North End Times Nov 23

Raiders ready to challenge for MMJHL title
(as published in The North End Times - Nov 23, 2011)

Raiders goalie Brett Gagnon says he’s enjoyed playing behind one of the MMJHL’s most potent attacks this season.
Raiders goalie Brett Gagnon says he’s enjoyed playing behind one of the
MMJHL’s most potent attacks this season. (PHOTO BY AVI SAPER)

For many members of the Raiders Junior Hockey Club, this season has been a reliving of their childhoods.

A core group of northwest Winnipeg hockey players, who grew up playing the game together before going their separate way as teens, has been reunited on a team that could very well challenge for a Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League championship.

The Raiders are 14-2, two points behind the defending-champion Charleswood Hawks for first place. The teams have created so much separation from the rest of the league that the Raiders have a nine-point cushion on their nearest challengers, the Pembina Valley Twisters.

Cam Hildebrand, a 20-year-old forward from Garden City who played for the Steinbach Pistons in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League last season, leads the league in scoring with 27 points. He said it’s been a treat to play on the same team as many of his teammates from when he was eight years old.

"All of us falling back together with the Raiders," Hildebrand said, "it’s something special to be playing with these guys and hopefully ending off our junior careers with each other and with a championship."

Goaltender Brett Gagnon, a 20-year-old from Riverbend, decided he wanted to play closer to home this year after backstopping the MJHL’s Waywayseecappo Wolverines a year ago.

"I’ve been playing with a lot of these guys, some of them since I was five," Gagnon said. "I’m having a blast. Everybody is great in the room. We all kind of click. There’s no different groups. We’re like a family almost."

The players realize that not many groups ever get an opportunity to reunite in a competitive setting — rather than a beer league — and are eager to make the most of it.

"We are lucky to have that," Gagnon said. "There’s not a lot of guys that stick together this long after they finish minor hockey. We’re all fortunate for it."

If the early standings are an accurate indication of the where the power lies in the MMJHL this season, the Raiders and the Hawks are likely to find themselves battling for a championship in the spring. That gives every regular-season meeting between the two teams an added intensity.

The teams have split their first two meetings, with the road team winning both. The next meeting will take place Friday night at Billy Mosienko Arena.

"Every game’s important," Hildebrand said. "But the games against Charleswood, you definitely go into those games as though it’s a playoff game. They’ve been the team to beat."

Just being in the championship conversation is new territory for the Raiders. After struggling for years as the Seven Oaks Raiders, a new ownership regime led by Ned Sanders took over the team and former Hawks coach Andy Williamson stepped in behind the bench.

"Going back two or three years ago, the Raiders had a couple wins here or there every season," Hildebrand said. "You wouldn’t even hear about them. The way they’ve turned it around… it’s quite amazing how far the organization has come."

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