Northern Bears adopt optimistic mindset after Esso Cup location change

The Prince Albert Northern Bears will still be the host team of the 2022 Esso Cup in Calgary this May. --Kyle Kosowan/Daily Herald

Last week’s news that the Prince Albert Northern Bears wouldn’t be hosting the 2022 Esso Cup at the Art Hauser Centre was disappointing to read, but that hasn’t deterred the team from focusing on the tournament.

They will still head out to the new ‘centralized’ location in Calgary as the official host team of the Esso Cup, and will look to make some noise out west when the tournament kicks off on May 16.

“We were sitting idle there for the last little while and we were wondering what was going to happen,” Bears head coach Steve Young said. “Now we have a direction and we have to work hard towards that now. It’ll be easier to practice now that we have a goal.”

Despite Hockey Canada postponing Prince Albert’s hosting privileges for the last three years, all for COVID-19 reasons, the Bears took the news in stride. It was reassuring for the hockey club after they were given the nod to travel to Calgary to still play in the tournament.

They returned to practice the same day of the press release from Hockey Canada, and were able to skate with clearer minds, after being left in the dark for weeks prior to the announcement.

“We know where we’re headed and we know what the journey is going to be,” Young said. “In saying that, it’s not going to be easy. Any time when you’re a team that’s only practicing up to the Esso Cup, you have to make sure that you’re having quality practices to prepare.”

While Prince Albert’s SFU18AAAHL season came to an end after a game three loss to the Saskatoon Stars in their opening round playoff matchup, the team has still been on the ice every week practicing for the biggest junior women’s hockey tournament in the country. With just over a month now before the team heads to Alberta, a few players gave their thoughts on competing in Calgary for the Esso Cup.

One of those players is third-year Bear Sophia Zuck. The 17-year-old led wire to wire in team scoring, registering 35 points (15G-20A) in 30 games this season. As an alternate captain in her final year on the team, Zuck has been snubbed twice before of the chance to play in the Esso Cup. She says it will be nice to play in the tournament, and end her tenure with the team on a high note.

“Everyone was gearing up for the tournament to be in Prince Albert, and it’s been three years in the making,” she said. “With the times we’re in right now, things do have to be altered. With the tournament being in Calgary now, I think they’ll put on a great show. It’s nice that we still get to go over there and play. We know there will be a lot of skilled teams over there, but we have a lot of skilled players too, so we just have to work as hard as we can when we get playing again.”

Another player who is happy to head to the Esso Cup in Calgary is Julia Cey, just for a different reason. The 2021-22 season was her rookie year, and did she ever make the most of it, finishing second in team scoring behind Zuck.

With the chance to play in this year’s Esso Cup, it will be just another opportunity for Cey to show what she brings to the table as a recently turned 16-year-old.

“It was definitely disappointing when we found out the tournament wouldn’t be here, just because the team has wanted to have it here for so long,” Cey said. “But I think everyone is excited that we still have the opportunity to go to Calgary and be a part of such a great event. We were practicing for a while, not knowing what we were practicing for, so it was good to have a purpose.”

Cey was a beast in her first year in the league. Her 23 points (12G-11A) were the most by a Bears rookie since 2016-17, when Jasper Desmarais had 24 in her rookie year.

She gave credit to her teammates for her impressive first year.

“It’s definitely a team game,” she said. “I was lucky enough to be put on different lines and learn how to work with different people. I wouldn’t have been able to have such a good year without my teammates.”

Another rookie on the team, Sasha Malenfant, also enjoyed her first year with the Bears. It took a few games to get her wings under her at the U18AAA level, but once she did, she was hard to stop.

Malenfant scored her first career goal in her fifth game with the team, a 4-2 win over the Swift Current Wildcats on Oct. 23, that started an impressive season. In 30 games this season, Malenfant finished third in team goal scoring with 10 lamp lighters.

The 16-year-old shared the same thoughts as Cey, saying the team is satisfied with the chance to compete in Calgary for this year’s Esso Cup.

“Obviously we were a little bit upset that we couldn’t host it in our own barn, but we’re still really hyped to go,” Malenfant said. “It is a national event, and we want to go their and compete with other teams. We know what we’re practicing for now, and we know what we need to do to make ourselves better.”

Malenfant also recognized Zuck’s contributions, as well as those from graduating players Paige Dawson, Erin Kirkland, Taylor Leitch, and Carnell Olsen.

“I think it was really stressful for our veterans on the team when they were waiting for an announcement, just because it’s their last year,” Malenfant said. “I think they’re relieved now, because they know what’s going on. I learned the ropes from them, and they’re really good leaders and they’re always there for you. They deserve to play in the Esso Cup for their last season.”

The Esso Cup is scheduled to run in Calgary from May 16-22.