It has been almost a year since the Western Hockey League took to the ice.
It was on March 23, 2020, when the league cancelled last season as the COVID-19 pandemic started. Less than a year later, the league is getting ready to begin another, albeit much shorter season.
The two Manitoba teams will join the five Saskatchewan teams in the hub city of Regina for a jam-packed schedule that begins on March 12.
The seven teams in the East Division will play a 24-game schedule — each team will play four games against each of the other six clubs.
“I’m so happy and grateful that we can play,” said Curtis Hunt, general manager of the Prince Albert Raiders.
“The work that has gone on has allowed us to get to this spot for our 20-year-olds and for our 19-year-olds. We have six 19-year-olds and only three of them can come back next year, at least to our club.”
With last season cancelled before the playoffs, the Prince Albert Raiders remain the WHL’s defending champs. They also had the best record in the East Division prior to the season shutting down.
They go into this shortened season as one of the favourites.
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“We have a certain expectation, within our group, of how we believe we need to play. And we know and understand and know that if we take care of the process the results will happen for us. So absolutely we’ll take it,” Hunt said.
With the Raiders’ success in the last few years, they have plenty of leaders in their dressing room, but only one can be named captain.
This year, the team decided to go with 18-year-old defenceman Kaiden Guhle, who becomes the first 18-year-old captain under head coach Marc Habscheid.
“I think probably the biggest thing is just accountability,” Guhle said.
“I think a part of our success over the past two years has been that.”
Habscheid said Guhle is a proven winner and will be a mentor for younger players on the team.
“He’s learned from some great guys and I think the greatest thing is he’s a winner,” Habscheid said.
“He knows how to win and he has been a part of winning, and to transfer that knowledge is important.”
What will also be important will be getting off to a good start. This year more than any other it is vital to get rolling with your best on day one.
“It’s more about, how long does it take you to get going,” Hunt said.
“If it takes you too long, you’re in big trouble, so I think this will be a really interesting race.”