Bears start preparations for new season

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Prince Albert Northern Bears coach Jeff Willoughby goes over a drill during a practice session Saturday at the Art Hauser Centre.

After squaring off in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League final in three of the last four seasons, one might expect the Prince Albert Northern Bears to be on another collision course with the Saskatoon Stars.

However, Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby does not expect this year’s campaign to be that cut and dry.

“I expect the league to have the most parity that it’s ever had,” Willoughby said. “There’s lots of good teams around the province and that’s exactly what you want to see.

“If you want to come out and win, you need to come out and play at your very best no matter what team you are going up against.”

A year after winning the SFMAAAHL crown, the Bears returned to the final last spring but fell to a Stars side that would go on to finish second at the Esso Cup national championship to the St. Albert Slash of Alberta.

As the Bears began their preparations for the new season this weekend at the Art Hauser Centre, they did so without six players from last year’s squad.

Goaltender Ryan Fontaine, defenders Jordan Ashe, Colby Donald and Hannah Koroll have graduated from the midget ranks, along with forwards Camryn Amundson and Kassidy Kicia.

“Although we lose those players, we still have 14 players coming back from last year’s roster,” Willoughby said. “Six of our forwards are going to be at the U18 camp later this year, plus we have three defenders and one goaltender (Lexi Beuker) who are returning.

“With the amount of veteran players we have coming back, we don’t have to change a whole bunch when it comes to our systems and things like that. Obviously there will be some things that we will work on early with them and our six new players, but we like how things are looking.”

Before the Bears open up their regular season slate at the Art Hauser Centre on Saturday, Sept. 29 against the Weyburn Gold Wings, the team will travel to Calgary to take part in the annual Firestarter Tournament from Sept. 14-16.

During that weekend, the Bears will be in a field that includes teams from Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba, in addition to the Battlefords Sharks, Regina Rebels and the Stars.

“It’s always an exciting tournament to be a part of,” Willoughby said. “There’s always that challenge of facing an opponent that you aren’t very familiar with, and I think that’s something that all of the teams look forward to.”

The Bears have also applied to be a part of the Mandi Schwartz Tournament in Wilcox in December, but they will have to wait and see if they will qualify for the tournament based upon their placing in the SFMAAAHL standings in the early part of the campaign.