Bears ready for road to the Esso Cup

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald The Prince Albert Northern Bears celebrate after an overtime win against the Notre Dame Hounds last season.

Tournament hosts start regular season Sunday at home

The excitement level is starting to build for the Prince Albert Northern Bears.

Following a pre-season tournament in Calgary earlier this month and an exhibition contest against the host Lloydminster Steelers Saturday, the 2020 Esso Cup hosts will kickoff their 2019-20 Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League regular season on Sunday at the Art Hauser Centre when they’ll host the two-time and defending league champion Saskatoon Stars at 1 p.m.

“I think as each day goes by, everything gets turned up a notch and it starts to feel a little more real each day for all of us with the team,” Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby said. “The excitement level just gets bigger all of the time.”

Although they are already assured of a spot at this year’s national championship, which runs from April 19-25, the Bears aren’t planning to make any drastic changes as they attempt to enter the tournament through the front door.

“Our approach to this season is something that I’ve been thinking about all summer and I’m leaning towards not doing anything much different from what we’ve done in the past,” Willoughby said.

“If there’s anything that will be different, maybe we won’t be looking at how many wins or losses that we have right away. Our main focus is going to be on how we are developing as a team so that we are at 100 percent at the right time.”

The Bears started their campaign in Calgary two weeks ago as they posted a 2-1-1 record at the Firestarter Tournament from Sept. 12-15.

They picked up a 2-1 win over the Notre Dame Hounds, dropped a 3-1 decision to the Calgary Fire, bounced back with a 3-1 triumph over the Northern Capitals from Prince George and finished the weekend with a 2-2 tie against the Battlefords Sharks.

“I thought each game was a really good battle and our work effort was there throughout the weekend,” Willoughby said.

“That tournament served as our starting point for the season and there’s quite a lot we can build off from that. Obviously, everyone was getting used to each other, but I felt like we created enough scoring chances to win every game.”

Thirteen players return from last year’s Bears’ squad, which lost to the Notre Dame Hounds in the quarter-finals, with six blueliners coming back for another campaign.

“It’s something I haven’t experienced as a coach and I can’t remember the last time in our league a team had that many defenders coming back,” Willoughby said. “That’s obviously a strength of ours coming into the season.

“We feel like we have a pretty balanced offensive attack with three players (Brooklyn Anderson, Jasper Desmarais and Paris Oleksyn) being announced to Team Sask for the national Under 18’s (which will be held in Winkler and Morden, Man. in November) and they are all on different lines.”

The one biggest difference from last year’s squad is in goal as Dani Day and Janae Neufeld replace the departing Scout Anderson and Lexi Bueker, who are now playing for the Okanagan Hockey Academy and the Minot State Beavers respectively.

“They already have a good understanding of what it takes to play at this level,” Willoughby said. “Janae has a little bit of in-game experience at Midget AAA with Melville and Dani was an affiliated player with us last season.”

There will also be a slightly different look to the SFMAAAHL this year due to some restructuring to female minor hockey in the province.

As a result, the Midget AAA circuit is down to seven teams as the Melville Prairie Fire were moved down to the Midget AA ranks.

“The 2001 group of players that just graduated was a pretty dynamic group that was spread out throughout the league and there’s also a really talented 2002-born player in Taylor Lind (who led the league in scoring last year for the Swift Current Wildcats) that’s moved on (to the NCAA’s St. Cloud State Huskies),” Willoughby said.

“Having said that, that opens the doors for a number of new players who can become the dynamic talents in our league. There’s going to be a lot of parity this year and there’s going to be some great battles every night. I think the team that wants it the most is going to be the one that ends up winning the league.”