The North Van Wolf Pack ended their season with a thrilling overtime win at the provincial championships, prompting a mob scene surrounding the scorer as players raced onto the ice.
It was a satisfying season-ending victory, which could have been made sweeter only if the colour of medal they earned was gold, not bronze.
Third place, however, is where the Wolf Pack ended up at the Cyclone Taylor Cup, the four-team tournament used to decide the best junior B team in the province. North Van, coming off regular season and playoff titles in the PJHL, went in shooting for provincial gold, but ended up celebrating an overtime winner from defenceman Jonathan Sheardown which gave them a 3-2 victory over the host Campbell River Storm in the bronze medal game Sunday at Rod Brind’Amour Arena.
“Our goal as coaches and players is to win that last game, and we did,” said Wolf Pack head coach Bayne Koen. “It would have been nice to get the gold, but we’ve got to be proud to get the bronze and we can’t hang our heads.”
The tournament started well for the Wolf Pack, as they quieted the raucous home crowd by scoring a 5-2 win over the Storm immediately following the opening ceremony on Thursday night.
They were back on the ice against the Revelstoke Grizzlies the next afternoon, losing 5-1 while being outshot 38-19. The Pack had one more chance to qualify for the final but lost 3-0 on Saturday against the Victoria Cougars despite outshooting the Island team 32-24. Revelstoke went on to beat Victoria 5-1 in the final.
In a season in which almost everything went right, those two losses will haunt the Wolf Pack as two games that went wrong. Koen said the team may have lost their legs a bit in the tournament – the Wolf Pack hadn’t played a competitive game since winning the PJHL title on March 20.
“Three weeks off isn’t ideal for a hockey program,” said Koen. “It’s tough. I think we hit the wall late in the first game, and then that quick turnaround – we just came out a little flat. We had opportunities, it just didn’t work out. Next thing you know we’re chasing the game. We hit a post and a crossbar, just little things that normally went our way this year, for whatever reason we just kind of fought the puck offensively and ran around a little bit more defensively than what we are used to. The effort was there.”
The whole team was left disheartened by the back-to-back losses that sent them to the consolation final, but Koen was pleased to see the team respond with bronze on the line. The club put particular emphasis on scoring a medal for graduating senior players Justin Lee, the team’s captain; defenceman Kyle Henderson; goalie Spencer Eschyschyn; and forwards Aidan Bar-Lev-Wise, Jacob Lacasse, Kaz Minemoto.
“There were a lot of emotions for all of us,” said Koen about the scene following the overtime winner. “A lot of the 20-year-olds, that’s their last shift of hockey, basically. Especially the guys we’ve had for three years, it’s hard to see those guys leave the program, but it’s nice to get the win.”
The medal topped off a season that saw the Wolf Pack win the PJHL title with a dominant 12-2 run through the playoffs. The team started the year with a strong nucleus and then added some pieces along the way, including some local players, such as OT hero Sheardown, who began the year with junior A clubs elsewhere but choose to come home and play with the Wolf Pack. The colour of the final medal may not have been what they wanted, but everything else about the season was special, said Koen.
“It just kind of all fell into place,” he said. “Early in the year you could feel the team camaraderie, the specialness of the group. They were very tight, nothing really fazed them, they just worked hard every day. As a coaching staff we didn’t really have to come down on them to work hard every night, they wanted to be the best. It was quite evident every single game night, they were always ready to play. We always told them, ‘we want to be the pace car, we don’t want to be the chase car.’ We want to use our speed and skillset to our advantage, make teams have to run around and follow us.”
The buy-in from the players was the most important part of the team’s success, said Koen.
“The bottom line is we had 26 guys that truly cared for each other and wanted everyone to be successful,” he said. “From an organizational standpoint, it’s what you want to see in a program. We just kept working and kept believing. … They obviously believed what the coaching staff put forward, and we believed in them.”