580 seat Art Hauser Centre and had as many as 3,289 for most of their contests in the WHL post-season. In the playoffs, fans often stood on top of milk crates in the back rows of the concourse to see the action on the ice.
“We really appreciate it,” said Habscheid. “Especially in this day and age, you look at all sports the entertainment dollar it is tough to get. We appreciate the people coming to the rink and spending it with us. We’re a smaller franchise and to get that kind of support helps not only the franchise itself but more importantly our players. It is nice to have the people come out and appreciate the kids the way they do and it certainly helps them on the ice.”
Darren Steinke is a freelance sportswriter/photographer now based in Saskatoon, after years of covering the WHL in both Prince Albert and Medicine Hat.