A couple of points to ponder as we bask in the glow of a great golden Games for Canada at the Sochi Winter Olympics:
• The WHL schedule didn’t do the Brandon Wheat Kings any favours in February. The Wheat Kings played a gruelling stretch that included eight games in 12 days, and a total of 16 games over 30 days from Jan. 28 to Feb. 26. That grind clearly took a toll on the club, which lost its top three scorers and four of its top five forwards at one point and slipped into an eight-game losing skid that dropped the Wheat Kings from second to seventh in the Eastern Conference. While they are finally getting healthy again, with only eight games left, that punishing schedule and resulting injuries may have cost them a shot at the East Division title and the coveted second seed in the first round of the playoffs.
• When was the last time a player led the Wheat Kings in penalty minutes in a season without having had a single fighting major? As strange as it sounds, Czech import Richard Nejezchleb leads Brandon in penalty minutes with 67, with his lone major picked up for charging. While the 19-year-old sniper does lead the team in goals this season with 29, he also tops the club in minor penalties with 31, a number of those of the careless and undisciplined variety. His -14 plus/minus is also fourth-worst on the team, but he does lead the club with 12 power-play goals. With Nejezchleb, you take the good with the bad.
• The Wheat Kings’ other import, Latvian left-winger Rihards Bukarts, continues to produce. While his team-leading nine-game point streak was snapped last weekend, the 18-year-old draft candidate continues to be Brandon’s most consistent scorer as of late with points in 11 of his last 12 games, amassing eight goals and 16 points in that span. Not surprisingly, his efforts have started to attract the attention of NHL scouts, with Bukarts now ranked as the 96th best prospect for this year’s draft by the Red Line Report independent scouting service.
• Wheat Kings captain Ryan Pulock’s next goal will be one for the record books, giving him the most career goals by a defenceman in franchise history. The 19-year-old first-round NHL draft pick has scored 61 goals in his WHL career, tying him with former all-star Brad McCrimmon for a franchise record that has stood for 35 years. That’s pretty select company for Pulock, one of only five Brandon blue-liners to reach the 200-point plateau in their careers.
• It was interesting to note the Wheat City connections to a trio of Canadian gold medals at the Winter Olympics. While we didn’t have a Brandon-born athlete in action — Cassie Hawrysh could change all that at the next Winter Olympics in four years time — it was great to see former Wheat City resident Jill Officer grab gold with Jennifer Jones’ women’s curling team. That foursome also featured Dawn McEwen, whose husband Mike McEwen was born and raised here. Behind the scenes, Brandon native and former Wheat King trainer Darren Granger was part of the staff for Canada’s gold-medal winning men’s hockey team. Meanwhile, defenceman Meaghan Mikkelson — daughter of former Wheat King Bill Mikkelson, who was born in Neepawa — played with a broken hand to help led Canada’s women’s hockey team to its dramatic gold-medal winning comeback victory, with former Wheat King goaltending coach Matt Cockell a member of the Canadian coaching staff.
• A warm welcome home to Virden’s own Olympic connection, pairs figure skaters Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers, whose 41-hour flight plan from Russia to Canada finally brought them back late Wednesday night. The Saskatchewan-born, Virden-based skaters, who have lived and trained in Westman for the past five years under coach Patty Hole, are scheduled to be a part of the Saskatchewan Stars on Ice showcase Saturday night in Caronport, Sask.
• And last, but certainly not least this week, congratulations to Brandon native Lisa Barclay of the UBC Thunderbirds as well as coach Lee Carter, libero Donata Huebert and outside hitter Vaovai Aiono of the Brandon University Bobcats for earning national women’s volleyball awards last night. It was great to see Barclay recognized for her outstanding season by being named the CIS player of the year, as the Crocus Plainsmen product prepares for the T-Birds’ run at a record seventh straight national title this week in Regina. And a big thumbs-up to Carter — named CIS coach of the year — and Huebert — now a two-time winner of CIS libero of the year — as well as Aiono — a member of the CIS all-rookie team — for their awards. Deserving honours indeed.