by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
On Saturday, September 20, 2004 when the Saskatoon Blades took to the ice for their home opener against the Regina Pats, it will mark the 40th consecutive season that they have done so a junior team. The reasons for the Blades storied success are manifold but three major factors come to mind: ownership dedicated to the community, fans dedicated to the team and players dedicated to the game.
1964-1971: The Early Years
The first few years of the Blades existence were rough. Teams and leagues came and went while the Saskatoon team struggled to build a winning product. This had nothing to do with its original owner, Jim Piggott, but more the nature of the team and the fledgling state of junior hockey in the 1960s.
“The team was more of a farm team than an independent franchise. We quite often lost players to other leagues,” remembers Gord Granberg, one of the original Blades in 1964. Owner Piggott, who previously owned the Saskatoon Quakers as a minor-pro team, intended for the franchise to feed his new team, the Los Angeles Blades of the now defunct professional Western Hockey League.
The team not only served in feeding the LA. franchise but in feeding the NHL when it expanded in 1967. Bobby Schmautz became the first former Blade to make the NHL and then score a goal. Other notables to achieve success were Chicago tough-man Keith Magnusson, Gerry Pinder (the Blades’ first 100-point scorer), and Don Kozak.
The best Blades team during those early years was in 1966-67 and produced the only winning record in its first seven seasons – 25 wins, 24 losses and seven ties. The team failed to win a playoff series in all of those years.
1971-1980: Coaching stability
Whatever memories people may have of Jack McLeod, there is one thing for sure. When he came to the team he made it a winner. It was one of the reasons owner Jim Piggott sought the former world champion and national team head coach.
McLeod was operating a flooring and sporting goods store in Swift Current when Piggott found him. “I came back from lunch one day and he (Piggott) was sitting in my office. I asked him what he was doing and he said he’d come to see me.” Piggott knew McLeod would bring a winning attitude to the team and that he did, based on a simple philosophy. “I was always taught that hockey was entertainment. For me that meant skills and guys with finesse and imagination.”
That attitude saw the former Trail Smoke Eater turn a 18-41-1 club into a 29-36-1 team. It was only one of three losing teams McLeod coached during his near-decade with the team. He followed a sophomore year record of 37-28-3 by producing an amazing 46-11-11 record in his third season behind the bench. That year (1972-73) saw the Blades advance to the Western Canadian Hockey League final, losing to Medicine Hat.
McLeod would take the team to the finals twice more. After posting at 38-22-10 record in 1974-75, the team went eight and two in the first two playoff rounds then lost to a very tough New Westminster Bruins team in a seven-game final. The Blue-and-Gold repeated the feat again in 1975-76, again losing to the Bruins. In both those seasons, the BC team was Memorial Cup finalists.
During these years, the team produced some of the best players ever to don the uniform of Saskatoon Blades. Foam Lake’s Bernie Federko burned up the WCHL record books on his way to a stellar NHL career and becoming the only Blade to make the Hockey Hall of Fame. Defenceman Lawrence Sacharuk scored 50 goals, something which no other Canadian junior rearguard had done before or has done since.
Blair Chapman, Ralph Klassen., Fred Williams, Bill MacNaught, Ken Federko, Pat Price and Brent Ashton were other stars for the team backed up the fine goaltending of Randy Ireland and Dave Parro.
There was another important change that took place during this time. In 1976, Nathan (Nate) Brodsky, Jack McLeod and Joe Reich partnered to purchase the team from Jim Piggott. The transaction marked the beginning of a 27-year (and still going) relationship between the Brodsky family and junior hockey in Saskatoon.
1980-1988: The barn is closed
The 1980 season saw a new coach for the first time in almost a decade, with former Blade Jerome Engele taking the reins from McLeod. McLeod and Reich would eventually sell their shares to Brodsky – the family has been sole owner of the team ever since.
The 1980s also marked a new era in off-ice leadership. Daryl Lubiniecki, long-time coach in the Blades farm system, was hired to coach and manage the Blue and Gold. He served as coach for three years but held the latter position for well more than a decade.
Lubie, as many fondly remember him, was behind the bench the year that produced what many consider the best Blades team. Five players – Roger Kortko, Lane Lambert, Parry Ganchar, Todd Strueby and Ross Lambert – all notched at least 100 points while Brian Skrudland chipped in 94. The team posted an all-time high of 52 wins with only 19 losses and one tie for a .725 record. Unfortunately, success on the score sheet didn’t translate into playoff success. The Blades lost the first round to Lethbridge. They wouldn’t win a playoff series until 1987.
Those years also saw the end of an era. After calling it home for almost 25 years, the Blades said farewell to the old Saskatoon arena and moved north to the newly constructed Saskatchewan Place. “Half my life was spent in the rink and to see it go was a bit of a downer,” reports Lubiniecki. “But moving to SaskPlace and seeing such big crowds made up for it.”
1988-1995: A near miss and more success
Moving out of the barn also meant a change of fortune for the Blades squad. The team, then coached by Marcel Comeau, began its inaugural season at SaskPlace by posting a 47-22-3 record, good enough to claim first in the division and see the team go the division final.
It set-up what would be one of the most storied years in franchise history. Despite losing players like goalie Tim Cheveldae and defenceman Curtis Leschyshyn to the NHL, Lubie and Comeau put together a team that almost won it all. SaskPlace was host to the 1989 Memorial Cup which meant the Blades automatically qualified for the four-team tournament, junior hockey’s pinnacle. That didn’t mean they coasted to reach it. The Blades posted a 42-28-2 record but lost out to the mighty Swift Current Broncos in the playoffs.
However they defeated the Broncos in the round robin and played stellar hockey that saw them advance to the final. The team held a one-goal lead in the third period of the final game but lost in overtime. It would be the closest the Blue-and-Gold have ever come to winning it all.
“It was a heartbreaker but it really could have gone either way,” recalls David Struch, then a Blade. “Swift Current was one of the best junior clubs I’ve ever seen and definitely deserving. We pushed them as hard as we could.”
With Marcel Comeau moving up, Daryl Lubiniecki found a suitable replacement in Lorne Molleken. Molleken would guide the team to three consecutive seasons of 40 or more wins. The squad also reached the finals twice more – in 1992 and in 1994. Both times the team lost to Kamloops in seven games; both years the Blazers went on to win the Memorial Cup.
Those years may not have produced may big names in terms of the NHL but current owner Jack Brodsky recalls they produced kids with heart and grit. Names like Kaminski, Bauer, Greenlay and Fujita. “These were guys who were all heart and gave everything they had every night.”
1995-2003: The team rebuilds
The late 90s saw the team struggle on the ice but also saw ownership dedicate itself to rebuilding. With the current team of Brent McEwen as manager and Kevin Dickie as coach, the Blades have put together one of the most exciting squads the city has seen for a while. “We’re really happy with the way the team performed last season and the last half of the prior season,” Brodsky says. “Although we lost out in the first round of the playoffs both seasons, our team is playing hockey with great work ethic. We’re not where we want to be yet but we’re working on it.”
He’s driven by the team’s history of near misses to take it back there again. “The closer you get to the championship and don’t make it, the more disappointing it is. That’s one thing we haven’t accomplished that we’re determined to do.”
Those formerly associated with the Blades say it’s this dedication that has seen the team survive for so long. “It’s a credit to the management and to the Brodsky family,” says Larry Korchinski, a lawyer with Cameco who played Blades hockey for two season from 1981 to 1983. “They’ve provided stable ownership and brought good people to the team.”
“The Brodsky’s passion for the Blades and junior hockey is the biggest reason why the team has survived for so long,” adds Dave Chartier, 1981-1985 “If the ownership doesn’t love the team, then you have nothing.”
“It’s been a well-run organization for a long time and they’ve had some good success so that keeps the fans coming,” echoes Scott Scissons, who played from 1988-91.
Others say it’s the fact that Saskatoon is hockey mad. “Saskatoon’s a great hockey town. The fans always good for packing buildings,” says Jack McLeod.
“The city is unbelievable. Coming from a small town, the people and fans were a real positive,” recalls Trent Yawney. He played from 1981 to 1985 and is now head coach of the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. “I remember the feeling of the old barn being packed. It gives me goose-bumps when I come back and drive by the old site.”
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
It all started with Bobby Schmautz. It continues with players like Curtis Leschyshyn, Darcy Hordichuk, Rhett Warrener and Richard Matvichuk.
Since being established as a junior hockey club 40 years ago, more than 150 players who have donned the Blue-and-Gold have been recognized as NHL potential. Numerous others have played in minor pro leagues like the AHL, the IHL and the ECHL, professionally in Europe or in the defunct World Hockey Association.
Bobby Schmautz was the first bona fide star in the NHL. After playing with the Blades in their inaugural season and recording 98 points, he was called up to Los Angeles Blades of the minor pro Western Hockey League. Both Blades squads were owned by Jim Piggott, who established Saskatoon’s junior team to feed his California Franchise.
Schmautz toiled three seasons in LA and then moved on to the Dallas Black Hawks, a farm team of Chicago. After notching 23 goals and 23 assists, he was called up to the NHL in 1968. He was the first Blade ever to play there and also the first Blade to score an NHL goal. Schmautz would play for six NHL teams and record 557 points in his decade-long career.
Since then the hundred former Blades who played in the NHL have appeared in over 25,000 regular season games and scored nearly 3,500 goals. Bernie Federko leads all former members with 369 goals and 761 assists for an astounding 1130 career NHL points. It’s no surprise that he was the first Blade named to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
However, Grant Ledyard, who played one season for the Blades in 1980-81 is the alumnus to have appeared in the most NHL games. In a career that spanned nearly two decades, the defenceman suited up for 1,028 regular season games. He is tied with fellow former Blade, Brent Ashton, and several others for playing for the second most number of teams in a career – nine.
Ledyard, who played last season in Europe, may see his record fall this year. Also having enjoyed a lengthy career, defenceman Curtis Leschyshyn has appeared in 977 NHL games, meaning he needs 52 more games to establish the career longevity record.
Only two other alumnae have played 1,000 or more games in the NHL. Again, Bernie Federko’s name comes up, capturing this total in St. Louis and briefly with Detroit. Dave Lewis skated in 1,008 games for Detroit, Los Angeles, New Jersey and the New York Islanders. Brent Ashton retired in 1994, having needed just two games to reach the 1,000 mark.
Leschyshyn is also a member of another exclusive group of Blades alumni. Having earned a Stanley Cup ring as part of the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, his represents one of less than 20 times that a former Blade has had his name engraved on hockey’s ultimate prize.
A past player to have had his name appear on the cup the most times is Bob Bourne. After playing nearly 200 games for Saskatoon between 1971 and 1974, Bourne was drafted by the Kansas City Scouts but traded to the New York Islanders. He played with the team when it won four consecutive Stanley Cups between 1980 and 1983. Twice the center recorded over 20 points on championship teams that featured numerous other Saskatchewan-born players. With three Stanley Cup rings to his credit, Joey Kocur is number two on this prestigious list. His first Cup was with the New York Rangers in 1994; he won it back-to-back with Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
Other players with multiple cup wins include Brian Skrudland (Montreal, Dallas), Grant Jennings (Pittsburgh twice) and Orest Kindrachuk (Philadelphia twice and the first ex-Blade to win the NHL championship). Keith Sutton (New Jersey), Norm Maracle (Detroit), Pat Conacher (Edmonton), Randy Gilhen (Pittsburgh), and Richard Matvichuk (Dallas) all have won the cup once.
There are numerous players whose efforts to win a Stanley Cup may still pay off. Of current NHLers who once played for the Blades, Shaun Van Allen and Curtis Leschyshyn went the furthest in this year’s playoff but their Ottawa Senators lost to the eventual Cup Champion New Jersey Devils in the seventh game of the semi-finals.
Matvichuk’s Stars were upset in the division semi-finals, losing in six games to Anaheim, who were coached by one-time Blade, Mike Babcock. Brent Sopel’s Vancouver Canucks were also toppled by another surprise team, the Minnesota Wild. Chris McAllister (Philadelphia), Cory Sarich (Tampa Bay) and Wade Belak (Toronto) also made playoff appearances.
Meanwhile, Rhett Warrener was part of a three team, multi-player deal that saw him head closer to home. He was traded from Buffalo to Calgary with Steve Reinprecht for Chris Drury and Steve Begin.
Martin Erat (Nashville), Garnet Exelby (Atlanta) and Darcy Hordichuk (Florida) are a few other notable Blades who saw ice-time in the NHL last season.
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
They come to play hockey. The stay for the community.
One of the ways in which the Saskatoon Blades continue to make an impact on our community is by bringing in talented youth. Often they choose to remain in Saskatoon after their playing days are over and thus make a lasting contribution to the quality of life in our city.
One such player is Dan Leier, who skated for the junior team for two seasons from 1982 to 1984. Originally from North Battleford, he was more than happy to have been part of the team.
“I was just happy to be there,” Leier admits, noting that, at 140 pounds, he was a smaller player. “The team they had coming back was pretty good and didn’t have a lot of room for new players. I was lucky that Daryl Lubiniecki gave me a second look.”
Leier, who knew a professional career was not going to happen, opted instead to go to university where he studied education and also played for the Huskies.
“I owe a lot of where I’m now to the Blades,” he says, noting they helped pay for his education. He’s currently teaching in the Saskatoon Catholic School division at St. Thomas School.
Gord Granberg is another player who’s remained in Saskatoon since his days with the Blades ended. As one of the original players on the first Blades team, though, it means he’s been in Saskatoon for even longer.
“I could have played in the minors but I chose working instead. I’m still working today,” quips the long-time SaskPower employee who played senior hockey in the Wild Goose League. He still puts on the skates occasionally in the 60-plus league where he’s joined by other Blades alumnae like Barry Sawchuk and Ed Hobday.
Dave Chartier says he never thought he’d end up anywhere else other than Saskatoon. He played with Blades from 1981 to 1985 and was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings but played only a few minor pro games.
“I’m a home grown guy. I think Saskatoon and Saskatchewan are great places to live. It was a no brainer to come back here when injuries started and my career was over.”
He went to the U of S, where he also played Huskie hockey and then served as a Saskatoon police officer for 16 years. He’s currently one of three co-owners of Frank Dunn Toyota in Prince Albert, to which he commutes. “My first year as a 17-year old we had incredibly tough guys like Dave Brown, Joey Kocur, Bruce Gordon and Leroy Gorski,” he recalls. “When you went to Regina or Lethbridge you knew something was going to happen.”
Like Chartier, Geoff Brand also became a police officer, a career he’s had for the last 23 years. He played for the Blades from 1975 to 1978.
“It was lot of fun getting to play, hanging out with guys and getting to travel. The best player I played with was Brent Ashton. Other guys also went on to some success. Billy MacNaught was one of the best face-off guys I’ve ever seen.”
A back injury ended any chance of turning pro so he pursued education instead. He stills values his time with the team and how it prepared him for adulthood. “It was a great learning experience at a key time of my life.”
After playing with the Blades in the 1982-83 and 1983-84, Larry Korchinski also pursued a legal career. A lawyer, he’s currently working for Saskatoon-based mining giant, Cameco.
“Any time you play competitive sports it helps to shape your character and teaches you about team work,” he says in regards to his time with the team. “It was a really enjoyable period of my life and the fellows that I played with remained my good friends afterwards.”
Paul Buczkowski, the longest serving Blades (at 337 games) and the team’s all-time assist leader, is just seeing his semi-professional career wind up. After skating with the Blue and Gold for five seasons from 1990 to 1996, he’s spent the last seven years playing hockey in Germany and then minor pro in the United States.
“Saskatoon is home for us so it’s nice to come back. It was always my home base during my professional career.” he says, noting that’s he returned here to finish his education. “I’d like to stay in Saskatoon when I graduate but it’ll depend on the job market.”
A packed building is one of his fondest memories of playing with the Blades. “My first game as a 15-year old, we sold out Saskatchewan place so it was a phenomenal atmosphere. I’ve never experienced anything like that since and that was a definite highlight.”
Owner Jack Brodsky says that it’s no surprise so many players remain in Saskatoon, given the philosophy of the team. “Our primary goal is always to see that we provided good quality entertainment for the people of Saskatoon. But we also feel it’s important to develop young men into being better hockey players and stronger members of the community – that’s what we always feel good about.”
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
After 40 years of solid, hard working hockey, Blades fan have many memories. One of the ones that probably stands out most in people’s minds, though, is the time the Saskatoon Blades came close to winning it all.
That’s right. In 1989, the Blades went all the way to the final game of the Memorial Cup, the pinnacle of top tier junior hockey in Canada. They lost in overtime to the Swift Current Broncos, a team laden with what were then some of junior hockey’s brightest prospects – Sheldon Kennedy, Kimbi Daniels and Brian Sakic.
The Blades automatically qualified to be in the four-team tournament as host team in the just two-year old Saskatchewan Place. That didn’t mean they didn’t deserve to be there. With a 42-28-2 record, they were the WHL’s second best team, behind the impressive 55-16-1 record of the Broncos.
“I think we had all the ingredients for a team to go that far,” says Daryl Lubiniecki who served as GM at that time. “The two previous seasons we had lost out to Medicine Hat in the playoffs and they went on to win the Memorial Cup both times.
“We just about had everything that a guy would look for in a championship team, including strong goaltending,” he adds, though noting that the team had lost Tim Cheveldae, Curtis Leschyshyn and Tony Twist to the NHL the previous year.
With emerging stars like Kory Kocur, Scott Scissons, Colin Bauer, Tracy Katelnikoff, Davis Struch and Jason Christie as well as the surprise goaltending of Mike Greenlay, the team played tough hockey, especially against Swift Current. It even stopped a Broncos early-season, 12-game winning streak.
Saskatoon had a bye in the first round of the play-offs and then swept Lethbridge four games to none in the division semi-final before meeting Swift Current in the east division final.
“We had our butts handed to us,” says Scott Scissons in recalling how the Blades were swept four straight by the Broncos. They went on to win the WHL final also in four straight and as part of a 14-game winning streak in the playoff that continued into the Memorial Cup tournament.
The Blades were fortunate enough to know that their season wasn’t quite over and began reorganizing for the Memorial Cup which took place at SaskPlace in May of 1989. The fans packed the stands for each of the games as our city broke the existing record for attendance at the tournament.
The Broncos opened the round robin with a 6-4 win over the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. The Blades also won their opening match, a 5-3 win against Laval of the QMJHL.
But the Blades lost their second match to Peterborough by a score of 3-2. The highlight of the game was a scrap between the much-admired Kevin Kaminski and future NHL enforcer Tie Domi. The 1-1 record put Saskatoon in a must-win situation.
Game Four saw the Broncos playoff winning streak extended to 14 as they edged Laval 6-5. Laval responded by defeating Peterborough 3-1 in the fifth game, their first win of the tourney.
Saskatoon fell behind the Broncos 3-0 in Game Six but were inspired by Coach Marcel Comeau to come back and post a 5-4 victory. The win ended another Swift Current Streak, gave the Blades first place in the round robin and a guaranteed birth in the championship final.
Led by Mike Ricci, Peterborough beat Laval 5-4 but fell 6-2 to Swift Current, setting up the only all-Saskatchewan final that the Memorial Cup has ever seen.
It was no surprise that the final game drew the competition’s largest crowd – just over 9,000 fans tested out the acoustics at SaskPlace.” It was fun to do that in Saskatoon because we had lots of friends there to cheer for us,” Scissons recalls. “With the building packed it was a very special time.”
He adds that the Blades were mentally prepared for the Broncos. “They beat us four straight in the WHL playoffs so we weren’t ever over-confident. We knew what we had to do to beat them though.”
“It was a big deal for guys like Scott and myself who grew up in Saskatoon, especially to be hosting it all,” adds Davis Struch. “We had a good team that stepped up at different times. When it counted, our goaltending was incredible.”
In the 14th meeting between the two teams that season, the Blades and Broncos took to the ice. The Blades were short-handed twice but killed off both penalties in the first period before Sheldon Kennedy scored with two minutes left.
Blake Knox put Swift Current up by two early in the second before Struch and Ken Sutton set up Scott Scissons to open the scoring for the Blades. The momentum seemed to shift five minutes later when Tracy Katelnikoff scored a short-handed marker for Saskatoon. Then, with just 17 seconds left in the second period, Kory Kocur scored and sent the hometown crowd into a frenzy. The Blades were 20 minutes away from a win.
It wasn’t to be. Kimbi Daniels tied the game at the 5:59 and the teams played scoreless hockey to set up overtime. The Blades opened the period with five quick shots but Bronco goalie Trevor Kruger was outstanding.
Three minutes into the period and with all five Swift Current players in the Saskatoon end, the Broncos were able to gain control. Darren Kruger fired a shot that Tim Tisdale deflected past Mike Greenlay. The Blades’ dreams were shattered.
“We went into overtime and those are always a matter of who gets the breaks,” Struch says. “It was a heartbreaker but it really could have gone either way. Swift Current was one of the best junior clubs I’ve ever seen and definitely deserving but we pushed them as hard as we could.”
“We knew we had a shot if we played our best game. Short of a lucky bounce that tied the game, we almost did it,” echoes Scissons. “We played it tight, kept them close but just couldn’t hold them. They were a great team.”
“It’s one shot,” pipes in Jason Christie. “Sometimes to win everything you have to have a little bit of luck. It just happened that our goaltender didn’t have his stick on the last shot. It wasn’t meant to be but it’s something that I’ll never ever forget.”
Despite the set back, all three agree with many others that the tournament was one of the greatest in the history of the team. The team is also considered one of the best ever fielded by the Blades, says Christie. “It’s hats off to Daryl Lubiniecki for bringing the talent together. The biggest thing was there was a lot of character on our team. With that, Marcel Comeau found a way for us to compete every night.”
Just one of many good memories the Blades have provided fans with over the past four decades.
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
While blue and gold have always been the colours of the Saskatoon Blades, the team’s logo has been upgraded often in its 40-year history. The team will unveiled the latest edition of its jersey on September 20, when the Blades host the Regina Pats in their first home game of the season.
“Much like the trend these days, the new sweater will be the team’s third jersey and worn occasionally throughout the season,” explains Saskatoon Blades marketing director Mike Jenkins.
He says the new jersey has been one of the club’s best-kept secrets as it was designed this summer. “Only a handful of personnel have actually seen it so it will be a real surprise to the thousands of fans who attend the game and see the Blades skate out in the new uniforms for the first time.”
The new sweater marks about the fifth time that the Blades uniform has been overhauled in its four decades of play. The team began its long and successful history in the 1964-65 season with something borrowed, says Gord Granberg, one of the Blades original players. The Saskatoon squad was initially established as a farm club to then owner Jim Piggott’s minor professional team in Los Angeles, also known as the Blades.
“I think we just got two sets of sweaters from them, they weren’t even new,” Grandberg recalls. Those early sweaters saw the word Blades spelled out horizontally across the chest with player numbers centered directly below. Numbers were also displayed on both sleeves, above a striped of blue and gold.
Originally the team’s home jerseys were gold while away jerseys were dark blue. The only change made during the first two decades was during the 1970s, when the team adopted white home jerseys with blue and gold trim.
The first large makeover of the Saskatoon Blades uniform happened early in the 1982-83 season. While the colours basically remained the same, the player numbers were moved to the back of the sweater. In its place under the word Blades a new logo was added.
That logo was a stylized skate blade of gold on a blue background encircled by a thin gold line. The design, however, was reminiscent of a popular video game of the time – for the next decade and more (and to this day) this version of the jersey came to be known as the “Pac Man” sweaters.
The Pac Man was around until 1994-95 when the team again changed logos while retaining the colour combination. The word Blades again figured prominently with the “L” in silver resembling a blade itself and underscoring most of the word. The word and symbol rested on two connected and arching supports to signify the Bridge City.
In the late 90s, the team announced it would again change logos but decided to turn the redesign over to the fans. What followed was a lengthy competition with thousands entering and one successful design chosen.
For the first time ever the word Blades was dropped from the sweater. Instead the new jersey, introduced in September of 2000, sports a characterized bulldozer puffing out smoke as it charges along, its grimacing mouth also doubling as the machine’s blade.
This logo works well to represent the team’s adopted slogan of “hard working hockey” and is currently used by the Blades today.
Coincidentally, the only time the Blades have ever dropped their logos was for a game in the late 1990s. However they still donned blue and gold colours. To pay tribute to sports legend Bill Hunter, who once attempted to bring the NHL’s St. Louis Blues to Saskatoon, the team wore St. Louis style sweaters with Saskatchewan Blues printed on them.
What will the third jerseys look like? There’s only one way to be one of the first Blades fans to find out – buy a ticket for the September 20 game and cheer on your hometown team.
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
Norm Maracle, 1991-92 – 1993-94
Norm Maracle played three seasons for the Saskatoon Blades and twice started in more than 50 games. His goals against average improved steadily from his rookie season mark of 3.41 to 3.27 to 2.76, ending with a career average of 3.08.
His win-loss record is even more impressive at 81-37-7 in those three years with an incredible mark of 41-13-1 in 1993-94. As a rookie, Maracle went 9-5 and posted a 2.58 goals against average in the 1991-92 playoffs. His goaltending helped the team advance to the WHL final for the first time in 15 years.
Maracle went 11-5 in the 93-94 playoffs, posting a 3.07 goals against average while taking the team the WHL final for a second time.
The netminder was drafted 126th overall (fifth round) by Detroit in 1993. After several seasons as a starter with the Adirondack Red Wings, he was called up to Detroit to serve as Chris Osgood’s back-up in 1997-98 and won a Stanley Cup with the team.
Maracle was later chosen in the expansion draft by the Atlanta Thrashers in 1999. He played 49 games for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL last season, posting an average of 2.88.
Arguably one of the favourite all-time Blades, Wendel Clark’s rugged style endeared him to many fans while at the same time making him feared by many an opponent.
After starring for the Notre Dame Hounds, Clark was called up to Saskatoon for the 1983-84 season. He scored 23 goals and added 45 assists which resulted in him winning both best rookie and best defenseman honours (tied with Trent Yawney).
The following year saw him play even more tenaciously. Despite logging in 253 penalty minutes, Clark notched 32 goals and 55 assists for 87 points. He was named the Blades MVP and top defenceman. He also won the WHL’s award for best defenceman and was named to the league’s first all-star squad.
That year he became the first Blade to be selected number one overall in the NHL entry draft. From that point on, Clark became Mr. Maple Leaf. Converted to a left-winger he would score 30 or more goals four times while helping the team to game seven of the semi-finals two years in a row.
He scored 330 goals and added 234 assists in 793 games during his career. His rugged play saw him often injured and led to his early retirement in 2000. Clark is just one of three Blades (the others are Bernie Federko and Brian Skrudland) whose sweaters have been retired by the Blades.
Lawrence “Larry” Sacharuk possessed one of the Saskatoon Blades most deadly shots. It’s no surprise that, as a defenceman, he became the first junior player to score 50 goals in a season, a mark that had never before been achieved and that no rearguard has ever matched since.
Sacharuk played two seasons for the Blades before going to the Niagara-Falls Flyers in 1969-70. He returned to for the 1970-71 season. In 59 games, he scored 27 goals and 58 assists for 85 points.
The following season, he scored the milestone 50 goals while chipping in 36 assists for 86 points. Despite this, he was only named to the WJHL’s second all-star team.
Sacharuk was drafted 21st overall by New York Rangers but did not enjoy the same success in the NHL. He played just 151 games while also toiling in the AHL, the WHA and professional leagues in Europe.
Playing for the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues, his best season was in 1974-75 when he scored 20 goals and 22 assists for 42 points.
He retired from the game in 1982.
Born in Saskatoon, Gerry Pinder joined the Saskatoon Blades after a good midget career. A member of the family that owned Pinder’s Drug Stores, his brothers Herb and Tom also played with Blades.
In his first season with the Blades, Gerry led the team in scoring with 81 points. He improved on that in his second season by scoring 78 goals and adding 62 assists for an amazing 140 points. One game against Calgary saw him score six goals and 10 points, both of which still stand as Blades records.
For his efforts, Pinder was selected as the WJHL most valuable player and also named to the all-star team and as captain of one team in the league’s all-star game.
He joined the Canadian national team in 1967 despite having two years of junior eligibility remaining. Pinder helped Canada win the bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics, the country’s last Olympic medal until the 1990s.
Gerry joined the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70 and scored 19 goals as a rookie while helping the team finish first overall. He was traded to California two seasons later and then became one of many players to jump to the World Hockey Association. After a 30-goal season for the Cleveland Crusaders, he suffered an eye injury that impaired his career. He finished his playing days with San Diego and Edmonton before retiring in 1978.
Everywhere he has gone, Bernie Federko has left an indelible mark on the game of hockey. Born in Foam Lake, he joined the Blades in 1973-1974, scoring 22 goals and 28 assists.
Playing on a regular line with Blair Chapman, Federko scored 39 goals and added 68 assists for 107 points in 1974-1975. He added 22 playoff points as the team went to the WHL finals, which ended with the Blades losing in the seventh game.
Federko exploded in his third season, scoring 72 goals and adding 115 assists for a league-leading 187 points. He was named the Blades and the WCHL’s MVP and also nominated for best junior player in Canada. Federko added 45 points in the playoffs, again leading the team to the final where they again lost in seven games.
Along with Fred Williams (#6) and Blair Chapman (#2), Federko was drafted 7th overall by the St. Louis Blues, the first and only time three Blades were selected in the first round.
Federko was voted rookie of the year in the Central Hockey League when he collected 69 points in 42 games for Kansas-City Blues.
Known as a consummate playmaker, Federko scored 80 or more points nine times and 100-plus points four times in the NHL, including a career-high 107 in 1983-84. He also recorded a career-high 41 goals that campaign, one of seven in which he banged in at least 30. He added another 91 points in 100 playoff games and was twice an All-Star. He ended with 368 goals and 761 assists for 1130 total career points.
He played all but 73 of 1000 NHL games for St. Louis. Federko received the ultimate honour in 2002 when he was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the only Blade to ever receive such distinction.
As a junior and then a professional, Brian Skrudland didn’t break many records or win many scoring titles but he won the admiration of fans, players and coaches because he played the game with heart.
Born in Peace River, Alberta, Skrudland moved to Saskatoon in his childhood. He and his family were long-time fans of the Blades before he joined the team in the 1980-81.
On a team stacked with talent, Skrudland scored 42 points in his rookie year. The following year he improved his totals to 56 points.
Skrudland exploded with the Blades in the 1982-83 season on what many argue was one of the best squads the team ever iced. Five players scored more than 100 points; Brian chipped in 94 of his own, was named top defensive specialist and shared team MVP honours with Ross Lambert and Roger Kortko.
Five Blades were drafted to the NHL that year but Skrudland was overlooked. He instead went to Montreal’s training camp and made the team, playing first on the Nova Scotia Voyageurs and then the Sherbrooke Canadiens, both of the AHL. With the latter team he won the AHL championship and was named playoff MVP.
Skrudland cracked Montreal’s line-up in 1985-86 and was part of a team that surprisingly won the Stanley Cup. He set an NHL record for the fastest goal scored in overtime – nine seconds.
Skrudland went onto play for Calgary, Florida, New York and Dallas. He reached the finals again with the Panthers and then twice with Dallas, winning his second Stanley Cup in 1999. His Blades jersey, #10, was officially retired last season.
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
There seems to be a trend happening among former Blades players. More and more, having hung up their skates, they are appearing again in hockey rinks. Now, though, they’re behind the bench as coaches.
Mike Babcock, who played 30 games for the Blades in 1980-81, is probably the most recognizable of those. After several years of coaching in minor pro, he was promoted last year to head coach of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Along with J.S. Giguere’s incredible goaltending, Babcock’s system of defensive play was credited for those Ducks going on an incredible run -all the way to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final.
His team upset the well-coached Minnesota Wild, the one-time Cup winners Dallas and the reigning champions, Detroit. The team utterly surprised the Red Wings, taking the first-round series in four games straight. Ironically, the Wings were also coached by a former Blade, Dave Lewis. After more than a decade serving as assistant, Lewis was also a first-year head coach last season.
One Blade who found more coaching success than Babcock or Lewis was Todd McLellan. The one time coach and GM of the Swift Current Broncos is now head coach of the Houston Aeros in the American Hockey League (AHL), the closest minor pro league to the NHL. Last year McLellan led his team to the AHL Championship.
“There’s so many things that go through my head,” said McLellan minutes after winning the championship. “You think about family, about the players, the bumps and the bruises. It’s almost surreal. You almost don’t enjoy it right now because you’re so exhausted.”
Ironically, McLellan could occasionally look out over the bench this season and see a former teammate, Trent Yawney. Yawney, who played on the Blades from 1981 to 1985 (McLellan was with the team from 1983 to 1987) is now head coach of the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, a farm team for the Chicago Blackhawks. Their teams met in the playoffs with McLellan emerging victorious.
Though they were much different players, the two are said to have similar coaching styles. “They’re both very fair, and they play the guys who show up every single day for practices and for games,” claims Norfolk center Brett McLean, who, at one time, also played with the Aeros. “They accept input and let the players play and dictate who’s going to win, and that’s all you can ask from a coach.”
“I didn’t think about coaching earlier but towards the latter part of my career it was something I looked towards,” Yawney says after his sixth year of coaching. “As a veteran who was sometimes injured you start to do some of it already with the younger players.”
He adds that the people who have coached him in junior, semi-pro and the NHL were major influences on his own approach to the vocation. “You take something from every coach you have and can trace it all the way back to your early career. When I think of Lubie [former Blade coach and GM, Daryl Lubiniecki], he was more of a father-type to us than a coach.
“Dave King taught me that as a coach you just have to be yourself,” he says, noting he relished one aspect of his job – preparing his players to someday be regular contributors in the NHL.
McLellan turned to coaching earlier in his hockey career – he played only five NHL games. Yawney played almost 600 games in an NHL career that lasted for more than a decade.
Another former Blade, Jason Christie, like McLellan, turned to coaching, when he realized his days as a player were ending. Christie is head coach of the Peoria Rivermen of the East Coast Hockey League, one level below the AHL. “My whole playing career was an uphill battle, being one of the smallest in every league I’ve ever played in,” he recalls. “I always had to find a way to contribute.
“It came to a point where it was a matter of supporting my family. I knew I wasn’t going to make the NHL as a player so I had to find another to make it. Coaching was something that was always there. It was another chance to go to the bigs.”
As head coach, he’s seen his team win more than 40 games in each of the three seasons he’s been behind the bench. He tributes his success to being a student of the game since his junior days. “I love the game and especially sitting down to watch tapes and see if there are ways for the team to get better. The attitude I learned in Saskatoon was enjoy yourself and have fun but when it’s time, get to work.”
Other former Blades who have turned to coaching include Lane Lambert, now an assistant in Moose Jaw and Marc Habscheid, who is in his second stint as a head coach in the WHL, this time with the Kelowna Rockets, the league champions this year. Brian Skrudland has been an assistant in Calgary while Kevin Kaminski has been an assistant coach in the AHL, and former Blade coach Lorne Molleken, is currently an assistant with Chicago.
Will another Blade alumnus someday be head coach in the NHL? Molleken eas a headcoach temporarily while Trent Yawney admits he does think about it. “Sure, but only in the right situation. I don’t want to be there just to say I’ve been there.”
Christie knows that to get there will be another career endeavour. “It’s my goal but it’s like playing. I have to work at it.”
by Tom Eremondi
of StarPhoenix Creative Services
Whatever memories people may have of Jack McLeod there is one thing for certain – he made the Saskatoon Blades a winner.
Consider this: In the seven seasons before McLeod came to the team, only once did the Blades finish above .500 and that was by only one game.
During McLeod’s nine-year tenure as coach, the team finished above .500 six times. His overall record was 270 wins, 221 losses and 61 ties. He also took the team to the WCHL finals three teams, losing in game seven on two of those occasions.
This record of success is not surprising, given McLeod’s background in hockey. Born in Regina, as a youth he excelled in both baseball and hockey. He played junior hockey for Notre Dame Hounds and Moose Jaw Canucks, then professionally for the New York Rangers, Saskatoon Quakers, Cincinnati, Vancouver and Calgary, and as a senior with Moose Jaw, Saskatoon and the Trail Smoke Eaters. Winnning the world championship in 1961, the Trail team was the last to do so for Canada until the 1990s.
McLeod coached the Saskatoon Quakers in 1958-59, Moose Jaw’s senior Plamors in 1961-62 and Moose Jaw’s junior Canucks in 1964-65. After that, he coached Canada’s National team for six years. Among other accomplishments, he coached the Canadian squad to a bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics.
With the national team having disbanded in 1970, McLeod returned to Swift Current where he operated his own flooring and sporting good business. It was there that he received a surprise visit from then Blades-owner, Jim Piggott. “I came back from lunch one day and Jim Piggott was sitting in my office,” McLeod recalls. “I knew him from my Quaker days. I asked him what he was doing and he said he’d come to see me.
“Saskatoon’s a pretty good hockey town. They’re always good for packing buildings,” he says, noting he was eager to take the job.
Immediately he brought his philosophy to the team. “I was always taught that hockey was entertainment. For me that meant no fighting so I liked to work on skills. I liked guys with finesse and imagination.”
McLeod also liked the way Piggott let him have a free rein on the team. “He always told me, ‘do whatever you like as long as you’re successful.'”
Some of the guys that developed during McLeod’s time as head coach and GM were Pat Price, Lawrence Sacharuk, Blair Chapman, Brent Ashton, Randy Ireland, Dave Parro and Bernie Federko, the only Blade to make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Although it was McLeod who helped put these teams together and make them winners, he’s humble about his success. “A coach is only as good as the guys playing for him. You have to have the players to have a good team and by then the owners were dedicated to bringing in players.”
He has many memories from his days a coach and GM but the trips to the final stand out. McLeod is convinced that his teams were as good as the eventual winners, especially the two series that went to a deciding game. “When it comes to game seven, it’s just a matter of who gets the last break.”
In addition to serving as coach and GM, McLeod was part of the trio (along with Jim Reis and Nate Brodsky) that bought the Blades from Jim Piggott in the 1970s. In 1980, he decided to call it a career: he and Reis sold their shares to Brodsky.
“I had always loved flying,” McLeod, now 73, says. “I had an opportunity to become a professional pilot so I took it.” McLeod flew for the next 17 years.
Though he’s never coached again and despite knee problems, McLeod still plays hockey in the 60-plus league every winter. In the summer, he’s a daily player at Saskatoon’s Holiday Park where he still taps in the occasional hole-in-one. “For a guy like me, they’re a fluke,” he again humbly admits.