It’s not often Saskatoon sports fanatics are blessed with professional sports being played right on their doorstep. That all changed last week when the New York Islanders of the NHL left Long Island and came to the Paris of the Prairies to prepare for their upcoming season.
The last time the city witnessed any NHL action was in 2006 when the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers converged on Credit Union Centre for a single pre-season bout on a weekday. It was different this time around because the Islanders decided to spend upwards of a week training in Saskatoon.
The New York organization underwent a stint of training camps, a rookie Islanders game against the Huskies hockey squad and two NHL exhibition matches versus the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers on Sept. 18 and 19. The Islanders alumni even travelled to Saskatoon to partake in the events and hosted a golf tournament at Dakota Dunes Golf Links. Saskatoon truly felt like an NHL city for a week.
“You can tell by the people who are coming out to watch us that they are true hockey fans and that hockey is a big part of Saskatoon life.”
Seth Sylvan is the Islanders director of communications and played a part in bringing the organization to Saskatoon. According to Sylvan, Saskatoon has a great hockey market.
“It’s been absolutely great,” said Sylvan. “Everyone from Saskatoon has really come out and embraced us. It’s a phenomenal scene.
“A lot of high school kids are out here watching practice and it’s unbelievable. You can tell by the people who are coming out to watch us that they are true hockey fans and that hockey is a big part of Saskatoon life.”
Against the Huskies, the Islanders rookies squeaked past head coach Dave Adolph’s squad with a 5-3 win in a game that took place at Prince Albert’s Art Hauser Centre on Sept. 15. Huskies forward Steven DaSilva managed to net two goals, while goaltender Jeff Harvey impressively minded the crease, preventing the game from being blown open against the rookie Islanders crew.
The ailing 26-47-9 Islanders of the 2008-09 season were a basement team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference at best. Rebuilding the core of the team continues for the Isles but things appear much brighter for the club as Oct. 3 approaches, which marks the opener of the 2009-10 NHL season.
New York was busy in the off-season and picked up the NHL’s 2009 number one draft pick, John Taveres. A Canadian World Junior prodigy, Tavares will add tremendous depth to the Islanders offensive core.
On the defensive end, the Islanders got a facelift between the pipes, adding veteran goaltenders Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson to the roster over the summer.
The Flames fell short of the Islanders on Saturday with a 4-2 loss. Both teams did not dress many of their key players, allowing younger, up and coming players to showcase their talent and prove their skills to their respective teams’ coaching staff.
This made for sloppy hockey and a less than electric atmosphere at CUC. Not surprisingly, the biggest fan response of the night came from the crowd-inspired wave. Other than a Roloson shutout through half the game for the Islanders, this contest was nothing to overly cheer about.
On Sunday, the Islanders and Oilers’ NHL exhibition match did not disappoint. Only 2:46 into the first period, the 12,842 fans at CUC got in a bigger uproar than throughout the entire Calgary game a night earlier when a solid tilt broke out that featured the Islanders’ Joel Rechlicz and the Flames’ Steve Maclntyre. The spectacle lasted upwards of two minutes and the two brawlers had to be torn apart by officials after exhaustion prevailed.
The Oilers failed to dress some bigger name players as well but all eyes were on the Islanders’ Taveres, who netted his first NHL pre-season point on an evening which happened to be the young forward’s 19th birthday.
The birthday boy was able to enjoy his first legal alcoholic beverages following the win over the Oilers at Earls on 2nd Ave. Too bad the privilege won’t carry back over to New York for Tavares, where the drinking age is 21.
The Isles returned to New York the following day to continue their pre-season stretch before the NHL regular season gets underway in just over a week’s time.
photo Steve Hiscock