For most or almost all alums of the Prince Albert Raiders, “Hockey Town North” will always be a second home.
If anyone needs to be reminded of that observation, all you have to do is strike up a conversation with a Raiders grad about their time in Prince Albert. The memories start flooding back.
One of the eternally cool things I get to do in now my 25th season covering the WHL is talking to former players, coaches and staffers. The Raiders have such a rich history dating back to their inception as a junior A club in 1971 that there are endless cool old stories to tell about the team.
I was reminded of that when I worked on my retrospective feature on the 1994-95 Raiders for the Daily Herald’s WHL preview content leading into the start of the 2023-24 campaign. Since I considered that the best Raiders team that never won WHL or Memorial Cup titles due to coming up one win short of the Memorial Cup tournament, I approached doing that feature like an NFL Films missing rings episode.
Those one-hour documentaries put together NFL Films feature teams that made it to the Super Bowl only to come up short in the league’s championship game. In order to keep the documentary focused, NFL Films interviews three team figures looking back on the club that was featured.
Not knowing who I would get after doing research at the John M. Cuelenaere Branch of the Prince Albert Public Library, I targeted trying to track down Denis Pederson, Shane Hnidy, Shane Zulyniak and assistant coach Dale McFee. With head coach Donn Clark having passed away after a long battle with cancer on March 2, 2019, I was still able to get him in with a spoken part into the story, because I remembered seeing a season wrap quote from him after the Raiders lost out in Game 7 of what is now known as the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series.
As my luck would have it, Pederson, Hnidy, Zulyniak and McFee all got back to me when they learned I was trying to track them down. I was hoping to get three out of the four never knowing what is happening in their current day lives. To get all four was a bonus.
I started each interview reading off Clark’s season wrap quote, where the late bench boss said that was the gutsiest team he had seen in his 12 years of coaching and that the guys would go to the wall for each other. From Clark’s quote, you could tell how tight that team was.
In every case, reading Clark’s quote sent Pederson, Hnidy, Zulyniak and McFee all back in time to 1994-95. They all said Clark was bang on with the quote.
Hnidy, who is now a TV analyst with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, was the first I reached, and he was adamant that he believed the 1994-95 Raiders were a championship caliber team, and that season was a missed chance when it came to winning a title. The former standout defenceman believed that Raiders team had all the intangibles and the tightness between the players you needed to win on top of the skill.
You almost got a chuckle talking to McFee when he drifted off and remembered out of nowhere that “Wild Thing” Mitch Shawara was on that team. McFee then paused and said that 1994-95 Raiders team was a really good bunch.
It felt like there were a lot of tidbits I couldn’t get in otherwise the piece would flow and would get really long. Pederson, who was the Raiders captain that season, said he was struggling that season until helping Canada win gold at world juniors. After returning from world juniors, Pederson really took off and had a great second half and post-season.
Zulyniak was a 20-year-old defenceman in that campaign, and when he graduated from the team, he held the Raiders record for most career regular season games played at 318, which still ranks as the third most in the history of the club. He talked about how invested he had been due to playing five complete seasons in Prince Albert. I wasn’t able to write out how in depth the Game 7 loss to the Wheat Kings in 1995 was to Zulyniak due to the long stretch he was in Prince Albert.
Hnidy talked about how great the fans were. He told a story about being at the final wrap up party the players had at a billet home before departing their separate ways. Hnidy said the fans knew where all the players were and were dropping off refreshments at the billet home, but I wasn’t able to work that tale into the piece.
McFee talked about the recollections he had of the people in Prince Albert embracing the 1994-95 Raiders like they did the 1984-85 Raiders team he played on that won the WHL title and the Memorial Cup. I wasn’t able to squeeze that recollection in.
Still, it felt good for the soul to hear Pederson, Hnidy, Zulyniak and McFee talk about those times. I’ve also gotten that same feeling talking with Raiders iconic coach Terry Simpson and Raiders all-time great Dan Hodgson about their time in Prince Albert.
It is always great to be reminded that no matter what era of the Raiders that players, coaches and staffers came from a part of their heart will always be with the team and Prince Albert as a city.
Post-Bedard WHL still has great players
The WHL won’t have the benefit of the Connor Bedard “bump” this season, but the circuit will still have tonnes of great players to watch.
The 18-year-old phenom centre has played his last game with the Regina Pats and the former Pats captain is already the star attraction for the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks, who picked the North Vancouver, B.C., product first overall in this past June’s NHL Entry Draft. Bedard’s presence in the WHL brought numerous sets of eyes to the league that normally wouldn’t watch the circuit.
The fan craze for Bedard hit new heights in the second half of his final WHL campaign in 2022-23 after returning from helping Canada win gold at world juniors having broken numerous Canadian records. Sold out rinks around the league and having nightly highlights on TSN and Sportsnet from games involving Bedard were the norm.
Now that Bedard is not in the WHL, you will likely see a drop off of casual followers. Still, Bedard’s age group specifically was a special one from the depth perspective, and outside of Bedard, pretty much all the WHL players selected in June’s NHL Entry Draft will be back on the major junior circuit this season.
Already back are centres Brayden Yager of the Moose Jaw Warriors and Riley Heidt of the Prince George Cougars. Yager recorded three goals and two assists in his first two contests back.
Heidt has been on fire piling up four goals and four assists in his first two outings after rejoining the Cougars. The Cougars will be in Prince Albert to take on the Raiders on Saturday, November 4 at 7 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre, and that could be Heidt’s lone visit to “Hockey Town North” in his WHL career. Due to playing in Prince George, Heidt it can be argued doesn’t get the attention he should have as it takes scouts making a special trip to get out to the northern B.C. centre.
Others from that age group that will be back or are already back in the WHL include Zach Benson of the Wenatchee Wild, Kalan Lind of the Red Deer Rebels and Caden Price of the Kelowna Rockets. Benson has an outside shot of staying with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, who selected him 13th overall in the first round.
The Raiders were happy to get Terrell Goldsmith back from the Arizona Coyotes. Of course, Raiders fans will be looking for the first chance to once again send barbs towards Saskatoon Blades stars in offensive-defenceman Tanner Molendyk and import right-winger Egor Sidorov.
Warriors 19-year-old centre Jagger Firkus was named a player of the week for the WHL on Monday. Former Blades netminder Ethan Chadwick was named the goaltender of the week for the WHL on Monday suiting up for his new squad in the Everett Silvertips. The Silvertips picked up the 19-year-old puck stopper in an off-season trade.
Cougars 17-year-old right-winger Terik Parascak was named the rookie of the week for the WHL on Monday. In his first four games with the Cougars, Parascak has eight goals and four assists.
The WHL is still filled with players who are worth the price of admission, and they aren’t hard to find. Fans that decide not to buy tickets will be missing out.
Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer with more than 20 years of experience covering the WHL. He blogs frequently at stankssermon.blogspot.com.