Ahead of the 2023-2024 WHL season, Prince Albert Raider GM Curtis Hunt sat down for an interview with Nathan Reiter of the Prince Albert Daily Herald. For the purposes of this story, NR stands for the question asked by Nathan Reiter and CH is the response from Curtis Hunt.
NR: At the outset of the upcoming season for the Prince Albert Raiders, what are your personal expectations for this team this season?
CH: Well, I think we’ve got to take the next step, and that’s getting ourselves in a playoff position. When you bring back your entire group, they understand the language. They understand the coach. They understand the style of play. I think we’ve infused a little bit more skill. I think we’ve shored up our goaltending. With our group, I think they’re excited. They’re energized. And if I reflect on camp and the attitude and energy around the building here, not just the community but the players, I’m very optimistic and I am excited about the journey that we’re about to embark on.
NR: This team started 2-6-2 last season and that proved to be insurmountable, and you couldn’t overcome that slow start a year ago. How important do you think starting the season off on the right foot is going to be for this group?
CH: It’s everything. The games we’ve played now have been battles, close one goal games and we’ve found a way. We want to really hit this year. We’ve got a tough schedule right off the bat all within our division, but especially facing Moose Jaw, who we know is probably one of the stronger teams in our side. We want to get off to that good start and we want to take advantage of that home ice. If you get yourself so far back like we did last year, it’s hard to recover. We want to spend a lot of time together as a group just reinforcing those relationships and continue to build that trust in the game that gives us success.
NR: For fans who follow this team a little more casually, what would you say would stand out as the biggest difference from this year’s team compared to last year’s team?
CH: I think the players knew that we were going to get younger last year. I think that creates a little bit of insecurity, some pensiveness. It takes away some confidence because you don’t know if you’re the next guy, especially for your older guys. It is an older league. If you look at the teams that get to the final four and you took their age, the majority are probably close to 19 years old. Your older players drive the bus. By getting Chase (Coward) in the pre-season, we’ve kind of locked up as I mentioned that position. Stepping into this group, they look around, they go ‘we’re pretty good’. The imports are pretty good players. There’s going to be a transition period. I think everybody understands that. Culture, language, side of the arena, style of play, and then with the goaltender and then the group and it’s familiarity. We’ve got two lines that are identical starting right off the bat.
And so, you’re not looking to build chemistry. We’re looking to build on chemistry, and that’s important and that’s probably the biggest difference.
NR: The biggest news in the Western Hockey League this offseason was the move of Winnipeg to Wenatchee. How does that affect the way you manage this team when you got a strong team like Winnipeg last year, that’s not in your conference at all this season?
CH: It really doesn’t make a lot of difference to us. From a league perspective, I think it’s fantastic. There’s 11 on each side. There’s no disparity in terms of a team’s ability to make the playoffs. So, there’s three on each side that don’t make it versus four and two. I think that’s good for the East. For the time they were in Winnipeg, always a good team out here with two pennants, so you’re never sad to see them go. We’ll see them once instead of six times. Day to day doesn’t really change a whole lot.
NR: What are your thoughts on the development of the returning players from over the summer here?
CH: I’m really impressed with our veteran kids. They were great ambassadors from the minute they got into town through the golf tournament, the banquet, and then the pace and tempo and the commitment to detail during training camp to show the young guys what it takes to play at this level. Whether they become Raiders or have an opportunity somewhere else, because we did have 30 kids that were not listed in our group. When I think about how our players reacted through the entire camp and then now into the preseason, I’m just proud of how they’ve taken ownership of our group, ownership of our culture, how they’re building our culture, and they’re bringing the young guys along very quickly. That would be the thing I would be most proud of and so happy to see.
NR: Who do you expect to lead this group in terms of scoring on the ice, but also general leadership in the dressing room? Are there any names that stand out to you in those two particular aspects?
CH: if I work from the goaltenders out, I think we’ve got two veteran goaltenders and I think certainly both those guys can have a voice. When you look at our D, our older players you’ve got Goldie (Terrell Goldsmith) is going to have an opportunity to go to an NHL camp. As much as I talk about our players, showing the young players, Goldie (Goldsmith) becomes the young player and he’s got a lot to learn at that level in terms of that work and commitment and their attention to detail. I think he’s able to bring that back in terms of a leadership role. Johnny (Eric Johnston), being the senior statesman here I think he’s going to be a big part of that leadership group. Just leading the right way. Up front, our top line starting with Stan (Sloan Stanick), I think those guys will be a go to line for us. They’ve obviously proven they can score. I thought their chemistry at the end of the year was as good as any line in the league. When you look at those guys, whether you score or don’t score, they will be able to lead our group in the direction and our group can play any way you want to play it. I think we’ve got the maturity in our room that our guys can handle a bigger physical game, a speed game, any way you want to play and be able to adapt and hopefully get on the right side of it.
NR: For the first time in a couple seasons, we will have some new import draft picks coming to Prince Albert. What will Macias and Kubiesa add to this Raider lineup?
CH: Depth, speed and drive. Great kids right off the bat. That was the one thing when I met them and was able to spend some time on a Zoom call with their parents and their families. Macias is a big, strong player. He’s played some men’s league in Poland. He’s played away from home in the Czech. The ability to move away and play and get rid of distractions as a young player he’s gone through that. So I’m thinking the culture won’t be that big of a change for him. The biggest thing for him will be the ice surface, just the time and space and how quickly things happen here in our league. Kubiesa, for those who watched the Under-18s, you saw he was a dynamic scorer there. I’m not going to put any pressure on him today that we have an expectation of any kind of numbers. I know he’s driven, I know he has aspirations beyond our league, as does Krzyzstof, but he’s going to be a dynamic young player with a tremendous release. He’s got a knack around the net, and I think he’s going to fit in just fine with our group moving forward.
NR: Only one acquisition by trade this offseason bringing in Chase Coward from the Red Deer Rebels. What do you like about him and what does he add to this goaltending tandem with Hildebrand?
CH: I think Chase has faced a little adversity, probably more so than a lot of guys. In preparation for an NHL camp in Buffalo, he got there and discovered he had some injury issues. They kept him off the ice, he got back to Red Deer, and had surgery. His opportunity for World Junior was evaporated. He certainly was right in the mix for that team, which is such a little window for all players. He missed the majority of the season, that was a crushing blow. When I look at Chase, he’s a guy that overcomes adversity, has stuck with it, has always been a .900 + (save percentage) goaltender in our league. I think in his mind he’s got something to prove. At 20 years old you bring that leadership, he can bring the experiences he has with Red Deer, a very good organization. I feel him and Max Hildebrand can create a great support relationship for each other, and those guys in the end, just give us a chance to win every night.
NR: As we are having this conversation, there are only two 20-year-old players on the roster. Without divulging too many industry secrets, when would you like to address that opening for a third, if at all?
CH: I don’t see any urgency at this point. We have three 19-year-old defensemen here right now; we’ve got three 17 (year-olds). Boucher and Kovacs, we brought in last year and I think for those guys, maybe unsettling just because their teams ended up in a championship, that hurts a little bit emotionally. We want to give them a good opportunity, but we think we’ve got three really good young defensemen as well, and we’re going to let those cards fall where they may. I like good competition and then if the need arises, then maybe we’ll make that search. But for now, we’re content to stay where we are.
NR: This Raiders team has made multiple first round selections in two out of the last three drafts. How important is that for building and maintaining success with an organization?
CH: I think it’s paramount. I believe in consistency. I believe in loyalty. Yes, I’ve traded players, we’ve acquired picks. I think there’s an expectation to our fans to give them a product they can be proud of every year. I believe last year, even though we didn’t make it, I think our fans were proud of the way we worked. They understood where we were in the process, and they continued to support us and we’re forever grateful. When it comes to draft picks, when we can draft and develop our own, I think the track record of our coaches and I know it’s mostly (Jeff) Truitt’s track record because the other guys are just young in their tenure, but they can develop players and I think both Ryan (McDonald) and Keaton (Ellerby) have a great mentor in Jeff Truitt. I think Jeff’s track record shows for himself. By drafting and keeping players within our system, you keep your culture alive. You keep a certain amount of comfort and confidence in the consistency in our coaching, that our players know that language. They know the structure; they understand the parameters. When you put all of that together and we add that good people piece, and we have people who care, I think we can create something sustainable.
NR: We got the first look at Daxon Rudolph, Riley Boychuk and the rest of that ’08 class. It was the first training camp for those kids since they were drafted earlier this year. Overall, what were your initial impressions seeing these kids at Raider training camp?
CH: I loved seeing them in the Green-White game. I thought not just those two, but all our kids showed well, all the way through. We signed (Jonah) Sivertson out of camp, we thought he was terrific. Those two first rounders that did play, you can see the game sense, how they think the game, the pace at times for those guys was quick, but that’s part of the process. It’s a 19- and 20-year-old league. What we wanted to do was showcase our program. We want to make them comfortable with coaches, the locker room, the veterans, the school next door, the basic functions of our organization. Because in the end, if I can remove all those distractions and you can visualize in your head everything around the game, then they’re allowed to come in here and just play the game. When we can do that for the players, remove those distractions. I think we give them an environment where they can have the most success.
NR: Last season, Raider fans were a bit spoiled with the emergence of Ryder Ritchie as a 16-year-old. What do you think are going to be some of the strengths of the rookie class on this team this season?
CH: I’m excited. We’re got the euros as we talked about and the two defensemen, we currently have in house are (Tyrone) Sobry and (Doogan) Pederson, big body guys who move really well (and) have a little offense and puck savy with some poise and patience. There’s some learning for those guys to do but they move really well, and they add size to our back end. I think it really shores up our group for those kids up front. We were lucky enough to see Moroz and Chenier play at the Canada Winter Games. Both fine young men, both work extremely hard, both with high hockey IQ and I think neither one has looked out of place to this point. Without any promises, I’m excited about these young players and what they can bring and not just be players here but contribute to the overall well of the team.
NR: Anything else you would like to add or mention about this Raider organization or upcoming season in Prince Albert?
CH: I think there’s a buzz and it’s exciting and we encourage people to get your flex packs, to get your tickets, buy season tickets, get out and see these kids. We’re going to be in the community. There’s still seats available, but a terrific turnout we had for Green-White. Thank you to the community for their support to the food bank. We’re excited to see our fans back and we’re excited to see our group play. It’s just thank you to the fans and the community for the terrific support. We look forward to giving you a product you can be proud of.