Bears head coach and Esso Cup chair react to tournament’s cancellation

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.

On Thursday morning, the 2020 Esso Cup host committee held a press conference at the Art Hauser Centre to announce events that would be taking place in the lead-up to next month’s tournament.

Later that evening, Hockey Canada announced that all of its sanctioned events would be cancelled, which included the national female Midget AAA hockey championship that was slated to run from April 19-25.

“Yesterday was a crazy day,” Esso Cup chair Robin Wildey said. “Following the press conference and a conference call with Hockey Canada a little while later, it was business as usual.

“I got a phone call at 6 p.m. from Dean McIntosh (who is the vice president of events and properties with Hockey Canada), who advised me of the situation and the decision that had been made following conversations they had within their office, every branch of Hockey Canada and medical professionals. It was a heartbreaking blow, but we fully support and understand the decision that was made.”

At the time that Hockey Canada broke the news that the season had been cancelled, the tournament host Prince Albert Northern Bears were in a middle of a practice for their Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League quarter-final series against the Saskatoon Stars that was set to start on Saturday night.

“The girls had just got off the ice and were checking their phones when they saw the news over Twitter and they were getting texts about it,” Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby said.

“It was like you hit a brick wall. You didn’t know how to respond to it at all.”

The Bears, who entered the playoffs as the fourth overall seed, were playing their best hockey of the season up to that point and had a four-game win streak heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Stars.

“That might be the biggest hurt at all as we’ve seen them trending in the right way over the last few games,” Willoughby said.

“The feeling in the dressing room was really good and I knew that we were going to have a good run in the playoffs.”

The early conclusion to the 2019-20 campaign also marked the end of the Midget AAA careers for Brooklyn Anderson, Jasper Desmarais, Jessie Herner, Tori McDonald and Lauren Willoughby, who are all aging out of the Bears program.

McKenzie Mayo is eligible to return next season but will be moving up to U Sports to play for the Trinity Western Spartans.

“Jasper and Brooklyn have been with us for four years and they’ve made lots of sacrifices to be here that long,” Willoughby said. “Even though we didn’t get to finish out the season, I just hope they can look back on their time here and know that it was still well worth it.

“When you think about all of the veteran players, you do so with nothing but fondness. It’s pretty amazing what all of them did here in my books.

Anderson will be joining Mayo on the Spartans, while Desmarais and Herner will be playing for the Saskatchewan Huskies.

For the Esso Cup host committee, Thursday’s cancellation brought a sudden halt to an event they had planning for over two years.

“The whole bid process started back in 2017 so to be so close to the finish line and to have our vision come to fruition…only to have shut down due to events outside of our control is pretty heartbreaking,” Wildey said.

“We would like to thank the sponsors who donated to our event and the volunteers who took the time out to be a part of our team.”

Wildey also said that the host committee would like to have the opportunity to host the Esso Cup in the near future, but future plans would be determined after further discussions with Hockey Canada on Monday.

The 2021 Esso Cup is slated to be to take place in Lloydminster, Alta. next spring.

Meanwhile, the Bears’ spring camp has been postponed until further notice, while plans for a year-end banquet have yet to be determined.