Somehow, Saskatoon Blades defenseman Ben Saunderson is enjoying his rookie season for the second time.
The six-foot-one, 189-pound Carberry product, who has grown two inches and lost seven pounds since last year, made his Western Hockey League debut in the Regina hub in the spring of 2021 This time around, his travels take him around Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta as they take on other Eastern Conference opponents.
“It’s a bit more of a regular, typical junior hockey lifestyle now,” Saunderson said. “Last year in the bubble there wasn’t a lot of travel. It was 10 minutes to the rink and then back to the dorms. This year we have long car journeys – we were just to Brandon on a nine-day road trip – and I’m with tickets now. It’s a lot more fun. We have a lot more freedom.”
Saunderson, who was selected 89th overall by Saskatoon in the 2019 WHL Draft and signed with the club on Dec. 19 of the same year, has three assists, 10 penalty minutes and a 2-plus rating in 34 games this season.
In 10 games at center, he had one assist, four penalty minutes and a -3 differential.
Blades head coach Brennan Sonne certainly noticed a difference in his sophomore defenseman.
“He just grew up,” Sonne said after Friday’s game at Westoba Place. “In this league, you come from midget or bantam or sometimes junior A, and you are a different player or you had a different role. To be that young player and get into that league, you sort of find yourself.
“I think he kind of did that. He realized what he is and he grew with that. You could see tonight he played a lot of minutes and was very trustworthy of (l (associate coach) Ryan Marsh and us as a staff. . He has improved very, very well this year.”
Saunderson said the fact that he had the chance to join the Blades in the hub last spring made a big difference, even if it was only for 10 games. He went camping in the fall for a different player.
“I just dipped my toes in the water last year in the bubble and played a few games,” Saunderson said. “I came here this year with a lot more confidence and knowing I could play at the level. It’s been really good.”
A key moment in the development of any player is to understand who he is, what is asked of him and how he can channel his strengths into this role.
The hard-hitting defender, who missed a few weeks at the end of November with an upper-body injury, said he knew he had to be good in his own half, blocking shots, punishing opponents and serving as a defender stopped.
It’s a role he loves.
“I’ve always played with a bit of courage,” Saunderson said. “I like to be physical. I’ve always had a bigger, stockier build, so that’s one of the things I like to bring every night, to be physical and wear down my opponents, and in the corners to be heavy and fight hard.”
His trainer certainly noticed.
“He gets his body moving,” Sonne said. “He defends the net really, really tough and is very competitive at the net. I think that’s kind of what he is. player and continue to develop his offensive game: when he collects the puck at our blue line, directs it towards the net and tries to find his offense there.”
Saunderson got his first chance to play in Brandon against the Wheat Kings on Oct. 9, but last week the team was in town for an extended stay with games Wednesday and Friday.
He appreciated the opportunity.
“It was really cool,” Saunderson said. “I probably had season tickets with the Wheat Kings since I was five, so playing in that rink and being on the ice instead of in the stands and playing in front of my family and friends was nice. We were there all week and I had a few days off so I was able to see family during the day so it was really nice to be home for a bit.”
He was struck by the fact that not too long ago he was one of the youngsters in the stands to watch closely.
“I remember when I was a little kid going and standing by the glass warming up and banging on the glass and talking to guys,” Saunderson said. “It was pretty cool that now you’re one of those guys.”
He’s certainly not the only Blade to have enjoyed the experience. Overage forward Tristen Robins, who now lives in Clear Lake, grew up playing minor hockey in Brandon.
Saunderson said he was a big help.
“He’s an incredible player,” Saunderson said. “He’s a great leader. He kind of showed me the ropes when I came here, being another kid from Manitoba. He skates so well and he sees the ice so well. He’s a great player and a great guy.
Saskatoon has quickly become the home of Saunderson, who won’t turn 18 until the end of September. He called his accommodations “great people” who welcomed him into their home.
Moreover, he has already graduated from high school, taking another thing off his plate.
“It’s definitely better,” Saunderson said. “All I focus on is hockey and improving my game. I can go home after practice and rest and recover instead of going to sit in a classroom During three hours. It’s good.
He also enjoys the camaraderie he has forged with his teammates.
Several years ago, Saunderson’s family moved from the town of Carberry north of the Trans-Canada Highway, which took him from Southwest Cougars to Yellowhead Chiefs territory. As a result, he played against his local mates at AAA level in the U15 and U18 divisions.
This time, his close friends are in the same box.
“That’s pretty cool,” Saunderson said. “Everyone talks about junior hockey being the best years of your life and that makes sense to me now. This is very fun. You meet a lot of guys and make lifelong friendships. I click very well with it so it’s been really fun to travel, see everything and play hockey. »
There is also a lot of business to attend to this season. The Blades sit fifth in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the Moose Jaw Warriors and four ahead of the sixth-placed Wheat Kings. He suggests they have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.
“I think we can go for it this year,” Saunderson said. “That’s the talk in the room. We have something special in the room and we’re really clicking right now. I think we have potential.”
He hopes to be able to play an important role there in the months to come. His goals for the rest of the season are important.
“I just want to get my confidence level back and play hard,” Saunderson said. “I want to be strong and prove myself and try to fulfill a higher role.”
ICE CREAM: Seattle Thunderbirds forward Henrik Rybinski and Portland Winterhawks goaltender Taylor Gauthier signed entry-level contracts with the NHL’s Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday… Rybinski, who is from Vancouver, has posted a career-high 54 points in 39 games this season. He was originally selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers, but never signed with the club… Gauthier, who lives in Calgary, posted a dazzling 13-1-0-0 record with a 1.64 goals-against average. , a .943 save percentage and three shutouts since the Winterhawks acquired him from the Prince George Cougars on Dec. 27, 2021.