From the GM’s chair
Almost three weeks ago today, the Prince Albert Raiders found themselves on the losing side of their first round playoff series against the Moose Jaw Warriors.
The Western Hockey League club surged through the latter half of its 2017-18 season to grab the final wildcard playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, while knocking divisional rival Saskatoon out of postseason contention.
That was after general manager Curtis Hunt took a somewhat reserved approach to trades and roster moves in the first week of January. The moves that he and his team of scouts decided to make paid off.
The Raiders ultimately pushed the WHL-best Warriors to a seventh and deciding game of the conference’s quarterfinal round.
The Moose Jaw club won the game 5-4 after taking the lead within the game’s final five minutes.
Hunt sat down with the Daily Herald to review the Raiders’ 2017-18 season.
The following is an edited version of their conversation.
Daily Herald: How do you assess this past season for your team?
Curtis Hunt: We have to primarily judge from energy and excitement.
I look at the fans that came out; in the end they were tremendous with the energy in the building.
I think the players, the young kids who came, the kids who left and the kids coming back next season, all of them they’re excited. They’re excited for what lays ahead.
Internally we’re disappointed: We believe we should have had a better fate in terms of how it finished.
When you look again globally, it’s one (Moose Jaw) versus eight (Prince Albert), and we stretched them as far as we could, and in the end their game-breakers put them over the top.
That’s nothing against our guys: They competed hard.
It was a good year; we scored more goals this year (245) than we had since the 2010-11 season (247).
You look ahead to our roster and what we’re returning … and we’re really excited about that moving ahead. So a lot of real positive things this year with the organization.
DH: Your trade deadline pickups: From January onward, how do you assess those trades in terms of where you went and finished this year?
CH: I’ve been chasing Kody McDonald for two years.
I wanted him as part of the Brendan Guhle deal a year ago (with Prince George). I think he’s a prefect fit player for our building and our fans; the way he plays, he plays hard every night; he’s gritty, he brings people with him. I thought him and Parker Kelly together, they both play with that edge.
I thought that was a big part of our finish.
Jeremy Masella, he was playing out of position (in Victoria, where coaches sometimes put him at forward). I thought he got better as he went along here.
Then we brought along Konrad Belcourt – he had some real big minutes for us through the end of the January and into February, when we were hurting a little bit on the back end.
In the end, the team itself is kind of a moving evolution. We didn’t want to do a lot of deals, because of the extensive amount we did a year before (during the 2016-17 season).
I thought it really brings unrest and instability to your group and your room.
We thought we were close. I thought we played hard all year, and then those guys gave us that chance to have that nine-game winning streak and get ourselves into the postseason.
The other guy is Brett Leason. He came to us very early in the season.
For him, it was maybe a new outlook on life: Tri-City is very deep up front as you can see now the way they’re scoring in the postseason.
I think Leas got himself comfortable, and he’s earned himself a top-six role in our club by his play and certainly, to me, was almost dominant in the postseason with his size and his skill set and knack for big goals and big plays.
I’m happy with how that worked out for our club, because again we didn’t want to do a lot of things this year after last year’s teardown.
DH: You looked to have a tighter roster this year. Is it beneficial to have a tighter roster with less players, or is that the way the season played out?
CH: Sometimes it’s the way the season plays out.
I think (strength and conditioning coach) Terry Lange did a terrific job with our guys in terms of fitness and dynamic stretches and working out and monitoring players. So did Duane Bartley and our medical staff.
Kids have to play. You can’t emulate in a practice the intensity and the compete level and the pressure and the mental anxiety that a game presents.
Too many guys, and it’s just my opinion, you start losing that. They can’t sit too long.
We were also fortunate enough to have affiliate players in Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Swan River, Man.
We used Ozzy Wiesblatt in Calgary, Kaiden Guhle in Edmton and Cohner Saleski in Saskatoon; all of them out of necessity, so it wasn’t like we were bumping regulars for those kids to come in and play.
The neat thing about those guys is they all played their first Western Hockey League games in their hometowns.
DH: Is there any comment you want to make about the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and Adam Herold’s death?
CH: It’s just tragic.
There’s no way to explain it.
Like for everybody, it’s hard to get our heads around it. But it isn’t about the hockey team, anymore. It’s about a family.
It’s just tragic, because he’s such a great kid and he was just so young. And there were 15 others: so young, so much ahead.
DH: This past season, was there a moment or a stretch of games or something that kind of stood out and you thought “ok we’ve got a good unit here and we can push this season pretty deep?”
CH: There are key moments.
Right after the trade deadline, Red Deer came in and they played us really hard; it was with our new guys (McDonald and Regan Nagy; the game went to overtime.)
Kody McDonald scored the game-winner, and it was like, “ok we have instant contribution from some new guys,” and we were able to rally around that.
And the Swift Current game (a shootout road win on March 2).
That game’s important, because we were down 4-1, and we found a way to get the point and to get the extra point.
Curtis Meger was in the next night, (at home against Lethbridge) and Ian Scott came in and we won again.
That’s when you start saying, “hmm guys picking up the pieces for each other, guys just staying with it, just playing like waves on the sand – line after line.”
That might be a time you could say our guys could really dig in and say “well we have a chance year.”
DH: Next season: What are your expectations?
CH: When we come back, we bring back 18 people; every player should understand our expectations by now.
Our older guys have had (head coach) Marc Habscheid since day 1.
So it’s a matter of them coming in, and like they do in the summer, they grow to bring that game up, and not forget some of the battles and wars where we’ve been at the bottom end of it.
And I have an expectation that we’ve bought back a little trust from our fans.
I know that some people get tired of hearing the same thing, but I think that the proof is in the pudding.
I like to think that we’ve earned that trust back from our fans, and we can start the year with 2,400, 2,500, 2,600 in the building, make this place that much tougher to come into and really get a jump on the year.
From the coach’s desk
As part of the Daily Herald’s year in review for the Prince Albert Raiders, we also took some time to speak with the team’s head coach, Marc Habscheid.
This past 2017-18 season was Habscheid’s fourth with the club, the second one of which that he helped guide the Raiders to a playoff berth; the team also qualified for the postseason in the 2015-16 season.
The following is an edited version of the Daily Herald’s conversation with Habscheid.
Daily Herald: What’s your takeaway from this season?
MH: You always start the season wanting to win the championship for sure. And that doesn’t change, but I think you have to realize where we were in our growth.
We were still building, and I think we started off, we hung in there pretty good, and then we had that long road trip through the United States – it was an odyssey – and had some good performances and had some injuries and kept our heads above water.
Then through that we got through the trade deadline and we got better; we really got our feet under us, and we were a tough team to play against by the end.
We wanted to make sure our foundation was consistent, and that was to work hard, play systematic and play together.
I tip my hat to the guys, especially the core, because they never relented and always came to the rink upbeat and positive with a good attitude.
Every game they played hard and played together and played systematically.
DH: The guys that Curtis and the scouts brought in seemed to bring this team that much closer together on and off the ice, would you say that’s accurate?
You bring in older guys, and they’ve got experience in the league and character guys that really work hard. They just kind of fell right into place and they were hard guys to play against.
DH: From your perspective, how much of a difference did the fans make, especially once you got closer to playoffs?
MH: They’ve been good.
It’s difficult: All over sports, when you think about it, because there’s a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar, for the disposable income.
But our guys have done a good job: They were consistent and competing and working and playing together and being good citizens off the ice.
I think that as the time goes on, people see that and then obviously results are important, but you have to have that foundation to get results.
DH: For the playoff series against the Warriors, overall what was your takeaway in terms of what you liked, and was there anything you disliked?
MH: I liked everything about it, except we didn’t get to the next round.
I think we had pivotal moments, two times, like Fonstad’s goal was disallowed (in Game 4) and the too-many men reversal (in Game 3) were key components.
And those are blown calls, there’s no doubt about it.
That affected us, and that’s what I think makes it difficult, is because we should have been the team that moved on.
We tip our hat to Moose Jaw; they ended up winning in the end.
But I still feel we were the better team and deserved to win.
DH: Do you think that especially for the younger guys on the team, going through that kind of unfairness, that will go a long way in terms of building character and adversity going into next season?
MH: The thing with sports is we can talk about that all we want, but in the end in the logs of history, it will just show that we lost the series 4-3.
So in the end winning’s all that matters, and you’re going to have obstacles along the way that you have to overcome.
Moose Jaw was the favourite, but in the playoffs I felt we were the better team.
But it doesn’t matter, because they moved on, so it builds up a little bit of callous and character: There’s a saying that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so the guys that are returning are going to be stronger for it.
DH: Is your mind in next season and what lays ahead, or are you still kind of reviewing this past season?
MH: I’m just trying to decompress, especially this one. This one for me was really tough; it was a really tough one.
You always want your season to end with a championship, but most times it doesn’t, but this time, it was tough, because those kids battled and they came and put a run in to get us in the playoffs; they took the regular season champions (Scotty Munro trophy winners) to seven games, and we deserved a better fate.
We deserved to win that series and there’s no doubt about that in my mind. No one’s going to tell me different.
It’s not about sour grapes or anything like that, but we were the better team.
Even after Moose Jaw, after they lost to Swift Current, they said they were banged up and part of that has to do with the series against us.
We played them hard, we played them straight up and our kids played good.
It was difficult, because you always want your players to experience that, I guess, euphoria of winning and especially upsetting a team that’s that far ahead.
My only regret is they didn’t get that, because they deserved it.
DH: This team struck me as a special team, and it seems to me that that those special teams where everyone clicks and everyone’s close is a rare thing, that it doesn’t necessarily happen every season.
MH: I think so.
It’s always easy for a team to win the championship and to say they’re close or they’re in first place.
It was a close group throughout the year – and that core and that leadership group did a tremendous job.
To just to make that at the end and get in the playoffs and overcome some obstacles and no matter what, they remained tight.
They’re happy to play here, and they’ve loved playing here. That’s why I think this one for me is so tough, because it was that type of team, and they deserved better and that’s what’s tough to take for me.
DH: Is there a small amount of redemption that some of the guys are getting on with pro teams now?
MH: You always want your guys to move on to careers, no doubt.
They all deserve to go. All those guys (graduating players Curtis Miske, Jordy Stallard and Regan Nagy), you wish that their next step was to play in the National Hockey League, because they work their cans off and they gave us everything they could, and that’s all we ask.
DH: Is there any comment you want to make about the Humboldt Broncos bus crash?
MH: It’s tragic. It’s a horrible thing.
I lost two very close friends in the ‘86 crash in Swift Current, Trent Kresse and Scott Kruger.
And then this happens and it was even a more horrifying event, because there were more people involved, and it was just a terrible thing.
I don’t know what else to say other than it’s just a complete tragedy.