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An opening night spectacular from the stands

First Person Exploits into the Unknown
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Prior to making the trip down to the SaskTel Centre Friday night, I was trying to figure out the last time I attended a season opening game for a junior hockey league as someone who wasn’t a member of the press.

Naturally, given the line of work that I’m in, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the season kickoffs for a few different leagues over the last few years, such as the Ontario Hockey League, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, the Superior International Junior Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.

But when it comes to going as a fan? I think the last time that happened was in 1993 when I was five years old.

That night, which happened to also be the first hockey game I went to in person as far as I can remember, saw my hometown Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds take on the Peterborough Petes in a rematch of the 1993 Memorial Cup final which saw the Greyhounds win on home ice.

I don’t remember much of the game, other than the player intros, but I believe the Greyhounds won so I must have had a good time.

Anyway, the point of this long-winded tale is this.

When I found out that my arch nemesis and Battlefords North Stars play-by-play announcer Nathan Kanter was heading down to Saskatoon to see the Blades open up the Western Hockey League season against the Swift Current Broncos, I immediately asked if I could tag along for the ride.

Now our purposes for the trip were quite different.

Nathan was going to do an interview for an upcoming North Stars broadcast with goaltender Joel Grzybowski, who won a Canalta Cup last year and has now made the jump up to the WHL as a member of the Blades.

As for me, well I was mainly going to see two of the most hyped prospects in an impressive rookie class in the WHL this year as Kirby Dach and Logan Barlage made their full-fledged debuts in the league.

Now, I assume that many of you aren’t like myself who spends the wee hours of the morning looking up stats from junior hockey leagues across North America, so I’ll explain what makes these two 16 year olds worth watching.

Dach, who is from Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., destroyed the bantam ranks three years ago as he put up 100 points in 33 games.

He followed that up with 35 points in 34 games as an underage midget player before being drafted second overall by the Blades in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft.

Last season, with the Blades going through a massive amount of injuries to their forward core, the WHL gave special permission for Dach to come up and play for more than the five games a bantam pick can play before joining the league on a full time basis.

Dach made the most of that opportunity, as he put up 10 points in 19 games as the Blades almost made it into the playoffs for the first time since 2003.

Barlage, meanwhile, is probably the most hyped player to come out of the province of Saskatchewan in quite some time.

After putting up a mind-boggling 274 points in the Pee Wee ranks back in the 2013-14 season for his hometown Humboldt Broncos, Barlage continues his dominance in the bantam ranks two years later with 125 points in 30 games and 21 points in seven playoff games.

After being selected fourth overall by the Broncos in the 2016 WHL Bantam Draft, Barlage ran wild in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League as he was named league MVP after putting up 76 points in 44 games.

He also got to play for the Broncos in the WHL playoffs, and while he didn’t up any points in his 13 games, he did learn a lot of valuable lessons in what it takes to win at that time of the year as the Broncos almost made it to the semifinals before losing to the Regina Pats.

So naturally, when their first game as rookies saw them going head to head, I was jumping off the walls in anticipation.

Oh, yeah, I’ve hardly mentioned that this was opening night in the WHL yet, so there’s an added sense of pomp and circumstance to the whole evening.

Other than the first night of the playoffs, the first game of the season is one of my favourite days of the year, as everyone still believes that their team has a chance to win a championship.

There was a ton of emotion prior to the game, as well, as the Blades honoured one of their former captains Bruce Gordon.

Gordon, who is a long-time police officer in Saskatoon and just recently became a lawyer, is currently battling pancreatic cancer and the amount of support he’s received has been incredible.

That was evident on Friday as former Blade and longtime NHL player Brian Skrudland was on hand, along with current Winnipeg Jets announcer and one time Blades play-by-play man Dennis Beyak, to speak about the hard work and effort Gordon put in on a nightly basis with the Blades.

The ceremony was capped off with a banner that now hangs from the rafters with Gordon’s number 21 on it and a reminder to players to ‘Be Like Bruce’ both on and off the ice.

Then it was time for the game to actually begin, but not before the WHL’s 2017-18 season opening montage video played, which made me want to run through a wall.

I’ll be honest, the first 10 minutes wasn’t super great, as the over 7,000 fans that were in the rink were just waiting around for something to happen.

Business certainly picked up just past the halfway mark of the opening frame, as Caleb Fantillo unleashed a rocket of a shot into the net after a great feed from defenceman Mark Rubinchik to give the Blades a 1-0 lead.

From that point on, it was a pretty back and forth game. Both teams traded scoring chances and the occasion hit or two, while Dach and Barlage showed flashes of the unlimited potential both players have to offer.

As often is this case in the WHL, the veteran players began to the take over the proceedings, and the Broncos talented trio of Glenn Gawdin, Aleski Heponiemi and Tyler Steenbergen dominated the third period as the visitors cruised to a 5-2 win.

Despite the loss, I feel like the future is still bright for the Blades. Yes, they haven’t made the playoffs since their disastrous 2013 run as Memorial Cup hosts, but I think they have enough pieces to make it back to the post-season when March rolls around.

Plus from a fan perspective, it was a fun experience to be back in that role instead of high up in the press box for a junior hockey game.

With that said, I wasn’t completely out of the sports reporter mode as I brought a clip board with me to game so I could make notes on players as the game went on.

Some habits are hard to break.