It seems like just yesterday that the Estevan Bruins were finishing up a season nobody would ever forget.
They won the SJHL regular season title for the first time since 2004-05. They won the SJHL playoff championship for the first time since 1999. And they were the hosts for the biggest Centennial Cup in the 52-year history of the national junior A hockey championship.
The Bruins played their final game on May 25, but you can forgive fans – and so many others – for thinking it was a pretty short offseason.
The Bruins will open the 2022-23 season Friday night against the Yorkton Terriers – the same team they played to open last season. The club plans to honour the team that captured our hearts last year, and then it’ll be down to business for this year’s team.
It’ll be a very different club from last season. Just six players are back. Yes, they have lost a lot of talented guys from last year. Some graduated from junior hockey. Some were traded. And others decided not to come back for whatever reason.
But there are players who are eager to show what they can do when given an opportunity. It’s hard to be a front-line scoring forward when you have experienced players like Mark Rumsey, Olivier Pouliot, Eric Houk and others in front of you. And it’s hard to show you can be a top-notch defenceman when Dayton Deics and Nolan Jones are on your team.
Expect to returning forwards Kade Runke, Cody Davis and Mitch Kohner take a big step forward with their production this season. And expect returning defencemen Alex Von Sprecken and Aleksa Babic to take on much bigger roles.
It’s going to be a different team in terms of style of play. Last year’s team was loaded with offensive threats. It meant that the Bruins had the ability to score in bunches. A game that might look to be out of reach was not.
When they needed to clamp defensively, they could, as they showed in Game 7 of the SJHL final against the Flin Flon Bombers.
This team should be excellent defensively, and when the defence falters, the goaltending should be strong, with returnee Cam Hrdlicka and rookie Jackson Miller, a local product.
The number of changes meant a very busy offseason for head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic, who has been trying to fill all of the voids left by the departures from last season.
When he was hired, Tatarnic had the reputation as being one of the top recruiters in Canadian junior A hockey. He showed it last year by bringing in some pretty top-end talent, but that was also when the Bruins were serving as the national championship hosts.
They don’t have that Centennial Cup carrot to dangle in front of players. So his job became more difficult this year. Still, he has brought in a lot of players and a lot of talent.
We’ll see whether this is a good team, a great team or a championship team.
You can’t win a championship every year. Deep down, a team expects to be the best, year in, year out, just like the expectation before each game is to win. If not, they might as well not show up.
It’s the unrealistic reality of sports at high levels.
Regardless of what happens on the ice during the coming months, this is a team that deserves our support. Just because they might not be as strong as last year’s team, or as entertaining or dynamic, doesn’t mean fans shouldn’t be there.
It would be nice to see good crowds at the rink this year, especially for that first game. The thrill of live hockey is one of those things we really missed in the lost 2020-21 season.
The Bruins are our team. And they’ll be well worth our support.