Believe – It’s déjà vu to 2011 as Raiders enter post-season

Darren Steinke -- Submitted photo.

Stanks On Sports

When the Prince Albert Raiders were seemingly the biggest of underdogs, Bruce Vance and his team in the club’s business office might have done their most memorable work.

Back in March of 2011, the Raiders entered the WHL Playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 31-36-2-3 record after having missed the post-season in the three previous campaigns. They would face their archrivals in the Saskatoon Blades in a best-of-seven first round series.

The Blades put up their best regular season in team history going 56-13-1-2 to finish first overall in the WHL standings. With all-world centre Brayden Schenn being the big trade deadline acquisition for Saskatoon, it was a foregone conclusion that the Blades were going to sweep the series.

Vance and the Raiders business office came up with the simple playoff slogan, “Believe.” The slogan was introduced with a clip of the United States 4-3 upset victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

The video went to a graphic showing the first round matchup between the Raiders and Blades and asked the question, “Do you believe?”

Also before the Raiders hosted Game 3 of that series, they held a tailgate party with a “Bash the Blades” promotion where fans got three swings with a sledge hammer at a donated “Saskatoon Blades” car for a $5 gift to the SPCA.

With all that noted, the “Believe” slogan took on a life of its own even with an auspicious start. The Blades took the first two games in Saskatoon by respective scores of 8-1 and 5-2.

At the Art Hauser Centre playing before standing room crowds for Games 3 and 4, the Raiders evened the series at 2-2 claiming victories by respective 6-3 and 5-2 scores. They got some inspired play from netminder Jamie Tucker and carried play in both of those contests.  All of a sudden, the possibility of a series upset win seemed very real.

Back in Saskatoon for Game 5, the Blades roared to an 8-0 victory before 10,034 spectators at the SaskTel Centre.

The Raiders returned to the Art Hauser Centre with all 3,366 tickets the team was allowed to sell being sold for that contest. Antoine Corbin gave the Raiders an early 1-0 first period lead, and Brent Benson evened the score at 1-1 tallying just over a couple of minutes past the midway point of the second. Import right-winger Matej Stransky netted the game and series winner at the 4:24 mark of overtime.

The Blades would proceed to be swept 4-0 in a best-of-seven second round series to the eventual WHL champion Kootenay Ice who were guided at head coach by Kris Knoblauch. Knoblauch, who was a one-time Raiders assistant coach, is currently the head coach of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.

Going into this year’s post-season, it is déjà vu for the Raiders. They enter the WHL Playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with a 31-32-2-3 record and will face the Blades in a best-of-seven series. The Blades finished first overall in the WHL’s regular season with a 50-13-2-3 record.

You can pretty much recycle the “Believe” slogan used by the Raiders business crew in 2011 headed up by Vance.

The odds are long that you could find a WHL prognosticator that would give the Raiders a chance in their series with the Blades in the 2024 post-season. In the 10 head-to-head encounters between the two sides in the 2023-24 campaign, the Blades came away with eight wins. Both Raiders victories came after a tiebreaking shootout.

The wildcard in this series is Raiders 19-year-old netminder Max Hildebrand, who has become one of the top five goalies in the WHL. Hildebrand posted a 25-20-2-2 record, a 2.88 goals against average, a .907 save percentage and two shutouts.

Of course, Hildebrand’s father, Steve, is the associate general manager of the Blades, so the son always ups his game when it comes to playing against “The Bridge City Bunch.”

While the Raiders roster is young, the opportunity is there for the youngsters to have a coming of age moment. Legends are made in the playoffs, and players like Ryder Ritchie, Aiden Oiring, Oli Chenier, Cole Peardon, Niall Crocker, Krzysztof Macias, Brayden Dube, Justice Christensen, Eric Johnston and Terrell Goldsmith will be remembered forever in “Hockey Town North,” if they can pull off the upset.

It is safe to say the team’s three overage players in leading scorer Sloan Stanick, Turner McMillen and Jacob Hoffrogge will leave everything on the ice to create one last great final memory of their WHL careers. Stanick piled up 30 goals and 54 assists to go with a plus-two rating in the plus-minus department appearing in all the Raiders 68 regular season games.

The Raiders will also have the strong backing of their fans. While knowing seemingly everything about the Raiders franchise, the Prince Albert faithful know about the Blades non-successes in the post-season and will be sure to bring all of those up.

That includes the fact the 2023-24 campaign marked the third time the Blades have won 50-more games in a regular season and the previous two occasions didn’t result in a deep post-season run. There was the second round elimination to the Ice in 2011 after going six games against the Raiders in the first round.

Way back in the 1982-83 season, the Blades topped the WHL standings with a record of 52 wins, 19 losses and one tie. They had a bye into the second round of the post-season and fell 4-2 in a best-of-seven series to the eventual WHL champion Lethbridge Broncos, who finished eighth overall in the regular season with 38 wins, 31 losses and three ties.

It is likely everyone in Prince Albert knows the Blades are still searching for their first league championship. That comes with the fact that the Blades have been playing in the WHL since the circuit’s inaugural season in 1966-67.

Upsets can happen otherwise you wouldn’t play the games. The first step the Raiders and their fans have to take on that road is they have to “believe.”

WHL Playoffs in 2023 lacked drama, other notes

If there are any upsets in the WHL Playoffs this year, it will be a big change compared to last year.

In the 15 best-of-seven series that made up the WHL’s post-season bracket in 2023, the team that posted the better record in the regular season won 14 of those sets. The only time a team with the weaker regular season record took a series came in the WHL final, when the Seattle Thunderbirds took out the Winnipeg Ice in five games.

That series wasn’t much of an upset. The Ice topped the regular season standings with a 57-10-1 mark, while the Thunderbirds were second overall with a 54-11-1-2 record.

Out of the 15 series that made up the WHL post-season, seven of those series ended in sweeps and three of those sets concluded in five games. The biggest excitement came from the fact two series needed a Game 7, and the Blades won both of those.

That included overcoming an 0-3 series deficit in the second round against the Red Deer Rebels. The Blades also took out Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats in Game 7 of a first round series.

With all the teams in the WHL winning 20-or-more games this season for the first time this season since the 2017-18 campaign, you have to think there could be an upset or two in this year’s post-season.

  • The WHL hasn’t won the CHL championship tournament – the Memorial Cup – since 2014. On May 25 of that year, the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings downed the OHL champion Guelph Storm 6-3 in the tournament final. Edmonton captured the WHL and CHL titles that year playing to honour the memory of former player Kristians Pelss, who was with the Oil Kings 2012 WHL championship team and passed away in June of 2013 due to a recreational diving accident.
  • If a WHL team doesn’t win the Memorial Cup this year, the circuit will be in its undisputed longest drought of not capturing major junior hockey’s top prize. The WHL has been unable to win the Memorial Cup the last seven straight times it has been contested. That matches the longest drought for the circuit that included its first seven seasons spanning from the inaugural 1966-67 campaign and ending with a Pats title win in 1973-74. Clubs from the WHL became eligible to play for the Memorial Cup on a regular basis in the 1970-71 campaign.
  • Moose Jaw Warriors 19-year-old centre Jagger Firkus topped the WHL in scoring with 126 points coming off 61 goals and 65 assists. He just edged out Prince George Cougars 20-year-old right-winger Zac Funk for the scoring title. Funk finished with a 123 points coming off a league best 67 goals and 56 assists.
  • A total of 10 players in the WHL piled up 100-or-more points this season. That marks the most 100-or-more points scorers the WHL has had in a season since the 1997-98 campaign when 10 players hit that milestone in that season.
  • The Warriors had the top power play in the 2023-24 campaign converting on 80-of-247 opportunities for a 32.4 per cent success rate. The Blades had the top penalty killing unit successfully killing off 179-of-208 power play chances for the opposition for an 86.1 per cent success rate.

Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at