Bears excited to be back on the ice

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Prince Albert Northern Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby watches on from the bench during a game at the Art Hauser Centre last season.

It had been over seven months since the Prince Albert Northern Bears had taken part in any sort of game due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Saskatchewan Female Under-18 AAA Hockey League squad finally returned to action on Sunday in Battleford as they paid a visit to the Battlefords Sharks for an exhibition contest.

“I think today (Sunday) marked a pretty big step in our season,” Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby said. “To be able to get into some competitive action means the world for the girls.

“It’s pretty hard to put their feelings into words, but they were beyond excited to be on the ice again.”

It was a successful start to the pre-season for the Bears as they picked up a 5-2 triumph over the Sharks in their first contest since their 2019-20 regular season finale against the Saskatoon Stars, which was held on March 9 at the Art Hauser Centre.

“As a coaching staff, we were pretty pleased with what we saw for our first game of the year, especially as we were on the road,” Willoughby said.

“There were a few nerves on both sides in the first period, but I think that’s to be expected at the start of the season. We started to build up some momentum in the second period by winning the puck battles, and we were able to put in three goals to build up a 4-0 lead.”

The Bears’ veteran players did the damage on offence as Paris Oleksyn and Haley Kicia each lit the lamp twice, while Kailey Ledoux had a goal and an assist in the triumph.

Janae Neufeld started the game and stopped all eight shots she faced before giving way to Brooke Archer, who made 19 saves in the second half of the contest.

Madison Guitard and Madison Glynn responded for the Sharks, who split their goaltending duties between Yelena Zaleschuk (eight saves on 11 shots) and Emma Backman (nine saves on 11 shots).

With no spring camp this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Esso Cup hosts built their roster by signing players during the off-season before starting their training camp during the last weekend of August.

“We were able to attend most of the games in the Bantam AA league (now known as the Under-15 AA league) so we used what we saw from that to determine the new players that we wanted to add to our roster,” Willoughby said. “We knew that we weren’t going to have a spring camp, but we weren’t sure what our fall camp was going to look like, or even if we were going to have one. As a result, we decided to go for it and started to build our roster.

“This is also the first time that we’ve had so many practices before having competitive games and it’s really allowed our team to get familiar with one another. It’s a much less stressful environment as well, as you are able to work through and learn from your mistakes without having to deal with the pressure that comes from the start of a normal season.”

The Bears have another pre-season game set for next Sunday at the Art Hauser Centre, as they’ll face the Saskatoon Stars at 1:30 p.m.

They will start off the regular season in November by playing the Stars and the Sharks in a three-team North Division, with the official schedule expected to be announced in the coming days.

“We will be in that mini-league until the middle of January and then we will start to travel further south to play the teams (Notre Dame Hounds, Regina Rebels, Swift Current Wildcats and Weyburn Gold Wings) in that part of the province,” Willoughby said.

“It will be a 28-game schedule, which is two less than what we had last year, but we’ll take that in a heartbeat.”