The past two seasons have brought a great deal of change to the Saskatoon Blades but one of the constants throughout has been their on-ice leader.
Chase Wouters played his fourth full Western Hockey League season in 2019-20, and his second as captain of the Blades. As Saskatoon’s first-round bantam draft selection, 18th overall in 2015, The 6-foot, 185-pound centerman played a pair of games as a 15-year old and made the team on a full-time basis as a 16-year old during the 2016-17 season.
In that time, Wouters has quickly grown from a young player trying to find his way in the WHL, to now being in line to become the first three-season captain in the history of the Blades, which dates all the way back to 1964.
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All the while, and partially due to their captain’s presence, the Blades have remained a contender in the Eastern Conference while transitioning from one core group of talent to the next.
In an interview for The Hockey Writers, Wouters reflected on his experience of breaking into the WHL as a young player and how that has influenced his time as captain.
“I remember how much fun it was and how much I enjoyed it. Being a young guy in the league is obviously challenging at times, but it’s also really fun,” Wouters reflected on his rookie season from his home in Lloydminster, AB. “How many kids get the opportunity to move away from home at a young age (and) play that high level of hockey?
“Obviously it is tough some days, and I remember being pretty nervous for the first couple of months, but I started to settle in with (my teammates) and the coaching staff and everybody treated me awesome.”
Wouters said that the team’s core of veteran players helped him adjust to the WHL, naming Bryton Sayers and Jesse Shynkaruk, who were in their overage seasons when Wouters was 17, as well as 19-year old players Braylon Schmyr and future captain Evan Fiala, who was acquired from the Spokane Chiefs in a major midseason trade.
“We had a lot of good, older players to learn from who definitely helped me get to where I am today,” Wouters said.
He added that he would pay attention to how they handled themselves in different situations.
Another contributor to Wouters’ maturation has been his opportunities to play internationally, first at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Sault Ste. Marie, ON during his rookie season and then the Under-18 World Championship in Russia the following season.
“Our team (at the U-17) lost the gold medal game, unfortunately, but we put up a good fight,” Wouters said. “(The U-18) was my first time being overseas, so it was awesome to go over and see that side of the world and represent Canada.”
Though Canada lost in the quarterfinals in Russia, Wouters was part of a prospect-laden roster, which included Alex Lafreniere, who is expected to be selected first overall in the upcoming 2020 NHL Draft.
Wouters represented his country again this past season when he suited up for Team WHL in the 2019 CIBC Canada Russia Series at the Art Hauser Arena in Prince Albert, SK and then on home ice in Saskatoon.
Fast forward to Wouters’ third season in 2018-19, and changes were afoot around the SaskTel Centre. Dean Brockman was let go as Blades head coach after the team finished out of the playoffs in both of his seasons behind the bench, and former Everett Silvertips assistant coach Mitch Love was hired as their new bench boss.
The on-ice leadership group from the previous campaign had also moved on. 2017-18 assistant captain Libor Hajek had been dealt to the Regina Pats in a midseason swap before the 2018 trade deadline and is now breaking in with the New York Rangers. Fiala and assistant captain Schmyr had aged out of the WHL.
Love appointed a brand new leadership group for the 2018-19 season, which was headlined by the installation of Wouters as the 59th captain in Blades franchise history.
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“Everyone is a leader, it’s just a letter on the jersey,” Wouters said in his media scrum after he was appointed captain in September 2018. “I feel like I’m an on-ice leader; I like to take pride in my honest play and work ethic and then I’ll be vocal in the (dressing) room when I can.”
Wouters reflected on his quick ascension to the Blades’ captaincy at age 18, explaining that if you are in the league, the learning never stops.
“There is always lots of learning going on in the WHL,” Wouters said. “You do become aware of your changing role as you gain experience and go from being one of the younger kids just breaking in and looking up to the older players, to becoming one of the older players who can help somebody else.”
In terms of production, Wouters’ game had developed well during each of his first two WHL seasons before earning the captaincy. He chipped in six goals and 21 points as a rookie before his totals jumped to 18 goals and a career-high 51 points in his second season. With the added responsibility that came with wearing the “C” on his jersey for the first time, Wouters’ stat line dipped slightly, lighting the lamp 15 times with 39 points.
Ask him, however, and he’ll tell you that the most important result at the end of the day is team success.
In his first season as head of the on-ice leadership group, the Blades posted the franchise’s best regular season since 2010-11, winning 45 games and finishing with 98 points in 2018-19, good enough for second place in the Eastern Conference, and bringing playoff hockey back to Saskatoon for the first time in six seasons.
That edition of the Blades were a deep, offensive unit, headlined by 2019 third-overall NHL Draft pick Kirby Dach, who was third on the team with 25 goals and 73 points. He is currently preparing for the NHL’s return to play with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Overage winger Max Gerlach led the team with 42 goals, while 20-year old defenceman Dawson Davidson had a team-high 75 points, which led all WHL defenceman in points.
The Prince Albert Raiders were the only team better in the Eastern Conference and they got the best of the Blades again in the playoffs, taking Saskatoon out in six games, en route to winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup and a trip to the 2019 Memorial Cup in Halifax, NS.
Changing on the Fly
During the offseason, Wouters is somewhat of an outdoorsman, listing fishing, hiking, camping, and golf as hobbies that take his mind off of hockey. At the rink, however, Wouters’ focus is squarely on his team, and his presence was vital to his squad this past season.
The 2019-20 season saw the Blades top-five scorers from the previous season all move on, turning the keys to the car over to the teams emerging stars, such as Tristen Robins and Kyle Crnkovic.
The quality of Saskatoon’s young talent, which includes five players listed on Central Scouting’s Final Rankings for the 2020 NHL Draft, enabled them to stay competitive in the East Division through the first half of the season as they encountered some growing pains.
The new Bridge City bunch was bolstered by other older players including their three overage alternate captains, defencemen Nolan Kneen and Scott Walford, and winger Riley McKay, who signed in the American Hockey League after the season.
In each of Wouters’ first two seasons as captain, the Blades’ alternate captains have all been older players to provide counsel and support.
Fueled by the deadline acquisition of Slovakian scorer Martin Fasko-Rudas, the Blades put together a strong second half and secured a playoff berth before the COVID-19 stoppage in March.
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Amid all the changes, Wouters tried to put himself back in the skates of younger players or any teammate who needed encouragement.
“As I get older, I remember the struggles of being a younger player, living away from home and maybe not playing as much as you want to, but it all works out in the end if you have a good attitude,” Wouters said. “There is always somebody to talk to (on the team).”
McKay was also a consistent linemate of McKay, forming the foundation for a strong second scoring line for the Blades. Playing beside McKay, who signed an American Hockey League contract after the season, Wouters turned on the red light a career-high 26 times this past season with 48 points.
The duo had a variety of wingers, finishing the season with midseason acquisition Caiden Daley completing the line.
Also helpful for both Wouters and the team is the familiarity between himself and players like fellow Lloydminster, AB product Rhett Rhinehart, who he played with prior to entering the WHL.
The Blades hosted parents’ weekend in February 2020 and they had a little something extra lined up for their captain. Wouters’ father Scott, a longtime Blades fan from North Battleford, SK, joined the rest of the players’ dads in the dressing room before puck drop at the SaskTel Centre against the Swift Current Broncos on February 22.
The starting lineup announcement came with a twist from Mr. Wouters.
“They kept it a secret from me, I didn’t know what was going on,” The younger Wouters recalled. “My dad stepped forward and I kind of figured out that he was giving the lineup. That was something I’ll never forget.”
“I was a Blades fan in the early ’80s, and I used to tune in the clock radio (and listen to players like) Brian Skrudland (and) Roger Kortko,” Scott Wouters said during his pregame address to the team.
They certainly hit the ice inspired after the pregame pep talk as Wouters went on to score a pair of goals as the Blades defeated the Broncos by a final of 8-1.
Things have certainly come full circle for the Wouters family, with son now captaining the team that his dad grew up rooting for.
Iron Man Streak
A major component of leadership is to simply be the way you go about your business and being ready to do up your chinstrap every game, and Wouters excels in that lead-by-example model. Entering 2020-21, he has not missed a game since late in his rookie season, a span of 210 games.
Serving as captain has put even more emphasis on the importance of being ready to go whenever called upon.
“(Being captain means) you have to be on every day, and there are a lot of days where you might not feel the best, maybe you didn’t get the best sleep, but you have to show up to the rink with a positive attitude,” Wouters said. “That is something I learned at a young age. (A positive attitude) is going to take you farther in this league, and I’ve taken that into not only hockey but everyday life as well.”
There are a myriad of demands on WHL players, especially younger players finding their footing in the league. On-ice performance and development, media commitments and the responsibilities that come with being a small-time celebrity in your local market, as well as academics for high school-aged players, are just a few factors that a player must handle on a daily basis. Never mind the pure physical grind that comes with playing a professional style 68-game schedule while riding busses and living away from home with billet families for the first time in many cases.
Wouters shared the perspective that helps him navigate the rigours of his chosen pursuit and remain at his best.
“There are a lot of hard days, but the way I see it, there is always a reward at the other end, and there are a lot of good days, too,” Wouters began. “Whether it’s playing in a game (or) playing a little game at the end of practice, for example, there is always something to look forward to. And when things aren’t going well or you’re not having fun, you’re going to have to keep pushing through.”
Wouters also shared that he appreciates the open communication that his team maintains, whether it be amongst teammates or from player to coach.
Now 20, Wouters is one of four overage players currently on the Blades roster for the upcoming season, a number that will need to be trimmed to three. With 259 games of experience in the WHL, all with the Blades, Wouters seems to be all but a lock to return.
Of course, before the puck can drop, there is uncertainty facing the 2020-21 WHL season in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right now I’m training like we’re starting on October 1st like the league plan is,” Wouters said. “If it gets pushed back, we’ll be ready to start then, and take off where we left off (last season).”
With the bulk of their core able to return for the coming season, the Blades will enter next season with an opportunity to cement themselves as a power in the Eastern Conference.
Wouters laid out his objectives for his final season of junior hockey.
“Everyone wants to sign a contract eventually, so as far as personal goals, I’d like to do that,” Wouters said. “From a team perspective, we want to get back in the playoffs and make a run. That’s something that we’ve talked about ever since I’ve been here, and that’s the goal.”
Saskatoon is a passionate hockey market with a storied alumni base, but they are starving for playoff success. To find the last time the Blades reached the WHL final, you’ll need to go back to the Lorne Molleken-coached 1991-92 and 1993-94 teams, which both bowed out to the eventual Memorial Cup Champion, Kamloops Blazers.
Through the years, Wouters has remained consistent in his team-first approach and it has served him well throughout his career and has served the Blades well under his captaincy. The 2020-21 season will be the last kick at the can for Wouters to lead the Blades on the deep playoff run they have been striving so long for.