It’s a Saskatchewan affair in the Western Hockey League as the 2017 CIBC Canada Russia Series opens on Monday in Moose Jaw before heading west on the Trans-Canada Highway to Swift Current for Game 2 on Tuesday.
With the 100th Mastercard Memorial Cup coming to Regina in the spring, action is heating up on the prairies.
Tim Hunter, Head Coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors returns as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Junior Team this Christmas after last year’s heartbreaking shootout loss to the United States that resulted in a silver medal finish. He’ll have the opportunity to participate in two separate outdoor games this season including the first at the World Juniors on December 29th when Canada takes on the United States at New Era Field in Buffalo. Additionally, his Moose Jaw Warriors will battle the Regina Pats at Mosaic Stadium on February 18th.
Hunter will coach Team WHL alongside provincial coaching rivals in Swift Current’s Manny Viveiros and Regina’s John Paddock.
“I tease those guys,” he laughed. “I’m just a coach and I get two GM’s to work for me as assistant coaches. They’ll both have some responsibility. John is going to run the penalty kill and the defence and Manny is going to oversee the power play and the forwards. I’m looking forward to working with both of them.”
Hunter ran the Team WHL bench last season when they split decisions against Russia, suffering a 3-2 overtime loss in Prince George before rebounding with a 4-1 victory in Edmonton.
Seven WHL players were a part of Canada’s National Junior Team last year including returning goaltender Carter Hart (Everett Silvertips), Team WHL captain Dillon Dube (Kelowna Rockets) along with defencemen Jake Bean (Calgary Hitmen) and Kale Clague (Brandon Wheat Kings).
With several prominent names having graduated to the pro ranks, jobs on this year’s World Junior Team are there for the taking. Hunter and the brass at Hockey Canada have gone about their approach of preparing the players a little differently this time around, initiating that process back in August at the Summer Showcase in Plymouth, Mich.
“You always have to be making adjustments and so we’ve taken a little bit of a different approach,” said Hunter. “We’re looking for that edge that we didn’t have last year that allowed the United States to win and us not to. We’re building on some of the things we did well, but we’re adding some new wrinkles and adjusting our mindset a little bit.
“This will be beneficial for the new guys joining us and will provide our returning players with a fresh outlook.”
The Kelowna Rockets are sending three players to compete for Team WHL including Dillon Dube, Cal Foote, and Kole Lind.
Other notable members of the Team WHL roster include current league leading scorer Tyler Steenbergen of the Swift Current Broncos. The Arizona Coyotes prospect will play in front of his home crowd at the Credit Union iPlex on Monday. The 19-year-old has 21 goals, 14 assists and 35 points in 13 games this season.
Trailing close behind him in the WHL scoring department is diminutive 5-foot-7 Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Phillips of the Victoria Royals. Phillips sits one point back of Steenbergen with 15 goals, 19 assists and 34 points over 17 contests.
Last year’s WHL Player of the Year Sam Steel of the Regina Pats is also included on the roster. The Anaheim Ducks first round pick nearly cracked Canada’s National Junior Team roster last December and has 17 points (4-13–17) through his first 12 games of the 2017-18 season.
WHL ‘On The Run’ Player of the Week Brett Howden will represent Team WHL for the first time, doing so in front of a home crowd on Tuesday in Moose Jaw. The Tampa Bay Lightning pick had seven points (5-2–7) over three games last week and has 19 points (9-10–19) over 13 games this season.
A highlight of last year’s CIBC Canada Russia Series, Vancouver Giants forward Tyler Benson has been ruled out of this year’s event. The Edmonton Oilers prospect returned to the lineup last weekend after recovering from a pair of offseason sports hernia surgeries, but isn’t ready to suit up for Team WHL. He’ll be replaced by San Jose Sharks prospect Noah Gregor of the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Team WHL enters play with an all-time record of 19-6-1-2 in the CIBC Canada Russia Series. The event returns to Swift Current for the first time since 2008 when Team WHL took a 5-0 win. Moose Jaw hosts the event for the first time since 2011 when Russia prevailed by a score of 7-5.
Both games can be seen across the country on Sportsnet with Game 1 from Moose Jaw being shown on Sportsnet ONE, East and West starting at 8:00pm ET/6:00pm MT. Game 2 from Swift Current can be seen on Sportsnet ONE, East and Ontario at 8:00pm ET/6:00pm MT on Tuesday.