ESTEVAN — It's been nearly six months since the Estevan Bruins last played a meaningful hockey game.
They're ready for games that count to be played again.
The Bruins will kick off the 2023-24 SJHL season Friday night when they host the Melville Millionaires at Affinity Place, starting at 7 p.m. The game will open a 56-game season spread out over nearly six months.
The Black and Gold's players and staff gathered for training camp in the last weekend of August, and they had a six-game exhibition slate that saw them post a 5-1 record.
Head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic said he was pleased with where they were in the preseason.
"Guys are getting comfortable with each other," said Tatarnic. "For some guys, stuff is brand new, and for returning players, it's things that they're used to. The returnees and the new guys have to take some time to get on the same page."
The returning players have all taken steps to get better from last season, and Tatarnic is pleased to see they worked hard during the summer months. The newcomers have impressed, with rookie defencemen Michael Gallant and Jesse Ivanovic among the most impressive.
"They've performed so well at camp that it's hard not to notice those players due to their age," said Tatarnic.
The real test for those two players, and other rookies on the team, will come when the regular season begins and they're playing against more experienced opponents every shift.
Depth looks to be a strength entering the season up front and on the blue line.
"As coaches, we all feel pretty good about our teams at the beginning of the year, but the proof will be in the performance when the season starts," said Tatarnic. "Right now we feel really good, and we hope we continue to feel really good with our roster."
As for goaltending, Cam Hrdlicka and Jackson Miller are back as the team's tandem for the second straight year.
"It helps knowing that you have Cam and Jackson back there," said Tatarnic. "Cam's obviously a proven goaltender in our league, and Jackson took great strides last year. I know everyone saw that he had a rough start at the beginning, but he got better and better, and gained more confidence as the season went on."
By the end of the season, the club was very confident with Miller, and they'll need him to play more games this season.
Returnees on defence include Kaelen Whittingham, Holdin Getzlaf and Tyler Guy. Guy shifted from forward to defence midway through last season. Owen Simmons, who played for the Bruins in 2020 and 2021, is back with the team.
Returning forwards include captain Keagon Little, Owen Barrow, Sal Collora, Garett Zasitko, Tim Tychonick, Brady Wilson, Ilya Chmelevski and Gabriel Filion.
Tatarnic expected the club to be down to 25 players as of Monday or Tuesday. Last year it took some time for the club to reach that level due to an influx of players before the start of and early in the season.
He recognizes the club will be facing some high expectations this season due to its recent success. In addition to winning the league championship in 2022, they have won the Viterra Division title five times in the past seven seasons.
"People do have those expectations and we're no different as a staff or an organization," said Tatarnic. "We want to put a winning team on the ice to be successful for our fans. It's something we strive to do and hopefully we can deliver that this year."