Bears waiting and hoping for a return to league play

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Sophia Zuck celebrates with her Prince Albert Northern Bears teammates after scoring in the second period against the Battlefords Sharks in November.

The Prince Albert Northern Bears have spent the last two months preparing for their next game, although they don’t know when it will take place.

“We’ve been continuing with our practices in groups of eight and working on our skill development, in addition to our off-ice workouts as well,” Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby said on Thursday night.

“We’re still preparing to play and we’re hoping to get that chance again at some point. If you don’t prepare to play, you shouldn’t expect that you’ll be able to.”

The Bears last took to the ice in a competitive setting on Nov. 22, 2020, as they skated to a 9-5 win over the host Battlefords Sharks.

Since then, the Saskatchewan Female Under-18 AAA Hockey League has been on hold as a result of the regulations put in place by the Government of Saskatchewan due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The league announced earlier this week that they had postponed their regular season schedule and that teams were allowed to decide what they wanted to do next.

“We weren’t surprised about the news but we were obviously disappointed,” Willoughby said.

“Things are staying the same for us until the next announcement on public health measures (which is expected to be made on Jan. 29) and we’ll make our next decision based on that announcement. We’re hoping to hear some good news and we’ve been preparing for it to be good news.”

A unique factor in the Bears situation is that they are also preparing to host the 2021 Esso Cup national championship, which was scheduled for last April at the Art Hauser Centre before the pandemic brought the 2019-20 season to a halt.

Although a date for the tournament has yet to be announced officially, the Bears are still gearing up for it as planned.

“Our situation is different than any other team in the country at the female Under-18 level,” Willoughby said. “Hockey Canada hasn’t said anything to us (about the tournament being cancelled) and we’re going to keep preparing like we have been.”

Although they haven’t played any games, the Bears players have had more practice time than they normally would due to the stoppage in play.

“One of the positives about having the smaller groups on the ice is that you can really focus on a specific skill during a drill and give that feedback right away,” Willoughby said. “It’s not like a normal practice where you are trying to mix three or four skills into one drill.”

The team also received some exciting news last month as forward Rhea Peterson announced her commitment to the Michigan-based Adrian College Bulldogs for the 2021-22 campaign.

“I’ve been talking to several college coaches here over the last month and sending a lot of video to them of our players, in addition to answering a lot of questions they have about them,” Willoughby said. “Hopefully we’ll have some good news to share on that front soon.”

The only other player on this year’s Bears roster that has committed to a post-secondary program is captain Paris Oleksyn, who will join the Saskatchewan Huskies next season.