New elite hockey team hires first head coach

The Estevan Bears are a new U18 AAA team in Saskatchewan. Jeff Smith was hired as the team’s first coach on Tuesday. Photo by Donovan Maess

Jeff Smith is anxious about his first head coaching job after being hired by the Estevan U18 AAA Bears for its inaugural season.

“[I was] shocked,” said Smith. “I threw my hat in to get the experience of the process. The three other coaching jobs I’ve had kind of fell onto my lap whereas this one I had to pursue it.”

The SHA announced Estevan Minor Hockey would be granted a U18 AAA team for the 2020-21 season. The SHA told every team in the Sask Midget AAA Hockey League (SMAAAHL) in October that they would have to rebid for a spot in the elite league.

Warman was also granted a team while the Beardys Blackhawks and Notre Dame Argos lost their franchises.

Smith, who played 15 pro seasons in the AHL, ECHL and in Europe, had been serving as the Estevan Jr. A Bruins Associate Coach since January 2018, helping lead the team to a league championship that season.

“I learned things like bench management; how to deal with the players on a day-to-day basis,” said Smith. “These are young kids growing into young men. Watching them progress at the beginning of the year as this ball of wax to the end of the year where they’re grown men – that’s the kind of things I like to see.”

The former pro is ready for the added pressure of being the head guy.

“Always being the assistant, you have to answer to the higher up,” said Smith. “Being the head coach, all the pressure falls on me now – I always enjoyed that when I played. The team’s success is on you. If it’s bad, it’s on you.

“It’s the challenge of making sure these kids have every opportunity to succeed.”

Current Estevan Jr. A Bruins Head Coach, Chris Lewgood, spoke of what the new local team means to players in the southeast.

“It gives local players a place to play at a high level,” said Lewgood. “Most players would have to go to cities like PA or Saskatoon. This lessens the cost for players – and parents – who can play at this level to do so.”

Lewgood pointed to the sort of relationship that the Bruins may have with the Bears.

“Generally speaking, the two teams are separate organizations,” said Lewgood. “But we will extend our resources to them.

“We have selected individual players throughout the SMAAAHL that we will call-up as fill-ins. The closest AAA team was an hour and a half away in Notre Dame, but most of those players are affiliated with the Jr. A Hounds there so we would have to bring in players from Regina or Yorkton.”

Smith is looking to have a large connection to all of Southeast Saskatchewan.

“It will be huge for the local kids and the entire southeast region,” said Smith. “If you get caught in between Weyburn and Estevan, [kids] have to choose between which junior team you cheer for – kind of like Edmonton and Calgary – you can’t pick both. So, this gives them a team that’s neutral, that everyone can rally behind.”

The buzz around the rink has caught the ear of Smith already.

“Already some of the young kids are already looking forward to it,” said Smith. “I’ve heard, ‘Oh, that logo is so nice. I can’t wait to watch them play.’ So, there’s buzz already and we’re not even established yet.”

Smith outlined his vision for the team headed going into its first season.

“I want to put together a team that competes every night,” said Smith. “Are we going to win every game? No. We don’t have the ability to pick the cream of the crop. But we want to compete. We want to work hard.”

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