The pre-season is in the books, the final week of practice is behind them and now the Moose Jaw Warriors are set to open their most promising season in recent years.
The Warriors drop the puck on the 2022-23 Western Hockey League campaign on Friday night in Regina against the Pats before the two teams rematch in Moose Jaw on Saturday for the Warriors' home opener.
It’s a pair of contests the Warriors have been looking forward to for a good while now, with plenty of anticipation heading into the weekend.
“It’s time to perform,” said Warriors head coach Mark O’Leary. “I think the players have put in a lot of work over the last few weeks and as coaches we’re really pleased with the strides we made and we feel ready. We know we’re playing against a team that will be ready as well, but at the same time, this is what you train for all summer long and this is what you work towards during training camp and now the fun starts.”
The last week has mainly been focused on refining their game and especially getting the cadre of youngsters currently in the line-up familiar with the WHL. The Warriors will have a much more youthful look to their crew as veterans go through their paces at NHL training camps, and getting the rookies who will see their first regular season action this weekend up to speed has been a goal this week.
“It’s about playing to your identity,” O’Leary said. “We have a lot of guys coming back from last year but we still have quite a few guys away so there are some new bodies around here, and it’s establishing that relentless races-and-battles mindset that lets us play with our skill when we have the puck. [Friday] hopefully our skill can shine through with the puck on our stick.”
It might appear that the Warriors have a built-in excuse for a slow start to the campaign, but O’Leary is having none of it.
“Even with the guys who are away, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’ve known about this for a long time, that they were going to be away for a bit and at the end of the day it’s a great opportunity for other guys. These are just circumstances that don’t change our standards, and we expect to come in on Friday and Saturday with the same mindset.”
One thing that’s for certain is the rest of the Western Hockey League has taken notice of what the Warriors could be -- the local squad was ranked 10th overall in the first Canadian Hockey League rankings of the season, marking the first time since the 2018-19 season that they’ve cracked the top 10. They received an honourable mention in the Oct. 9 ranking in 2019 and again for the first week of February last season.
“At the end of the day, it’s just our name on paper right now,” O’Leary said. “ We haven’t played a game and I have no problem with the ranking system, but we’ll wait until we’ve done something during the season. Right now it’s a starting point and we’ll just go from game one.”
Still, the respect is rather nice…
“The players that we have, they’ve earned that in terms of what they’ve done in the past,” O’Leary added. “This is a group that’s been together for a couple of years, they took big strides last year and people see potential in them, we certainly see it as coaches and we’re excited, too. Now it’s about performing and living up to those expectations.”
That means not only getting off to a good start against Regina but keeping the roll going throughout the 2022-23 campaign.
“Our conference is going to be really tight and job number one is to make the playoffs,” O’Leary said. “The two points here on opening night are just as important as the ones down the stretch in the last three or four games of the season. We don’t want to wait, we’ve talked about getting to our identity fast, and that’s within the game as well as the season schedule. It starts tomorrow night and we’re excited about it.”