It may be summer and there’s no ice in the Whitney Forum, but make no mistake - the next year of Flin Flon Bomber hockey is well in preparation.
The team is planning what its 2023-24 year will look like, following successful 2021-22 and 2022-23 campaigns that ended with runs to the SJHL finals. The team's schedule for the 2023-24 season was announced June 29, seeing the Bombers start the season on the road against the Nipawin Hawks Sept. 22 and hold their home opener against Melfort Sept. 23. The first rematch between the Bombers and the SJHL champion Battlefords North Stars will take place Jan. 26 on the road, while the Bomber will face arch-rivals Estevan during the club's first southern road swing Oct. 13.
The club will also host its annual general meeting July 16 at the Bombers' office on Main Street, starting at 6 p.m.
Four of the last six SJHL playoffs - ignoring the 2020 playoffs, which were cancelled and 2021, where no playoffs were held - have ended with the Bombers in the final. All four of those outings ended with the Bombers losing to the eventual champs - six games against Melfort in 2016, four against the Battlefords North Stars in 2017, a full seven against Estevan in 2022 and another North Star four-game sweep last year. The team hasn’t won gold in more than 30 years now.
There is a hump that Bomber head coach and general manager Mike Reagan wants to clear - and this year, he feels, seems as good a time as any to climb it.
“I think we’re extremely excited about next year. I think obviously it stings that we lost out. I think talking to some of our returning players, now that it’s sunk in a little bit, they’re pissed off,” he said.
“They’re pissed off that we got swept. You never want to lose a series, but what’s even worse is getting swept. We’re using that as fuel for the fire and I think now that guys have had some time to think about it, we know that we're a better team than getting swept in the finals. We're not saying that we were a better team and Battlefords deserved it - the better team won - but we feel like we didn't show the true Flin Flon Bombers. That should have been a series that went deep. We feel like we could have put up a bigger fight. We’re hungry.”
In the run-up to the finals, about everything that could have gone wrong for Flin Flon did go wrong. Star players suffered injuries that, if they didn’t take them out of the lineup entirely, greatly reduced their level of play. Broken hands, feet and shoulder injuries were legion in the Bomber room. In Game 1 against Battlefords, team captain Lucas Fry took a skate blade to the arm that sliced him open, ending his junior A career and knocking a stunned Bomber squad back on their heels without their leader.
“We want to prove that we can get back there again, for the third straight year - now it’s all about how we get over that hump,” Reagan said.
“When you look at Battlefords, what do you need to do against Battlefords? You need to shut them down - shut down their offense. When your top defensive defenceman is out, that plays 20 minutes and plays every penalty kill to start? That's a huge loss when you're going up against, you know, such a dangerous team. I thought mentally that was tough on our guys, watching that happen right in front of them.”
Plenty still needs to take place before the Bombers open up training camp in August. The team will hold its annual general meeting some time this summer, likely in July. Reagan attended the league’s annual meetings earlier this month and will go on recruiting trips to different areas of Canada intermittently this summer, including one this week.
The Bombers have inked several recruits for next season - forwards Jaden Beauchamp, Jack Bechard, Jett Patola and 2022 first round pick Koen Senft, as well as defender Pierce Yakimchuk - but other young players are still on the way, while the Bombers have not announced any further new faces.
Once training camp gets underway, the Bombers will play at least four preseason games, according to a schedule released by the club this week. The schedule will see matchups against both of the Bombers’ archrivals, with a home and an away date against each. On Sept. 5, the Bombers will send a team to The Pas and Opaskwayak Cree Nation to face the OCN Blizzard, the squad’s Manitoba-based rivals. Three nights later, the Whitney Forum will play host to a matchup between the Bombers and Blizzard Sept. 8.
From there, the Bombers will face the La Ronge Ice Wolves twice, first on the road Sept. 9, then at the Forum Sept. 14.
Other dates for games may possibly be set between June and the beginning of training camp. The team’s schedule remains current as of press time.
There are some indicators that next season in the SJHL may be closer than last. While two members of the Battlefords’ dynamic first line are eligible to return to play, Kian Bell and Holden Doell, at least one is unlikely to come back. Bell, who has roots in Saskatchewan but was raised in Nova Scotia, is heading back to the Maritimes to start next season, joining the QMJHL’s Charlottetown Islanders as a rare overage player going to major junior from junior A. Bell has two seasons of experience in the QMJHL. Doell, who has a scholarship to the NCAA Division I Ferris State Bulldogs, may head south instead of playing his final junior A season, but no announcements have yet been made.
Meanwhile, there are question marks around the Bombers’ top two returning offensive players, Jeremi Tremblay and Jacob Vockler. Both have Division I scholarships set for them in the future and Tremblay was recently picked in the first round of the NAHL’s annual entry draft.
Despite that, Reagan says both players are likely to return to Flin Flon for their final junior A seasons. Their scholarships, Reagan said, will start for 2024-25 - there will be one more season left for the Quebec City and Sioux Falls, S.D. products before they head out to Sacred Heart Univ. and Merrimack College respectively.
“I am expecting both of them back,” Reagan said.