The Willow Cree Chiefs seem to have come out flying this season following a move out of Warman and a rebranding from the now defunct Warman Wildcats Senior Hockey team and Coach Taylor Watts gives some of that credit to the community of Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation. “The community of Warman didn’t care about senior hockey and when you can’t get the support of the community on your side, you are not going to succeed,” Watts said. “I believe it was a breath of fresh air having the team out in Beardys as the players know they will now have fans to play in front of and a fan base who cares to follow the team.”
Watts has been with some of the members of the current team for several years, first as a player, then as an Assistant Coach, and now as coach. When asked if he saw anything different in the team this year as opposed to the last seven or so years, he had this to say, “I have been around them when they have been at their worst and was fortunate enough to stick around throughout the years and watch them develop into who they are today, and I think that has played a big role into how the Willow Cree Chiefs have become who they are. This year’s team shows how strong, resilient, and passionate they are to have hockey back on their homeland and I think that plays a big role.
When the Warman club shut down operations in the offseason, Watts said there was still a desire to play hockey and they looked to Beardy’s & Okemasis for the opportunity. “We proposed the idea to Beardy’s Chief and Council in March,” he said, did a golf tournament this summer and that’s when everything took off. “We’re hoping this is going to be the new, big thing for them out there. The community is a hockey community through and through. The fact we were able to come out and get this much support is amazing.” Watts said the support this team has received since the announcement of the Willow Cree Chiefs has been something the team could have never dreamt of, from fundraising to showing up to the rink on gamedays it has been overwhelming. It has become a bit of a lasting joke amongst the players who experienced playing in Warman, that the team has had more support in one game at Beardy’s Willow Cree Memorial Sports Centre than it did in five years at Warman. That is evidenced by the response when fundraisers are posted online, he said, with tickets selling faster than they can keep up, at the home games when the girls at the admission table have a hard time keeping up with the large amounts of people coming through the doors, and when the team hits the road for away games and they feel just like a home game as the Beardy’s fans fill the opposing teams’ rinks. Simply put, the support has been fantastic, and the players are definitely feeling it. With only five more games in the regular season, fans will have one more chance to see them at home before the playoffs. The Beardy’s Willow Cree Memorial Sports Centre will be the place to be at 8:00 pm tomorrow the 13th when they host the Kinistino Tigers. The four away games are scheduled for Sunday the 15th in Waldheim, the 20th in Dalmeny, Saturday the 21st in Allan, and Saturday the 28th in Shellbrook.
Currently, the Willow Cree Chiefs have three top scorers in the top ten, as does Rosthern and it looks, at least on paper, that Rosthern will be the team to beat to emerge from the West Division of the TRHL. When asked if he thought the fact that the two teams are located so close to each other added anything to the games, Watts said that on the ice yes, off the ice no. Lots of these players have grown up playing against each other or with each other so it always adds that intensity during the game. Also, five players from last year’s Warman team joined Rosthern this year and that tends to add a little bit of emotion to the games as well. From the Warman team of last year, the Willow Cree Chiefs have retained eight players, but Watts has also been able to add a few more that he saw come through Warman over the years. So all told the roster for this year’s Willow Cree Chiefs has 11 players that have spent some time in Warman.
Willow Cree Chiefs Trent Campbell is sitting in the second spot behind Aaron Greyeyes as the Twin River Hockey League scoring leader. Campbell was never part of the Warman Wildcats and in fact, didn’t even play on a team last year, but when Watts learned that Campbell was available to play with the team, he said it was a “no-brainer” to get him involved. Campbell’s on-ice/off-ice presence with the team, he continued, has been a huge part of the team’s success thus far, and he has definitely brought people to the rink. Campbell spent twenty of the last twenty-four years playing hockey not only in different leagues here in Saskatchewan, but also in the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League) with the South Carolina Stingrays and sojourns with the Portland Pirates, Worcester Sharks, the Houston Aeros, Bridgeport Sound Tigers, and a season with Villard-de-Lans in France. Campbell returned to Saskatchewan for the 2012-13 season and most recently played with the Watrous Winterhawks of the Long Lake Hockey League.
At the start of the season, Watts told reporter Derek Craddock the Willow Cree Chiefs were the most in-depth team on paper, and obviously, the current standings of 10-0 back that up, but this reporter asked who he thought at this point, is the biggest challenger in the league as a whole. Since the start of the season, Watts shared that a few players have been moved in and out, but the end result is the team the fans see right now with a ten win, zero loss score. Based on the results of the games, Watts said that Rosthern has put up the biggest fight, but the rumor has it the Chiefs will need to look out for the Kinistino Tigers of the East Division, who will be making the trip to Beardy’s on January 13th. Kinistino moved into TRHL from the Wheatland Hockey League where they finished in third place last season. Kinistino currently sits at the top of the East Division. There are a few other teams, Watts said, that they definitely know they have to come prepared to play against, but as a team, he thinks they are ready for whoever they meet when the time comes.
One thing seems certain, the rest of the regular season and the playoffs should bring some great senior hockey to the area.
Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder