It’s only September, but judging by the tempo of. the Saskatoon Blades practice this week you’d be forgiven for believing it’s the middle of the Western Hockey League season.
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A heavy-lifting slog of a practice Thursday was followed up by a high-intensity 45 minutes of training Friday, which by all accounts capped off a breakthrough week for the club.
“I think it was our best practice of the year so far,” said veteran defenceman Charlie Wright. “Myself, I’m really pumped to get going and I think the team is as well.”
The Blades are entering the 2023-24 WHL season as one of the favourites to contend for the Ed Chynoweth Cup after a memorable run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring.
A pair of seven-game victories over the Regina Pats and Red Deer Rebels captivated the city, which included just the third reverse-sweep in WHL history as the Blades rallied from a 0-3 deficit in the second round versus Red Deer.
While replicating their 101-point season will be a tough task, the Blades believe they have the pieces in place to make another charge up the standings in 2023-24.
“We feel like this is our time,” said Sonne. “From the staff, the players, everyone. So that’s what we’re working towards. Last season we accomplished a ton of goals. I think we had 16 total goals and we accomplished 14. The last two are East Division banner for the regular season and a WHL championship.”
Puck drops on Saskatoon Blades home opener
The Blades had some turnover in the off-season, saying goodbye to a trio of graduates such as two-year captain Aidan De La Gorgendiere, veterans Josh Pillar and Blake Gustafson, as well goaltender Ethan Chadwick and forwards Conner Roulette, Justin Lies and Jayden Wiens in separate trades.
However, the 2023-24 Blades roster will include 17 players who went on Saskatoon’s playoff run, returniing with another year of experience.
“I think anything short of a championship this year would be a bit of a disappointment,” said Wright. “I think everyone is on the same page, everyone understands what we want to accomplish. So we’re really excited to get started.”
Wright and speedy winger Brandon Lisowsky have returned from NHL training camps in time for the regular season, while the Blades wait to see if forwards Egor Sidorov and Jake Chiasson, defender Tanner Molendyk and netminder Austin Elliott will be back in the ‘Bridge City.’
With the majority of the core returning to Saskatoon, newly minted captain Trevor Wong said he’s never played with such a collection of veteran talent before.
“No, obviously last year we had a pretty deep team and a pretty good team,” said Wong. “This year we just got a lot of that core returning, a lot of guys returning and obviously a bunch of good, young guys coming up here. It’s very exciting to know that we have such a deep team and guys who can step up at any time.”
Entering the regular season, the Blades are ranked ninth nationally in the Canadian Hockey League pre-season rankings.
“Our trainer [Blaine Whyte] said this is the strongest team we’ve ever had that he’s seen,” said Wright. “I think everyone came prepared to go a long ways.”
Entering their 60th season as a franchise, the Blades are still searching for their first WHL championship and have not raised a banner of any kind at SaskTel Centre since 2013.
A drought spanning a decade that Sonne is eager to put in the past, while keeping the excitement of Blades hockey growing in the city.
“We’re going to try to make it even better this year,” said Sonne. “The buzz is really fun, it’s cool and we hope our performance results in the buzz continuing.”
The Blades hit the road Saturday night for their first game of the season against Regina, before returning to SaskTel Centre on Sunday at 4:00 pm to face off with the Prince Albert Raiders in their home opener.
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