Long and winding road leads Usau to Prince Albert

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Ilya Usau controls the puck for the Prince Albert Raiders during a pre-season game against the Moose Jaw Warriors at the Art Hauser Centre last week.

The New England prep school ranks may not be the first place that one thinks of as a warmup act before joining the Western Hockey League.

However, two seasons at Salisbury School in Salisbury, Conn. have helped forward Ilya Usau prepare himself for his first campaign in major junior hockey with the Prince Albert Raiders.

“That was my first time being away from home so I was able to make the adjustments to living on my own and it also made me grow up a little bit faster,” Usau said before Raiders’ practice on Thursday.

“It was definitely a lot of fun to be living on campus and being together with the boys as we travelled around Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York for games. It’s definitely a higher level of hockey than what you see in the American High School leagues and a lot of guys that I played with are also playing junior hockey, but they are staying in the United States to play with NAHL (North American Hockey League) or USHL (United States Hockey League) teams.”

After posting 33 points in 56 games for Salisbury over the last two seasons, the 18-year-old from Denver, Colo. elected to sign with the Raiders ahead of training camp last month over his prior commitment to the NCAA’s UConn Huskies.

“The Raiders are a great organization and they have a great coaching staff,” Usau said.  “For me, it felt like the place to help with my development as a hockey player and everyone’s been really welcoming since I got here, which has made the transition to moving to a new place a lot easier.

“I know (Raiders forward Aliaksei) Protas from when we’ve played together (for Belarus at the World Under 18’s in 2018) and I knew some of the other guys from when I came here for training camp three years ago, but I didn’t know them personally.”

Usau, who is the first Raiders player other than the all-time games played leader Sean Montgomery to wear the number 25 jersey for the team since Carson Perreaux in 2014, is off to a solid start in his new surroundings as he’s tied with fellow first-year forward Evan Herman for the team lead in pre-season scoring with four points in three games.

However, he’s still looking to improve on some things as he gears up for a home-and-home set this weekend with the Regina Pats ahead of next Friday’s regular season opener against the Saskatoon Blades.

“To be honest, it’s been hard at times to get used to the speed and all of the systems, but I feel like I’ve been getting better out there as I make adjustments,” Usau said. “It will just take a little bit of time to feel like I’ve settled in.

“Personally, I just want to have a good year here and to help our teams achieve the goals that we all have.”

Raiders Make Moves

The Raiders made two minor deals on Thursday as they sent the rights to forwards Davin Griffin and Bryce Bader to the Prince George Cougars and the Regina Pats respectively.

Griffin, a 17-year-old from Saskatoon, was a fifth round pick by the Raiders in 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and had 46 points in 43 games last year with the SMAAAHL’s Saskatoon Contacts.

After not making the Raiders’ squad out of training camp, he joined the SJHL’s Melfort Mustangs and is listed on their roster ahead of Friday’s season opener.

Bader, an 18-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta., was acquired by the Raiders from the Calgary Hitmen at last year’s trade deadline but never played a game for them as he left the team a couple of weeks later citing personal reasons.

After finishing out the year with the AMHL’s Sherwood Park Kings, he is slated to start the 2019-20 campaign with the AJHL’s Sherwood Park Crusaders.

The Raiders received a conditional draft pick for Griffin and a conditional eighth round selection in the 2022 draft for Bader.

In non-trade news, the Raiders also welcomed back Cole Fonstad and Max Martin on Thursday after they attended the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins rookie camps this past week.

Zack Hayes (Anaheim Ducks), Aliaksei Protas (Washington Capitals) and Brayden Pachal (Vegas Golden Knights) have each moved on to their respective training camp rosters.

The other players from last year’s championship winning side that have also earned spots at training camps are Noah Gregor (San Jose Sharks), Parker Kelly (Ottawa Senators), Brett Leason (Washington Capitals), Sergei Sapego (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Ian Scott (Toronto Maple Leafs).

Dante Hannoun did not make the Bruins’ camp roster but he’s expected to attend the training camp for the AHL’s Providence Bruins.

Thursday’s Pre-Season Score

  • Edmonton 6 Prince George 1 (Josh Williams – Two Goals)

Friday’s Pre-Season Schedule

  • Swift Current vs. Lethbridge – 7 p.m.
  • Brandon vs. Moose Jaw – 7 p.m.
  • Medicine Hat vs. Red Deer – 7 p.m.
  • Prince Albert vs. Regina – 7 p.m.
  • Winnipeg vs. Saskatoon – 7 p.m.
  • Kelowna vs. Kamloops – 8 p.m.