Is the WHL’s East Division once again the “Group of Death?”

Darren Steinke -- Submitted photo.

Stanks On Sports

It is feeling a lot like the 2017-18 campaign for the WHL’s East Division.

Back in that season, the division’s six teams at the time were the Brandon Wheat Kings, Moose Jaw Warriors. Prince Albert Raiders, Regina Pats, Saskatoon Blades and Swift Current Broncos were all good. The division rightfully earned the soccer moniker “The Group of Death,” which is reserved for the toughest pool in World Cup tournaments.

In 2017-18, all six of those squads finished above .500 in the regular season. The Warriors finished first overall in the WHL with a 52-15-2-3 record and the Broncos were second overall with a 48-17-5-2 mark.

That season the WHL still utilized an in division format to conduct playoffs that is identical to the format still used in the NHL. That resulted in the Blades missing the post-season with 35-33-3-1 mark finishing last in the East Division, while placing seventh in the overall 12 team Eastern Conference standings.

The first round of the playoffs saw the Warriors eliminate the Raiders, who were 32-27-9-4 in the regular season, and the Broncos take out the Pats, who were 40-25-6-1 in the regular season, in tough seven game series. The Broncos proceeded to eliminate the Warriors in the second round in another intense seven game series and advanced on to win the WHL title.

The Wheat Kings, who were 40-27-3-2 in the regular season, played in the Central Division bracket as a wildcard team eliminating the Medicine Hat Tigers in six games in the first round before falling to the Lethbridge Hurricanes in five games in the second round. The Broncos got past the Hurricanes in six games in the Eastern Conference Championship Series.

Now, let’s fast forward to the early part of the current campaign. The East Division has five teams in Wheat Kings, Warriors, Raiders, Pats and Blades. All five of those clubs have winning records.

The Warriors (10-6) top the division standings with 20 points. The Raiders (8-6-0-1), Pats (8-6-1) and Wheat Kings (7-6-2-1) all have 17 standings points. The Blades (8-5) sit in the basement of the division with 16 points with games in hand on the division’s four other teams.

While it is still early with all of the league’s teams nearing the quarter point of the regular season of 17 games played, the East Division is emerging as “The Group of Death.” All five teams sit inside the top seven of the overall Eastern Conference standings.

With the WHL Playoffs being conducted via through conference format, it is possible all five East Division teams could be part of the post-season. You could potentially have two East Division teams playing for the conference title. That happened last season with the Blades and the Winnipeg Ice, before the Ice franchise was relocated to Wenatchee becoming the Wild.

Back in 2017-18, ticket buyers who followed East Division teams got to see a tonne of fantastic hockey. Even if you were upset about a loss your team had, you have to look back and say you saw a tonne of good games and had to smile, because that season happened.

The Broncos had the super line with Glenn Gawdin centreing Aleksi Heponiemi from Finland at left wing and Tyler Steenbergen at right wing. The Warriors had 70-goal man Jayden Halbgewachs and Brayden Burke, and the Pats had Sam Steel in the fold.

Ty Lewis had a 100-point season for the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Blades had two youngsters who were coming of age in Kirby Dach and Nolan Maier.

The Raiders had the bulk of their roster that would help them win the WHL title the next season in Parker Kelly, Brayden Pachal, Brett Leason, Cole Fonstad, Brett Leason, Sean Montgomery, Max Martin, Spencer Moe, Zack Hayes, Justin Nachbaur, Sergei Sapego, Jeremy Masella and Ian Scott. By season’s end, they were at the level the Raiders would play at throughout the 2018-19 campaign.

The Warriors needed to gut out a 5-4 victory in Game 7 of their first round series with the Raiders in the 2018 playoffs to march on. Had the Raiders won that Game 7, they likely would have disrupted the whole post-season bracket in that campaign.

The teams in the East Division this season have lots of good players to watch as well. The Raiders have youngsters like Ryder Ritchie and Aiden Oiring who are growing right before your eyes to go along with veterans like Sloan Stanick and Chase Coward.

The Warriors are loaded with veteran stars like Jagger Firkus, Brayden Yager, Denton Mateychuk and Atley Calvert. The Pats have Prince Albert product Tanner Howe and Parker Berge. The Blades are loaded with solid veterans in Trevor Wong, Brandon Lisowsky, Egor Sidorov, Tanner Molendyk and Austin Elliott.

The Wheat Kings are benefitting from the talents of Roger McQueen, Rylen Roersma, Dominik Petr, Brett Hyland, Nate Danielson and Carson Bjarnason.

It appears followers of East Division teams are going to see a lot of good hockey as the 2023-24 campaign goes along. If a follower of an East Division team sees their club lose, it would be wise to take a step back and evaluate objectively if you saw something special that night.

If the East Division makes “The Group of Death” moniker hold up for the entire campaign, this will be a “smile because it happened” type of season when all is said and done.

Great to have Clarke and Lieffers in WHL

The WHL is going to benefit greatly from having Alex Clarke and Cianna Lieffers officiating games as referees.

Back on October 1, 2021, Clarke became the first female to be a linesperson for a WHL regular season game when the Warriors hosted the Blades. This past October 22, Clarke became the first female to referee a WHL regular season game, when the Broncos hosted the Pats. Just two days later, Lieffers made her regular season debut as a referee becoming the second female to referee a WHL regular season contest when the Blades hosted the Warriors.

Both have officiated for a long time and are still young as far as the craft of being an official is concerned. Clarke is a 30-year-old product from Weyburn. Lieffers is a 29-year-old who grew up in Cudworth and now resides in the Saskatoon Area.

Both worked the women’s hockey tournament at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. Lieffers has worked games in the Prince Albert area over her career for a long time as she first began officiating hockey games at age 12.

When it comes to officiating, both are great communicators on the ice. Being able to communicate is actually the biggest skill a hockey official can have.

That communication includes talking to coaches and players on both sides to what you are seeing in the game. Communication includes personal and sometimes fun chatter with coaches and players, which helps them remember the official is a human for then things get intense during a contest.

When Clarke and Lieffers officiate games, their games usually have great flow. When players realize there is a flow and consistency to the game, they usually play to their best when those elements are present.

Flow is a hard thing to accomplish in officiating because you deal with the balance of calling a penalty when the penalty needs to be called and not calling something that is minor and accidental that has no impact on the game. Both Clarke and Lieffers have a good handle on that aspect of the game.

While fans might find this is hard to believe, there are a lot of good officials in the WHL. I would argue the officiating is as good as it ever has been on the circuit. Clarke and Lieffers in the WHL will be great for the league, because they will help the officiating in the games get up to an even sharper level.

Anyone associated with the WHL should appreciate the fact that Clarke and Lieffers are in the league. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they are on the circuit for a relatively short time before being moved up to do games in the NHL in the future following an officiating career road taken by Raiders alum Chris Schlenker.

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