It sucks. Flat out sucks. I was messaging with Bobcats Captain Grant Baker for a bit after the game last night and I just felt sick for him. Felt sick for the entire team. I was fortunate enough to start doing the color (yes I use American spelling for you first time readers) commentary for their games back in January and frankly I sat in on one pre game interview with play by play man Shane Tomayer and didn’t really have anything to do with anyone on the team except for Grant and rookie forward River Beattie whom my sister and brother in law were billets for. But nevertheless you get attached to a team when they go on a ride like this. But even though it is now over, what an unbelievable run it was!
Whether it has been the Bobcats, the Blazers, or even the Lancers which I’m too young to have watched (don’t get to say that much anymore), this city hasn’t seen much quality Jr. A hockey over the years. The Blazers had some pretty good years in the late 90’s/early 2000’s (as I hit on too many times during our broadcasts), they had a few years where they maybe would win a round, but nothing special. The ONE season they had a team capable of winning the league happened to be the 99-2000 season, when Fort McMurray was hosting the RBC Cup and had bought…sorry, no backspace button….had BROUGHT in one of the best teams ever to play in the AJHL. So I guess you could say this city has been snake bit when it comes to the Blazers/Bobcats.
It’s pretty tough to gain any traction when a team just seems to have 1 disappointment after another. It finally looked like things had changed a few years ago when Brian Curran did a tremendous job here and was really the best coached we’ve had in Lloyd for a long time. Curran had the Bobcats 3rd in the North and it looked as though they were about to go on a pretty good playoff run. But just when it looked like things were turning, the team was swept in the first round and came close to being moved to Whitecourt. Curran moved on to Drumheller, and even though the team was staying they were back to the bottom yet again.
Even after that scare of the team leaving, and now being basically community owned, it’s been tough to draw fans because quite frankly it doesn’t matter how anyone thinks the team will do, anyone from Lloyd just expects the team to never come close. This season the team gets off to a very surprising start, maintains there spot in the top half of the North all season long, has maybe their best game of the regular season on Hockey Day in Canada in front of a packed house, yet games 1 and 2 against Whitecourt even though the crowds were solid, you could simply tell that people weren’t buying in. Man did they ever start buying in….
I know I wrote all about it in my last piece on the team but game 4 in Whitecourt, trailing 2-0 in the 2nd to a dysfunctional but very talented Wolverines team, and they fight back to tie it. Go down 3-2, tie it. Go down 4-3 late in the 3rd of that game, and still down by that score with under 30 seconds to play. Most teams don’t mean to quit in that situation, but you can’t help but get rushed, panicked, and frustrated. They kept their heads though and guess who…Austin McDonald scored to tie it with just 10 seconds left and take it to OT where Taylor Mulder wasted no time ending things.
A winner take all game 5 is of course going to bring people out to the rink, but don’t think for a second the way they fought back in game 4 had nothing to do with it. And they just kept building…oh hold on a second, I have to respond to Tyler King’s tweets as once again his picture of himself trying to look professional followed by his childish twitter fights are clogging up my timeline….ANYWAY, they just kept building momentum and this town really started to take notice this team wasn’t your normal Bobcats/Blazers team, they had something special going on.
The 99 team wasn’t as good as the 2000 team, but the 99 team came closer to going to the league final. They were up 3-0 on the then St.Albert Saints with game 4 at home. That team was led by Mark Hallem whom of course everyone who goes to the Civic knows because he’s the only one with his number retired. But they were carried by mid season pickup Ray Fraser who had been with the Seattle Thunderbirds and was lights out for the Blazers. He got hurt in game 4 of that series and everything simply fell apart from that point on.
So why bring that up…in the middle of talking about how great this year’s team was? Well because this just had such a better route to game 7. They go down 3-1 in this series and simply weren’t getting ANY breaks, especially in game 4 where they really controlled the game. It would have been the easiest thing ever for this crew to pack it in. It was already a successful season. They were down 1-0 going into the 3rd and AGAIN they don’t die. Fort Mac ties the game late, and AGAIN they don’t die. Tanner Dunkle comes up huge in OT and they bring it home.
There have been atmosphere’s as good as game 6 was at the Civic Centre, but not for a Jr. A hockey game. And they didn’t let the fans down either. For 60 minutes they played fantastic. Chris Tai had a 32 save shutout and at the end of the broadcast I didn’t really even consider him for player of the game. Wasn’t because he was in anyway bad, it was because while Fort Mac had 32 shots on goal, the Bobcats really gave them maybe 2 quality scoring chances.
If you tell someone at the start of the season that the Bobcats are going to game 7 of the North semi-final and the team is taking both a fan bus and a fan PLANE to the game and people all over town were gathering at each others homes to watch the game, simply saying you would be laughed out of the room doesn’t do that any kind of justice. That would have been the equivalent of me telling you right now that the Oilers are trading Sam Gagner and Jeff Petry for Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty this off season. If you thought I was serious what would your reaction be? Exactly, yet the former actually happened.
Again, it sucks how it ended. No power plays in game 7? Brendan Saulnier wasn’t suspended after yet ANOTHER head shot on a player in this series? It sounds like sour grapes to say things like “the refs cost us the game”, but it’s no secret with anyone who knows the league that Fort Mac somehow magically gets the benefit of the calls a hell of a lot more often than not so I don’t blame anyone for saying that stuff. But man alive does this team have nothing to hang their heads about. They battled their asses off all season long. A simply amazing coaching job by Gary Vanhereweghe. I had been told prior to the season by former Blazer bench boss (and my brother in law, but that makes it sound less professional) Danny Haygarth “unreal hire, he’s a GREAT coach”, and that turned out to be an understatement.
Selfishly I have to take a minute in here to thank Shane Tomayer for having me join him on the broadcasts. This is the last time we will be doing the broadcasts and it sucks because Shane has done both play by play and color for the games for a lot of years and he does a great job as I’m sure a lot of you have found out. Don’t know why he wanted me to come in a wreck that….I was horribly rough at the start and by game 6 of the semi-final I was only below average, but I had such a blast doing the games!
But this is about the team and I don’t know how many of the boys, if any, will read this. They’re setup to have some great years in the seasons to come, but this group will be known as the one that started it all. Every single one of those kids bought into Vanhereweghe’s system and battled every single night. Changing the culture is the hardest thing to do in sports, even in junior hockey where rosters are turned over dramatically and no team has more than a 1 or 2 year window to win. Trust me though, there have been some pretty talented teams in this town who had little to no success at all. This team changed the culture. It was an unreal run, you got the city buzzing about the team, tough for the boys to be pumped about this right now but this was an insanely successful season, today this town is saluting you guys.
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