Years in the making: Northern Bears prepared to host 2023 Esso Cup

Herald File Photo/Nathan Reiter. The Prince Albert Northern Bears begin Esso Cup play on Sunday, Apr. 23

After several years of a seemingly perpetual Groundhog Day, the Prince Albert Northern Bears are finally ready to host the 2023 Esso Cup at the Art Hauser Centre in less than a week’s time.

Northern Bears head coach Steve Young says the Esso Cup has been long time in the making.

“For the community, it’s going to be important and for the girls that have waited for it, it’ll be important as well. It’s important that we have a good week and get ready for the cup.”

The Esso Cup provides a unique challenge for the Northern Bears as they will play five consecutive days during the Round Robin portion of the tournament, with the potential to play seven consecutive days if they qualify for the playoffs.

Throughout the SFU18AAAHL schedule, the Bears would typically play two games every weekend.

Young says the Bears are ready for the challenge the Esso Cup schedule presents.

“I think the biggest thing you got to take it one day at a time, but in saying that you’re going to play a lot of games in a lot of days. So mentally and physically, they have to be ready to play.”

The last game for the Northern Bears was Mar. 13, a game three loss to the Notre Dame Hounds in their first-round playoff series.

One of the 12 players returning from last year’s Esso Cup team is forward Kassie Ferster.

In the 2022 Esso Cup held in Okotoks, Ferster recorded one goal and four penalty minutes in five games.

She says being in game shape will be a key for the Bears heading into Esso Cup week.

“Conditioning [will be key] for sure, especially since we haven’t played games in a long time. Practice is a lot different than game conditioning too. (It’s) a lot of games in a little amount of time. We will play five games in a row for sure.”

The Bears aren’t the only returning team from the Esso Cup field last year. The Fraser Valley Rush return to represent the Pacific region and the Northern Selects once again qualified to represent the Atlantic region.

Young says having familiar opponents in the tournament gives Prince Albert a good starting point for game planning.

“Regina is in, and we played against them. From last year, there’s two teams that were in the Cup as well. So, we anticipate them playing the same style of hockey. But, as the tournament goes on, we’ll be able to watch the teams and kind of see what we need to do.”

For a Bears team that features eight rookies, the 2023 Esso Cup will mark the first experience competing on the national stage for several players on the Bears roster.

Ella Clarke is one of the rookies that will be making her Esso Cup debut when the tournament kicks off in Prince Albert on Apr. 23.

She says she has heard nothing but good things about the experience from the veteran players on the Bears roster.

“I’m super excited. I’ve only heard the best from all the girls and to be able to play in it will be a great experience.”

Clarke adds she is looking forward to playing in the tournament in the Bears home rink, the Art Hauser Centre.

“I think it’s super special and it doesn’t get to happen to most teams. We’ve played in it all year. We know we know what to do.”

The Prince Albert Northern Bears begin the 2023 Esso Cup on Sunday, Apr. 23 against the Atlantic region representative Northern Selects. Puck drop from the Art Hauser Centre is 7 p.m.