Championship culture the key for Raiders heading into opening night

While the Prince Albert Raiders will be without several key pieces that helped lead the team to the WHL title last season, coach Marc Habscheid said the legacy they left behind is part of what drives this year’s team as they try to replicate last year’s success

Prince Albert Raiders Coach Marc Habscheid speaks at a Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Sept. 18, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The Prince Albert Raiders haven’t forgotten what it felt like to see the goal light go off in game seven of the WHL championship, at home, in overtime.

Last May Raiders overager Dante Hannoun scored in the final minutes of overtime to give the Raiders their first WHL title since 1985.

Hannoun raced down the ice, throwing his gloves to the roster, as teammate Parker Kelly tried to catch him from behind.

The team converged in the corner, surrounded by hundreds of screaming fans celebrating the team’s title.

“The moment that you win, the moment you can do something these kids did last year, you can’t put into words,” head coach Marc Habscheid said Wednesday.

“There’s nothing like winning with a team.”

Habscheid was speaking to members of the city’s business community at the annual Raiders Luncheon hosted by the Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce.

The players were introduced and a video was played looking back on last year’s game seven in an attempt to recapture that winning feeling.

That winning feeling was the culmination of years of hard work. Habscheid remembers a loss in December 2016, where the Raiders were pummelled 12-2 by the Regina Pats.

Members of last year’s championship team and some returnees on this year’s squad were on that team too.

Zack Hayes, Max Martin, Spencer Moe, Cole Fonstad, Sean Montgomery, Kelly and Ian Scott were all on that 2016 Raider team.

“Their players cheered, they started mocking us,” Habscheid said.

“They went by the bench, said ‘you are terrible. The Mintos are better than you. You guys are a joke.’ After the game, I talked to the players and said, ‘we lost tonight. When we lose we’re going to lose with class. Mark my words — we will win. When we win, we will win with class.’

“We’ve kept that mantra ever since. Now we’re the champs and we’re not going to hide from it.” 

That means that as the team prepares to kick off its season opener at home in front of a standing-room-only crowd Friday, it won’t be moving past last year, but instead using it as a driving force behind what this year’s edition of the Prince Albert Raiders should strive for.

“Last year is tough to forget,” Habscheid said.

“We want to carry that championship attitude, that confident, yet humble championship swagger. We want to do everything like champions this year.”

That includes dressing like champions, acting like champions, playing like champions and giving back like champions.

“Everything they do is as a champion, because they are champions,” Habscheid said.

Still, this year, there are adjustments — none of the team’s four captains from last season will be in the lineup on opening night.

Kelly is playing preseason games with the Ottawa Senators. Brayden Pachal is at the Vegas Golden Knights training camp, Hayes is with the Anaheim Ducks and Montgomery, who aged out of the WHL, is playing Canadian university hockey with the Western Mustangs.

Other key players from last year also won’t be returning. Defenceman Sergei Sapego and playoff MVP Scott both look destined to start the 2019-20 season with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL. Noah Gregor, who also aged out, is turning heads at San Jose Sharks camp and Hannoun will suit up for the ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators.

Last year’s scoring standout, Brett Leason, started Wednesday’s preseason game on the same line as Alexander Ovechkin in Washington and will likely not return to the Raiders, while fellow Capitals draft pick Aliaksei Protas was returned to the Raiders on Thursday.

For the Raider newcomers, it’s an adjustment to the Raiders’ culture, or “what we’re all about, what we do, how we treat people, how you become a family,” Habscheid said.

For returning players, it will be about taking on new leadership roles, both on the ice and off.

It’s also an adjustment for the coaching staff.

“It’s difficult. For myself, it’s been a tough fall so far. These guys are like my stepkids. At the end of last year, there were more tears than anything,” Habscheid said.

Still, Habscheid would be happy not to coach the players away at NHL training camp again.

“I hope they’re all gone. I hope they sign NHL contracts and play in the NHL. That’s why they come here. They have served this city well. They have served this organization well. They deserve to move on.”

He joked, though, that he’ll have to find a new faceoff man.

“I’m saying, ‘Monty (The nickname for Sean Montgomery), go!’ And there’s no Monty. We’re missing those guys.”

What Habscheid is looking forward to is hearing the fans again.

Friday’s opener is standing room only, with only a few hundred tickets left. The Raiders’ success has been about not just talented individuals, but also a tight-knit team. The fans, he said, are part of that.

“We said, you’ll win … because you have a better team. When the team wins, great things happen to the individuals,” Habscheid said.

“The reason that (game seven) moment was so special — if that building is empty, it’s not the same. You saw people crying, hugging, cheering; (standing on) milk crates, stepladders and sawhorses. We’ll always have a better chance with the support given to us in that building. It is the seventh man. Without you in that building for game seven — I’m not sure.

“For me, and especially for the players, thanks for attending. You created a memory … that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.”