Learning to play Blades hockey

By Jamie Harkins

April 20, 2017 12:00 AM

MAKING A PUSH Saskatoon Blades centre Chase Wouters races toward the play during a game against the Moose Jaw Warriors at Saskatoon's SaskTel Centre on Nov. 17 PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE HISCOCK/SASKATOON BLADES

Two Lloydminster athletes enjoyed a unique opportunity to gain a footing in the Western Hockey League (WHL) this past season through supporting each other’s efforts on and off the ice.
“Chase (Wouters) had been there a few times before,” said Jantzen Leslie, who recorded two assists in 64 games while playing defence for the Saskatoon Blades in 2016-17. “For sure it takes a lot of the stress off having a buddy there especially and then battling and pushing (each other) after practice to make each other better. It’s just huge having someone there who you know.”
Wouters notched six goals and 21 points in 54 games with Saskatoon despite playing the majority of the season as a 16-year-old rookie. The Blades’ 2015 first-round WHL bantam draft pick only turned 17 on Feb. 8.
“It was difficult at the start, but I think after the first 10 games I kind of got used to it a little bit and then tried to figure out how to play against those bigger, stronger guys,” said Wouters, who suited up for two contests with the Blades in 2015-16. “It was tough at the start, but near the end it felt normal.”
Leslie, 18, came to Saskatoon in a Nov. 29, 2015, trade with the Everett Silvertips after being drafted 15th overall by the WHL U.S. Division club 18 months earlier. The blueliner played 10 games for the Silvertips and four games in a Blades uniform prior to last winter.
Dean Brockman, head coach of the Blades, said Wouters was used in a lot of different scenarios including the power play and penalty kill due to a rash of injuries that decimated the club this past season. He said the young forward lined up mainly at centre ice and played against the top players in the league.
“With Jantzen, it was more of a shutdown role,” said Brockman.
“As a defenceman it takes a little bit more time to develop and get used to your role, so that’s why being a rookie (we) didn’t want to put him into situations that probably he wasn’t going to excel at.”
Leslie said the most difficult part of adjusting to the WHL game was the increased speed, size and strength of opponents faced compared to midget AAA hockey. He said playing in front of thousands of cheering fans at Saskatoon’s SaskTel Centre was also a bit different.
“Everett has some pretty wild and rowdy fans, but the first game at home this year we had the Thank You, Mr. Hockey night and that was one of the loudest games I’ve been in that’s for sure,” said Leslie. “We had the kids’ game where we played at 11:30 a.m. against Regina and that game was probably the loudest I’ve ever been a part of because it was, oh, I don’t know how many kids were there, but there wasn’t a free seat in the house and all the kids were screaming the whole time no matter what was going on. That was probably the most electric moment I’ve played a game of hockey in.”
The Blades fell 6-0 to the Swift Current Broncos in the Sept. 25 Gordie Howe memorial game and 2-1 against the Pats in the late January Team Up For Respect match. In total, the club went 28-35-7-2 to finish five points back of the Calgary Hitmen for the final Eastern Conference wildcard playoff spot.
Brockman said the team lost about 300 man games to injury throughout the year with many of their top players, including 2015-16 point-producer Cameron Hebig who suffered a season-ending injury before the campaign even started, going down for extended periods of time. He said that forced them to use guys like Wouters in match-ups they normally wouldn’t.
“For the most part, I think with Chase he improved quite a bit,” said Brockman. “It was a long season for him based on the fact he would have played more games against more older guys throughout the whole year. Jantzen had some experience in being called up with us before and also playing in Everett. So, both guys did pretty well in their first year and we’re looking for them to take the next step for next season.”
Wouters noted the experience gained by all the rookie players on the young squad in 2016-17 should help them contend in future campaigns.
“We have the pieces we need,” added Leslie. “We have a bunch of guys to fill in different roles all along the way, so I wouldn’t necessarily call it a rebuilding team anymore. Even though we (didn’t) make the playoffs I think the rebuild is done. It’s time to make a push.”

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