If the pre-season is any indication, this could be a very long and successful year for the Prince Albert A&W Bears.
Despite losing 4-3 to the Stars in Saskatoon on Wednesday in their final pre-season game, the Bears are ready and excited for the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League season to begin this weekend.
“It (exhibition season) gave us more confidence,” says head coach Jeff Willoughby of the 5-2 record posted in the pre-season. “We lost a lot of close games at the start of last year and you can see by their actions that they are more confident.”
“I’m glad we had the start we had, but obviously you don’t want to flatline right now,” added Willoughby, who was the league’s coach of the year last season. “We have to keep playing better.”
After a strong training camp, where more than 40 players tried out for the team, the Bears headed to Alberta for a weekend of games. The Bears won all three matches they played at the NAIT invitational tournament and then split another pair of exhibition contests before returning home to beat Saskatoon 3-1 in their only appearance at the Art Hauser Centre.
Coming off a .500 season last year (12-12-1-3), and having lost eight players to graduation, the Bears appear to have filled the open positions with talented newcomers.
“I think we have arguably the two best goalies in the league and our defence will be young, fast and offensive minded,” says Willoughby. “We expect all 10 forwards to jump in. When we were in Alberta we had nine different players score so we expect to be scoring by committee.”
“In the end, our best players have to be our best players,” added Willoughby.
In goal, the Bears will have Jessica Vance entering her third year with the team and Sarah Olson has moved over to the Bears after playing last season with Saskatoon.
The defence will be led by returnees Breanne Neudorf and Morgan Willoughby with newcomers Brooke Hobson, Payton Ostrom, Aleece Anderson and Melinda Melchkart expected to make that group exciting.
Up front, the Bears lose four-year veteran, and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Carlee Hrenkiw, but Kaitlyn Willoughby and Kelly Regnier, are both back for their third full season with the team. Kaitlyn Willoughby, who was the club’s leading scorer last year with 38 points in 28 games, was recently named to Team Saskatchewan for the second straight year and she will be in Dawson Creek, B.C., in early November for the national under-18 female championships.
Lexi Van Camp, Amy Weightman, Crystal Berube and Shaylyn Constant are also returning veterans on the forward units with Megan Slobodshan, Sydney Beckman, Courtney Hancherow and Tylor Lindsay being the new faces up front.
The stage is set and now the action takes on real meaning. It all begins on Saturday when the Bears host the Weyburn Gold Wings at 7:30 p.m. at the Art Hauser Centre with the same two teams meeting again on Sunday at 1:30 p.m., once again at the Art Hauser Centre.