Northern Bears gain important Esso Cup experience

The Northern Bears will host the Esso Cup in Prince Albert in 2023. --Kyle Kosowan/Daily Herald

While the Prince Albert Northern Bears didn’t come home as Esso Cup champions, they came back with the next best thing: experience. The team will relive the tournament all over again next season when the Esso Cup comes to the Art Hauser in Prince Albert, with the Bears once again serving as the host team.

Although they failed to make it to the semi finals after a 2-0-3-0 record through round robin play, the Bears played some of their best games of the entire season throughout their stay in Alberta. Many people counted Prince Albert out before the tournament even started, given the pedigree of the champion teams from across the country that participated. However the team was able to pull out a couple of big wins, and show that they did indeed deserve to play.

“I’m very proud of our girls and how they played,” Bears head coach Steve Young said. “There were six teams there and our path was a little bit different. I think once we got there, our girls realized that they did deserve to be there, and all we had to do was work hard and compete. Once they laced their skates up, they went and played with that mindset, and I’m very proud of them for the way they played.”

The team was able to have some fun during the tournament as well. Country music nights became a regular thing in their hotel rooms, and they even invited the Quebec team over to share some laughs. Their stay in Okotoks showed that there is more to hockey than the game itself. Young said it was a fun way to take their mind off of the game and just enjoy their time at the tournament.

“The whole experience was great, and I don’t think you realize that until you get there. I think from the start of the tournament when we walked through the dressing room and see all the Esso Cup stuff set up and knowing that this is where you are was great. The games were intense and high tempo.

“The girls were also able to meet new people and make some new friends along the way. Their big thing happened to be with Quebec, and I thought it was great.”

The Bears are slated as the 2023 Esso Cup hosts, which means that the tournament will finally be played at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert if nothing changes. The city was supposed to host the tournament in 2020, but COVID-19 put a wash into those plans.

Young looking forward to returning as Bears head coach

Steve Young made it clear that he has unfinished business behind the Prince Albert Northern Bears bench, and that business will pick up in the fall when the team kicks off their training camp. The veteran hockey coach joined the team at the beginning of February, following the resignation of former head coach Jeff Willoughby.

“It was a tough time,” Young explained. “You look at Jeff and know that he’s put in a lot of years of work and effort into the organization. For him to step aside at that time of the year wasn’t easy for him, and it wasn’t easy for anyone. But at the same time, you have to move forward, and that’s what the Bears did.”

The team was coming off of back to back losses to the Regina Rebels, and the coaching change brought up some new questions marks about the team’s identity. When the team was facing one of their toughest stretches of the season after collecting just two wins in eight games in January, Young was able to sturdy the ship, and get his new group back on track. They finished the regular season with a 3-2-1-0 record under their new coach, before a quick exit in the playoffs.

“We came into a situation with the exact same players,” Young said. “We pushed them in a direction that we felt they had to go. Losing to Saskatoon in the first round was tough, but I think that everything we did this year from start to finish, the girls learned something every day. Whether it was on the ice with games and practices, or off the ice with everything that’s gone on, there were a lot of hard learned lessons. By the time they got to the Esso Cup, we put all of those lessons to work.

“One thing I really look at with these girls is that they were a really good group. They worked hard and paid attention to what needed to be done. They got along and they were very easy to coach. I think the group that we did have this year was one that believed that they should be at the cup, and they were excited about that all year. I think that made it a little easier because their drive was knowing that at the end of the year they would be at the Esso Cup.”

When confirming that he will be with the team next season, which will feature another Bears team playing at the Esso Cup, Young explained what he is looking forward to about next year’s team.

“The main thing is that the girls who will be coming back have gained experience at the Esso Cup. With us hosting next season, it won’t be easy again and we know that. It’s seven games in seven days, and it’s grueling. Your hockey skills and conditioning have to be at its top level. It will also be a fresh start for everyone. It’ll be at the start of the year where we kick things off. I think anytime you can start fresh, you can set your goals and take it from day one.”

Next season, the team will be without five veteran players, who all played their last game with the team on Friday at the Esso Cup. Captain Paige Dawson, along with alternate captains Erin Kirkland, Sophia Zuck, Taylor Leitch, and third year forward Carnell Olsen, will leave holes in the team that will be hard to fill. Dawson and Leitch are the last of a group of players to spend four years with the team; something that will never be done again in the league with the new age requirements.

“All of those girls were a very special part of this hockey club,” Young said. “Paige and Taylor came into this team as younger girls and they had the opportunity to go through the system for more than three years, and had time to grow and develop. I thought they became very mature, not only as hockey players, but mature people as well.

“Sophia and Erin were the same thing, they grew and developed here. They had different characters and brought different things to the team, and were leaders on the team. Carnell was one of the girls that would come in and go to work. Every day she would come to practice and work really hard and was a leader that way. Everything that all five of those girls brought was positive.”