Memorial Cup-hosting Regina Pats ready to compete after long break

Regina-Pats-Sam-Steel

Regina Pats captain Sam Steel. (Keith Hershmiller/Regina Pats)

REGINA – Over-age forward and Edmonton Oilers prospect Cameron Hebig calls the last month and a half “hard.”

Coach and GM John Paddock chooses a different word: “disappointing.” Veteran defenceman Josh Mahura opts for “tough.”

Any way you slice it, a first-round exit for the Memorial Cup-hosting Regina Pats wasn’t the way they drew it up.

But they believe they’ve put their time away from game action to good use – and are prepared to make amends for their underwhelming playoff showing.

“The wait is finally over,” Hebig said.

“We’re ready to play,” added centre Jake Leschyshyn, a Vegas Golden Knights prospect. “It’s been awhile.”

The Pats, the WHL’s seventh-best team in the regular season, drew a tough first-round opponent in No. 2 Swift Current. Although they pushed the Broncos to seven games, they fell to the eventual 2017-18 champs 3-2 in the decisive contest.

That was April 2. By the time the Pats open the tournament Friday against the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, they’ll have been stewing for 45 days.

“There were definitely days where I hated it a bit,” Leschyshyn said. “Looking back now, it’s really rewarding to get to play here and be in the best shape possible.”

The Pats coaches and players have been able to either draw from their own experiences or seek council from others who’ve endured early exits as tournament host.

Leschyshyn spoke to his father, Curtis, the longtime NHL defenceman, right after the Pats were eliminated. Curtis was an assistant coach with the Saskatoon Blades when they were swept out of the WHL playoffs in 2013.

Mahura was a WHL rookie when the 2015-16 Red Deer Rebels were eliminated in the third round of the WHL playoffs in 2016.

Hebig, acquired from Saskatoon at trade deadline, joined the Blades the season following their hosting campaign. He’s chatted with former teammate Ryan Graham to get some coping tips.

Paddock reached out to Rocky Thompson, coach of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. Thompson led the Windsor Spitfires to a Memorial Cup title last season after they similarly fell in seven games in the first round to the London Knights.

“There’s no right answer. There’s only a right answer if you win (the Memorial Cup),” Paddock said. “I don’t think there’s anything else we could have done.”

The most prominent first-hand experience comes from assistant coach Dave Struch, a who held the same role with the Blades during that 2012-13 campaign. He helped implement some tweaks to the schedule the Blades used during their 51-day hiatus five years ago.

Pats coaches gave the players nine days off rather than two weeks. Players were broken up into two groups to maximize conditioning and make the 50-to-60-minute morning skill sessions and afternoon battle drills more intense. They also conducted four scrimmages rather than two.

University of Regina players were brought in for a couple of those exhibition games to provide more experienced opposition. Pats alumni, including Connor Hobbs and Dawson Leedahl from last year’s team, rounded out the opponent’s roster.

“It was similar to Saskatoon. We just did more of it here,” Struch said. “Our players really took ownership of that. They deserve a lot of credit for their effort.”

“We’re had some early mornings where everyone’s come in a little tired. But we’ve all said this is what we’re here to do,” added Mahura, an Anaheim Ducks prospect. “We’re here to get better for this first game. We’ve been saying that it’s all going to pay off in the end.”

Although both Paddock and Struck felt the players lacked focus last week, they’ve seen a recommitment to the task over the last couple of days with the start of the tourney in sight.

“We’re tired of battling against each other,” Hebig said. “We’re ready for real games now.”

The situation wasn’t ideal. However, the Pats believe they’ve put themselves in a position to emulate Windsor’s formula from a year ago.

They would have liked to have played longer in the WHL playoffs. But with rest on their side, they’re focused on contending for a different championship against the best from the other CHL loops.

“That’s what we’re going in to (do),” Hebig said. “We’re here to win.”

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