Established in 1964, the Saskatoon Blades are one of the oldest franchises in the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) behind the Regina Pats who were founded in 1917. Accordingly, the Blades have a rich and storied history filled with enduring moments and great players from the past seven decades.
Though the Blades first became a dedicated junior club in 1968 when they joined the Western Canada Hockey League, this piece will venture to highlight a short list of the greatest seasons in the Western Hockey League (WHL) era that began in 1978-79.
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Deciding on the top five Blades’ seasons is difficult not only because of the sheer number of options, but also because the club’s absence of a WHL or Memorial Cup title that would vault a particular season to the top of consideration. Factors like regular season and playoff success for the team, individual performances and star power, as well as lasting resonance with the fan base and historical significance were all taken into consideration when compiling the list.
Long-time Blades’ radio play-by-play voice Les Lazaruk was consulted for insights and offered his perspectives and memories on some of the selections. Still, it remains highly subjective and should spark interesting debate.
The 2018-19 season featured a 24-point improvement over the previous season in the first campaign for head coach Mitch Love, good for 98 points. It ended the Blades’ five-season playoff drought, reaching the second round before bowing out to the Prince Albert Raiders in six games.
“(Reaching the playoffs) in 2018-19 after coming close but not being able to get in the previous two seasons was a big deal,” said Lazaruk. “(That team had) a pretty decent lineup including the future NHLer in Kirby Dach, and for them to get a series win and then take the vaunted Prince Albert Raiders to six games, that was an excellent season.”
Dach, the third-overall pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2019, led the forward group that also included Chase Wouters, who is in line to become the longest-tenured captain in Blades history when the 2020-21 WHL season takes place. Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic — both 2020 NHL Draft prospects — also cut their teeth in their rookie seasons in the WHL.
Listed 2020 NHL Draft hopeful Aidan De La Gorgendiere played his rookie campaign on defense and 20-year-old rearguard Dawson Davidson led the league in points by a defenseman.
Nolan Maier enjoyed a breakout season in goal, posting 36 wins and a 2.64 goals against average (GAA).
As Lazaruk mentioned, the Blades took that season’s eventual WHL Champion Raiders to six games in the second round, which was nothing to be ashamed of for the emerging Blades.
Prince Albert ran away with the regular season title with 112 points that season. They were led up front by San Jose Sharks prospect Noah Gregor and Canadian World Junior team forward and Washington Capitals draft pick Brett Leason, and received stellar goaltending from Canadian World Junior and Toronto Maple Leafs draftee Ian Scott.
The Blades made consecutive trips to the WHL Championship series in 1992-93 and 1993-94. In the latter campaign, they won the Eastern Conference with 99 points thanks to a balanced attack and strong goaltending.
Winger Andy MacIntyre led the Blades with 54 goals and 89 points and was supported by three more skaters with 30-plus goals. Blades’ all-time goals and points leader Frank Banham scored 28 times in his second season in the WHL, setting the stage for 50 and 83 goals in the following two seasons.
This unit featured a healthy complement of future NHLers like center Clarke Wilm and a deep defense core boasting future NHL blueliners Rhett Warrener, Todd Simpson and Wade Belak. A young Brent Sopel, future Stanley Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks, also played 11 games on the back end in his first taste of the WHL.
In goal, future Detroit Red Wing and Atlanta Thrasher Norm Maracle carried the load in his third and final WHL season in Saskatoon setting personal bests across the board with 41 wins in 59 games and a 2.76 GAA.
The Blades advanced to the WHL Championship series for the second straight season under head coach Lorne Molleken, setting up a showdown with the powerful Kamloops Blazers.
The Blazers, who had won the Memorial Cup in 1992, were led up front by Darcy Tucker’s 52 goals and 140 points, and featured future Hockey Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla as well as future Arizona Coyotes’ captain Shane Doan.
The Blazers were too much, edging the Blades in seven games, on their way to claiming their second of three Memorial Cup titles in four seasons (1992-95).
The Blades recieve contributions up and down their lineup and acquired the star power of Brayden Schenn at the trade deadline as they pulled away from the pack, winning the franchise’s second Scotty Munro Trophy with 115 points. Their 56 wins on the campaign are still a Blades’ record.
Up front, five different players scored 30 goals, led by 36 from Sharks’ 2009 seventh-round pick Marek Viedensky. A big offensive season from 2009 Colorado Avalanche second-rounder and future NHL defenseman Stefan Elliott also helped the cause. Elliott scored 31 times on his way to earning WHL Defenseman of the Year honours. Elliott manned the Blades’ back end for four seasons (2007-11) and remains the club’s career points leader among defensemen (241).
The defense group also featured puck-moving rear guard Duncan Siemens, who finished with 43 points. He became the Avalanche’s first-round selection in the 2011 NHL Draft.
Goaltender Steven Stanford was nearly unbeatable in his final WHL season. The former Raider was second in the league with 40 wins, while losing just five games in his fourth season in the league, and his second in Saskatoon. Only current Arizona Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper had more victories with 45 for the Red Deer Rebels.
Saskatoon had a reliable second option in net, in the form of Adam Morrison. The Flyers’ 2009 third-round pick went 16-7-3 with a 2.89 GAA and a .901 save percentage (SV%) in 30 games.
The blockbuster deal with the Brandon Wheat Kings for Schenn added an elite game-breaker to the forward ranks, and the Blades hoped it would be the final piece to help them bust out of their WHL and Memorial Cup droughts.
Schenn came as advertised after the trade to his hometown team, piling up 21 goals and 53 points in 27 regular season games after coming over to his home-town team. He followed it up with a solid showing in the postseason, notching six goals and 11 points in 10 games, but the team stalled in a second round sweep to the Kootenay ICE.
“2010-11 was the best season that I’ve seen personally as far as success goes,” Lazaruk said. “That team really got going and was very good, but the unfortunate part was being swept by Kootenay after being taken to six games in the first round by Prince Albert. The finish was disappointing, but it was a team with many very good players and also acquired Brayden Schenn at the deadline, so it was a pretty solid squad and unfortunately they just didn’t get the job done.”
Despite the early exit, general manager Lorne Molleken earned WHL Executive of the Year honours.
Similar to that 2010-11 team that would come some 32 years later, this edition of the Bridge City bunch wasn’t heavy on marquee names, but still had plenty of talent to go around.
Kory Kocur paced the offense with 45 goals and 102 points, and was one of 10 players to reach the 20-goal plateau, creating a balanced attack up and down the lineup. Among those were future NHL enforcer Kevin Kaminski, who tallied 25 goals, and future Blades and Regina Pats head coach Dave Struch, who connected for 20.
The Blades won 42 games in the regular season and reached the Eastern Conference Final before they fell to the eventual WHL Champion Swift Current Broncos.
A significant factor in this particular squad’s appearance on this list, is the fact that though they were defeated in the WHL postseason, Saskatoon hosted the Memorial Cup, giving the Blades an automatic berth to participate for the first time.
The host team took their fans on an exciting ride, reaching the Memorial Cup Final, setting up a rematch with Swift Current. The Blades held a lead in the third period, but ultimately fell in overtime to the Broncos when Tim Tisdale scored the overtime winner in front of an over-capacity crowd of 9,078 fans.
Tisdale led Swift Current in scoring that season on a squad that also featured future NHL forwards Sheldon Kennedy and Geoff Sanderson.
Saskatoon hosting the tournament followed the opening of the Blades’ new home arena, Saskatchewan Place (now SaskTel Centre) in February of 1988. A record total of 77,296 fans filled the Blades’ new digs during the 1989 Memorial Cup tournament.
The Blades’ offensive barrage in 1982-83 was historic in more ways than one as the club assembled likely the deepest collection of offensive firepower to ever hit the ice in Saskatoon.
This squad boasted a franchise-record five 100-point scorers, led by future New York Islander Roger Kortko, who racked up 161 points. Perry Ganchar led the way with his 68 goals before going on to reach the NHL with the St. Louis Blues and Montreal Canadiens, and Lane Lambert poured in 59 goals before embarking on a long career that included seven seasons in the NHL.
The collection of future NHL talent on this particular squad was extremely impressive. Nine members of the 1982-83 Blades went on to play in the NHL. Center Brian Skrudland and defenseman Joey Kocur led the way, combining for more than 1,700 games of NHL experience.
It was the third and final season in Saskatoon for Skrudland, who went on to play eight seasons with the Canadiens and later became the first captain of the Florida Panthers.
For his Blades career, Skrudland totalled 77 goals and 192 points in 208 games. The Blades retired his jersey No. 10 in 2003, and in 2013 he was named to the Blades Team Of The 1980’s.
The Blades won the Scotty Munro Trophy as WHL regular-season champions for the first time since 1972-73 when the league was known as the Western Canada Hockey League, with 105 points on the strength of their 461 goals, which remains a franchise record. It was the first time that Saskatoon had eclipsed 100 points and 50 wins (52) in a season, which included a franchise-best 32 home victories.
Unfortunately, the success did not carry as far into the postseason as the Blades hoped, as they lost in the conference semifinal.
Dennis Beyak, currently the play-by-play voice of Winnipeg Jets regional games on TSN, was an assistant coach for the Blades in 1982-83 and was the club’s assistant general manager from 1981-90. He would also serve as chairman of the 1989 Memorial Cup, which helped him earn 1989 WHL Executive of the Year honours before moving on to serve tenures as general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds (1992-94) and Tri-City Americans (1994-95).
The native of Winnipegosis, MB has carved out a distinguished hockey career most recently highlighted by extensive broadcasting experience in the WHL, NHL and at the World Junior and World Hockey Championships.
Broadcaster’s Pick: 2012-13
As the play-by-play voice of the Blades for the past 26 seasons, Lazaruk has walked with the Saskatoon fan base through all of the team’s peaks and valleys, making it difficult to highlight just one memorable season but rather several.
One season that Lazaruk cites that would probably not make every fan’s list is the Blades’ second Memorial Cup host season in 2012-13.
“That season was a roller coaster ride,” Lazaruk said. “People were talking about how the team should have to relinquish hosting the Memorial Cup because of their poor start to the season, and then of course they came on winning 18 straight games after the trade deadline to finish first in the East Division.”
As with any Memorial Cup host team, that season was met with great expectations in the Bridge City, and it did not get off on the right foot. Saskatoon lost seven of their first nine games and did not rise above the .500 mark until improving to 13-12-1 at the end of November.
The Blades picked up three players at the trade deadline in mid-January, with the acquisition of star center Micheal Ferland from the Wheat Kings grabbing most of the headlines.
With their team set, the Blades’ fortunes began to turn around. From Jan. 27 to March 3, Saskatoon reeled off a franchise-record 18 consecutive victories, which vaulted them firmly into first place in the East Division heading into playoffs. “They were scoring goals pretty readily and just steamrolling teams as they went along, so it was pretty impressive,” Lazaruk said.
Though certainly impressive, the streak does not top the WHL archives. The Victoria Cougars won 24 consecutive games split between the 1980-81 and 1981-82 seasons, and the Estevan Bruins strung together 22 straight in 1967-68 on their way to winning the in the league’s lone season under the Western Canada Junior Hockey League moniker.
The Blades’ streak started at home against the Moose Jaw Warriors and ended on the road in Moose Jaw.
“The Blades had a big lead in the third period, and they let it get away and go into overtime,” Lazaruk recalled of the 5-4 overtime defeat that snapped the Blades’ winning streak. “Andrey Makarov wandered out of the net for some silly reason and the next thing you know, he’s giving up the puck and (Moose Jaw) is scoring into essentially an empty net to end the Blades’ winning streak.”
To his credit, Russia’s starting goaltender for the 2012 and 2013 World Junior Championships put together a strong season in Saskatoon, winning 37 games in 61 appearances while posting a 2.62 GAA and a .919 SV%.
Lazaruk surmised that the strange end to the winning streak began to turn the team in a downward trajectory again that they were unable to break out of before being swept from the first round of playoffs by the Medicine Hat Tigers.
With a long layoff between their playoff loss and the start of the Memorial Cup, head coach Molleken allowed the team to go home for a short time to recharge quickly before returning to Saskatoon a month before the tournament. In that time, the Blades were kept busy with practices and workouts while sports psychologists were also brought in to help the team with the challenge of being ready to compete after such a lengthy layoff.
When it finally arrived, the Memorial Cup was a microcosm of the entire season. In their second game of the round robin, the Blades downed the eventual champion Halifax Mooseheads, who were led by Nathan MacKinnon, by a score of 5-2, but fell in each of their next two games, ending their tournament.
“They were in a one goal game against Portland in the third game, and had they won it, they would have advanced directly into the final,” Lazaruk said. “Instead, the Winterhawks came through in the third period with three goals, and the Blades ended up in a tie with London and lost the tiebreaker game to the Knights.”
After the season, Ferland aged out of junior and begin his professional career with the Calgary Flames, while Molleken stepped down as head coach. The legendary WHL coach and executive remained as general manager for one more season before parting ways with the Blades in 2014.
After five consecutive playoff berths (2008-13), the large prices paid in trades for the likes of Schenn (2010-11) and Ferland (2012-13) sent the Blades through a drought of five straight seasons without playoff hockey at the SaskTel Centre.
The Blades have qualified for the playoffs in each of their first two seasons under head coach Love and look like they are positioned to put together another campaign worthy of a place on this list.
The club has produced multiple draft picks in recent times, headlined by Dach, and the current team boasts and exciting stable of young talent. Five Blades are listed for the upcoming 2020 NHL Draft including top scorers Robins and Crnkovic, as well as netminder Koen MacInnes. That group is tied for the most of any WHL team in this year’s draft.
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Blades’ fans have been treated to many successful and memorable seasons from their team through the decades. Still, If the club is successful in the ultimate objective of delivering a WHL or Memorial Cup title, that particular campaign would rocket straight to the top of the heap and be celebrated and commemorated in Saskatoon for a long time to come.