Prince Albert Northern Bears ready to host long-awaited 2023 Esso Cup |

When Prince Albert, Sask’s, Julia Cey first learned her hometown would be hosting Canada’s premier national tournament for U18 AAA female hockey, she was just 12 years old.

Fast-forward close to half a decade later and she now finds herself on the roster of the Prince Albert Northern Bears preparing for the 2023 Esso Cup on home ice in just a matter of weeks.

“It’s kind of surreal really,” said Cey. “We all hear about it and have heard about it for the last few years, but now it’s actually happening. On the Bears we don’t often experience a packed rink, so I’m hoping we can get in crowds. I think it will be an experience that no one will ever forget.”

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The 2023 tournament has been years in the making for the Esso Cup organizing committee, who were originally in 2018 told that Prince Albert was selected as host for the 2020 event.

Hockey Canada however was forced to axe both the 2020 and 2021 tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, before re-locating last year’s tournament to Okotoks, Alta.

“The first time in 2020 we were about 30 some days away and then all of a sudden it got pulled out,” said tournament chairperson Robin Wildey. “So … the first puck drop of that event is going to be special. It’s going to be very exciting for us.”

This will be the second consecutive year that the Northern Bears will compete for the Esso Cup, after qualifying for the 2022 event as the original hosts before it was moved to Alberta.

Northern Bears head coach Steve Young said the community has waited a long time for the national tournament to arrive and knows firsthand the energy provided by the host team.

“I think it will be more of a relief that it’s finally here and everybody will be excited to get it started,” said Young. “We’ve experienced the [Esso] Cup last year, and it is very exciting from start to finish. So, hopefully opening night is going to be no different.”

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In Okotoks, the Northern Bears finished the 2022 Esso Cup round-robin with a 2-and-3 record. However, that was not good enough to qualify for the playoff stage.

Despite the early exit, Young added the players learned valuable lessons that they’ll be able to take into this year’s tournament on home ice.

“I think as that tournament went on, the girls understood that all six teams there are capable of being there and that’s how we’re going to approach it again this year,” said Young.

A large chunk of that 2021-22 team is back with Prince Albert this season and will get the unique opportunity of lacing up their skates in two national championships.

“I’m pretty honoured to say that I will be to two Esso Cups,” said Northern Bears defender Jacquelyne Chief. “It’s pretty exciting, I think everybody else is feeling the same way. We just can’t wait to finally play and host it here.”

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From a financial perspective, the tournament is expected to provide a boost to the local Prince Albert economy and Wildey said they’re in a good position with their sponsors even with the multi-year delay.

“They’ve stuck right by us from 2020 until now,” said Wildey. “We haven’t lost a single sponsor, we’ve gained some sponsors throughout the whole year which is a good testament to what this city can do with national events.”

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At the same time, the 9-18-2 Northern Bears are gearing up for Saskatchewan Female U18 AAA playoffs as they’ll open their best-of-three first round series against the Notre Dame Hounds on Friday.

While the wins and losses are top of mind for the team, they know there’s a greater opportunity to grow the female game in the Prince Albert region by hosting Esso Cup.

“I know we all take a lot of pride in how we conduct ourselves in the community and we want to be role models for the younger generation,” said Cey. “So, whenever they come to our games we’re all super excited.”

Organizers are looking for volunteers to round out their roster for the national championship, which will run from April 23 to 29 at the Art Hauser Centre.

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