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“It’s exciting, but we have one more to go”: Warriors back at practice for Memorial Cup

After a couple days of celebration with Ed Chynoweth Cup, Moose Jaw Warriors turn attention to national championship tournament in Saginaw
The Warriors' Black Aces got in a little bit of extra time on the ice after practice on Saturday afternoon at the Moose Jaw Events Centre.

MOOSEJAWTODAY.COM -- If you’re a fan of the Moose Jaw Warriors and have been on social media at all over the last few days, you’ll have seen they’ve been a pretty busy bunch.

Ever since winning the Western Hockey League championship on Wednesday night, the Warriors have been taking the Ed Chynoweth Cup on a tour of the city.

Restaurants, business establishments and even the occasional street corner have seen the heroes of the city joining their legion of fans in celebrating the first WHL championship in franchise history.

But on Saturday afternoon, it was back to work at the Moose Jaw Events Centre.

The team hit the ice for their first post-title practice session as they now turn their attention to the Memorial Cup and the epic battles they’re sure to find there.

It helped make things a little bit more real after what has been a surreal couple of days -- with the win still sinking in for almost everyone involved.

“Yeah, I mean, not fully?” said Warriors forward Brayden Yager not long after leaving the ice Saturday. “I catch myself thinking sometimes that we just won and it’s crazy. It definitely feels great, you can feel the energy around the city, and it’s been something else. Even just going out for supper, there’s people coming up to say congrats and good luck at the Mem Cup, it’s been great.”

While Saturday’s ice session wasn’t overly long and intense, it did what it needed to do: get the refocus going on the intense hockey ahead.

“It was a work day, and it was bit tough not having been on the ice the last couple of days,” Yager said. “The legs were a bit heavy but it was good to sweat some of the rust out and it’s good to be back on the ice.”

While the Warriors have seen some remarkably tough teams in the WHL post-season -- given breaks here and there, Swift Current, Saskatoon and Portland could all have been in the Moose Jaw’s place -- the national major junior hockey championship tournament could be looked at as another animal altogether.

Every team joining the Warriors at the tournament -- the OHL champion London Knights, QMJHL champion Drummondville Voltigeur and Memorial Cup host Saginaw Spirit -- is battle-tested and champions in their own right, with just as much of a winning pedigree as the WHL champs.

But they’re all still just junior hockey teams, and the Warriors have made a habit of beating extremely good junior hockey teams as of late.

“I don’t think it’s a whole lot different,” Yager said. “The format is different in that you don’t play a series but playing Swift Current, Saskatoon and Portland, those are three teams that are right up there, too. Obviously, the Saskatoon series was pretty crazy and that was a really good test for us, and they’re going to be similar to the teams at the Mem Cup.

“It’ll be different in that we’ve never played them before, but the playoffs in the WHL Is tough and it prepared us for the next step.”

In the past, the four teams would have very little knowledge of one another outside of what they could glean from film. But with all four teams having plenty of representation in the Hockey Canada system over the years, there’s all sorts of familiarity.

Especially for someone like Yager, who has been a part of Team Canada at every level since he was 16. As an example, he’s played alongside London’s Easton Cowan, Denver Barkey and Oliver Bonk with Canada in addition to skating with Michael Simpson at Pittsburgh Penguins camp. Then there’s Owen Beck from Saginaw and Ethan Gauthier from Drummondville, two more former Team Canada teammates.

Knowing that star power gives Yager and his four fellow Team Canada Warriors -- Denton Mateychuk, Matthew Savoie and Jagger Firkus -- a bit of familiarity they otherwise wouldn’t have.

“We know they’re there for a reason,” Yager said. “They’re going to be great teams, they’re going to have great players, but it’s the same as the WHL Playoffs. They’re good players, great teams and the playoffs is a really good preparation for us and it’ll be a challenge. We have to be ready to go every night since it isn’t a series and you have to win every game, so that’s what we’ll try and do.”

The Warriors open the Memorial Cup on Friday, May 24 when they take on the host Saginaw Spirit, with game time 5:30 p.m. on TSN.

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