Northern Bears head coach Jeff Willoughby steps down, Young takes over as bench boss

After 12 years as head coach of the Prince Albert Northern Bears, Jeff Willoughby has left the team. --Photo from Facebook/Prince Albert Northern Bears

After 12 incredible years behind the bench of the Prince Albert Northern Bears, Jeff Willoughby resigned from the position earlier this week. His daughter Morgan, who served as an assistant coach, also left the team.

Willoughby took over the head coaching job from Grant Gordon in the 2010-11 season, bringing the team to three league finals. In 2016-17, the Northern Bears swept the Saskatoon Stars in three games to capture their first championship since 2008-09.

Stepping in to fill the position is Steve Young, who was named the Saskatchewan Hockey Association (SHA) coach of the year in 2019-20. Young spent time as the bench boss for the Prince Albert Raiders in 2012-13, as well as stints with the Moose Jaw Warriors and Melville Millionaires.

“Anytime a situation like this happens, it’s important that the players just keep going,” Young said. “Me and Jeff are different people, and obviously we coach a bit differently. There have been some adjustments in practice so far, and these girls have been through a lot.

“With it being this late in the year, there were a lot of good things that were done up to this point. We just want to sharpen some things up and keep on going from there.”

Currently the longest serving player on the team, and in her fourth year in the SMU18AAAHL, Bears captain Paige Dawson said it was hard on the girls when Willoughby left. However, she thinks it won’t take long before the team adapts to the new coaching staff.

“Obviously we’ll miss Jeff,” Dawson said. “He’s made a huge impact on our team, but we have to get over it, and hopefully this will benefit us for the future. We have to adjust to Steve’s way of coaching now, since he has a bit of a different view from Jeff. We just have to adjust and pay attention to what he says.”

Third year player and alternate captain Sophia Zuck was emotional when asked about the changes made this week. She says it’s never easy when a coaching change happens.

“It’s been a really hard week for not only our whole team, but for our vets,” Zuck said. “I think it hit our third and fourth years the most, like Paige, Taylor (Leitch), and Erin (Kirkland). We’ve been with him for all these years, so it’s been really hard to handle it, but we’re getting better each day.”

With the Esso Cup looming in April, Zuck says the right mindset is coming along as the stakes start to get higher.

“I think we’ve just got to put our hard work out there,” she said. “We’re getting into a mindset that we are meant to be there, and we’re going to do the best we can.”

“That’s been the goal from day one for these girls,” Young added about doing well in the Esso Cup. “That’s something that hasn’t changed, and that’s what we’re going to keep working towards. The biggest thing in the whole situation is that it’s still 20 girls in the dressing room that have to continue to work hard and to make things happen.”