By RYAN MCCRACKEN on February 13, 2021.
The Medicine Hat Tigers will hit the ice as a team for the first time in nearly 11 months this weekend at Co-Op Place.
After reporting to Medicine Hat last Saturday, players and staff took part in quarantining and will meet up at the arena over the weekend to prepare for the opener of their 24 game Western Hockey League season on Feb. 26 in Red Deer against the Rebels.
“I think everybody’s excited. We’re all looking forward to it,” said Tigers head coach and general manager Willie Desjardins, adding they are awaiting results from their second round of testing before kicking off camp. “If those all come in and everybody’s good, then we’ll be able to start right after that.”
Even prior to the first practice, returning forward Corson Hopwo says the season has a different feel – from an abundance of new health and safety protocols to follow and the prospect of playing in empty barns, to entering training camp in February with a nearly set squad.
“We’re coming in with a set team and right from the get-go we’re learning systems and everything. It’s not easing our way in like we’re used to, but I’m excited for it,” said Hopwo, adding playing in an empty arena will be a first. “Hopefully it feels kind of like a real game. I know it’s not going to, but I hope we get used to it pretty quick and play well with it.”
The Tigers are one of 17 teams cleared to play so far, with the Central and U.S. Divisions getting a green light from their respective health authorities and the East getting clearance Friday to host a hub city in Regina. The league’s remaining five teams in the B.C. Division are still waiting in limbo.
“I definitely feel for the guys who aren’t playing right now. Training and being stuck at home definitely is a dagger for them, but I’m happy and grateful for our division to be starting,” said Hopwo, who knows what that’s like after spending almost a year waiting and hoping for this weekend to arrive.
“It was just kind of ramping up our training, then ramp it down when we heard that we’re not going to start. Then ramp it up again, then ramp it down. Then finally when we got the call that we were officially going to start, it was like ‘Thank goodness we’re starting.'”
The first two weeks of the Central Division schedule was released Friday, setting the Tigers up against the Rebels in a home-and-home to open the campaign – with the series shifting back to Medicine Hat on Feb. 26 for Bob Ridley’s 4,000th game.
“He’s a great guy,” Hopwo said of the Tigers longtime broadcaster. “He’s always in the room, chatting with guys and bantering with everyone. He’s always wondering about you, asking how you’re doing. He’s truly a great guy and I’m glad he’s been a part of my life.”
The Central Division’s entire 24-game season will be played inside the borders of Alberta, with two home-and-home sets and one bye each weekend. Medicine Hat will meet up with the Edmonton Oil Kings for their second set of games, March 5-6. Hopwo says the home-and-home format will make for some highly competitive hockey while amplifying the rich rivalries that populate the Central Division.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “There’s definitely some hatred that’s going to be built up and it’s going to be a good 24 games here.”
The East Division will open its season in Regina on March 12, followed by the U.S. Division on March 19.