Thursday, 20 April 2017

Conference finals berths finally come for Pats and ‘Canes fans

A young Pats fan holds up a Sam Steel big head.
    There had to be a time when fans of the Regina Pats and Lethbridge Hurricanes had to wonder if their teams would ever make a long playoff run again.
    This year, those runs finally happened. The Pats and Hurricanes have advanced through the first two rounds of the WHL’s post-season to qualify for the league’s final four.
    To make things even more compelling, they will face each other in a best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship series that begins on Friday in Regina (7 p.m. local time, Brandt Centre).
    Both teams have storied pasts when it comes to the post-season, but those times seem like a distant memory. The Pats last qualified for the Eastern Conference championship series back in 1993, and the Hurricanes haven’t been that far in the post-season since 2008, when they made the WHL championship series and fell to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs.
Members of the “Canes Train” have been loud and proud all season.
    When the Pats and Hurricanes won their respective WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series, the way the players on each team poured off their bench to celebrate made it obvious they knew they accomplished something significant.
    Over the past two seasons, the fan bases in Regina and Lethbridge got behind their respective teams in a big way as both clubs experienced resurgences. While excitement was high, the idea of either the Pats or Hurricanes making a long playoff run had to be foreign one.
    During the past 15 seasons, long playoff runs seemed to be reserved for teams like the Brandon Wheat Kings, Kelowna Rockets, Medicine Hat Tigers and Portland Winterhawks, who all had many extended post-season forays over that time. There had to be doubt that the Pats or Hurricanes could ever belong with those upper echelon clubs.
Sam Steel has been all-world good for the Pats.
    For the Pats, they did have high finishes in the regular season standings since 1993, but would be bounced mostly in the first round of the playoffs and the odd time the second round.
    When the 2012-13 season came to an end, they had missed qualifying for the post-season for the fourth time in five years.
    While they have a storied past being the oldest major junior team in the world and having won three Memorial Cups, they were often mentioned in passing in recent times as one of those other teams that are out there.
    In Late April of 2014, Russ and Diane Parker sold the club to Queen City Sports and Entertainment headed by Regina businessman Anthony Marquart to signal change.
    In August of 2014, the Pats hired veteran bench boss John Paddock as head coach, and he later took on the duties of general manager.
    The Pats advanced to the second round of the post-season in 2015 and 2016, and fan interest started to build.
    In 2016-17, they finished first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 mark and were rated as the top team in the final Canadian Hockey League rankings that came out on March 22.
    Regina also topped the CHL top 10 ranking for much of the 2016-17 campaign. When the Swift Current Broncos led the Pats 3-1 in a best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference semifinal series, Regina fans had to worry if the second round would be where Regina’s run would end again.
Tyler Wong has done it all for the Hurricanes.
    The Pats rallied back to take that series with Swift Current 4-3, which marked the first time in team history Regina erased a 3-1 series deficit.
    A berth in the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series gave the Pats’ top spot in the CHL top 10 rankings street cred.
    For the Hurricanes, they bottomed out hard after making the WHL championship series in 2008.
    Lethbridge made the second round of the 2009 post-season and proceeded to miss the playoffs for six straight years after that.
    Following the 2013-14 campaign when the Hurricanes finished last in the entire WHL with a 12-55-2-3 record, it seemed there was a death watch surrounding the team. There were times the Hurricanes existence in Lethbridge was questioned.
    Before the 2014-15 campaign started, a light appeared at the end of the tunnel, when the club hired Peter Anholt as an assistant general manager.
    Those that followed the league for an extended period of time knew that this would be an inspired move.
    About half way through the 2014-15 season, the Hurricanes board of directors named the veteran bench boss the team’s head coach and general manager. The Hurricanes finished second last in the league with a 20-44-5-3 mark, but they were no longer pushovers under Anholt’s guidance.
Austin Wagner (#27) has scored goals at key times for the Pats.
    Still, there was talk that the community-owned team should be sold.
    However, golden hockey days in Lethbridge soon arrived. Anholt made a brilliant decision to hire Brent Kisio as the club’s new head coach before the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
    Kisio, who was 32-years-old when he joined the Hurricanes, had spent eight seasons with the Calgary Hitmen mainly as an assistant coach and finished his tenure in Calgary as an associate coach and assistant general manager.
    Under Kisio’s guidance, the Hurricanes rocketed up to finish first in the WHL’s Central Division in 2015-16 with a 46-24-1-1 record. They fell in a best-of-seven first round series to the Pats 4-1.
    This season the Hurricanes again were one of the league’s top clubs posting a 44-21-4-3 record.
    During the playoffs, they showed they might be the WHL club that has the most heart. Despite being plagued by numerous injuries, the Hurricanes rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in the first round to eliminate the Red Deer Rebels 4-3.
Giorgio Estephan has been a standout for the Hurricanes.
    Lethbridge proceeded to take out the Medicine Hat Tigers in another gutty seven-game series to earn a berth in the conference finals.
    Hurricanes overage captain Tyler Wong forever became a team legend, when he scored the overtime winner short-handed in Game 7 against the Tigers in Medicine Hat on Tuesday to deliver the Hurricanes a 5-4 victory.
    As the Hurricanes hit stride, fans in Lethbridge jumped on the “Canes Train” and flooded the Enmax Centre and neighbouring opposition city rinks when their team played there. Hockey glory days are back in Lethbridge.
    Now as the Pats and Hurricanes get set to battle in the Eastern Conference championship, fans get to watch two clubs that feature stars that appear to be almost superheroes.
    The Pats have centre Sam Steel, who topped the WHL in regular season scoring with 50 goals and 81 assists, to lead their side. Regina’s roster is filled with stars like speedy winger Austin Wagner, defenceman Connor Hobbs and netminder Tyler Brown.
    The “Pats Regiment” is hopeful heart and soul captain Adam Brooks might return to action from his knee injury at some point in the series.
Connor Hobbs provides an offensive kick from the back end for the Pats.
    Wong is the Hurricanes larger than life hero taking the club’s fan favourite award in each of his five seasons with the team. The Cochrane product topped the Hurricanes in scoring with 51 goals and 58 assists.
    Lethbridge compliments Wong with a number of other stars including centre Giorgio Estephan, defenceman Brennan Menell and netminder Stuart Skinner.
    If both teams were healthy, this series would have the potential to go to overtime in Game 7.
    While the Pats haven’t been able to utilize Brooks and centre Jake Leschyshyn is out for the entire post-season with a knee injury, the Hurricanes are still way more hurt on the injury front.
    In the final two games of the series with over the Tigers, the Hurricanes scratched five regulars including forwards Matt Alfaro, Zak Zborosky, Ryan Vandervlis and Zane Franklin along with rearguard Calen Addison.
Stuart Skinner has been spectacular in goal for the Hurricanes.
    The Hurricanes dressed three associate players in their Game 7 win over Medicine Hat.
    Due to the Hurricanes injuries, the Pats are the favourites in this series. With that said, it wouldn’t be surprising for the Hurricanes extend the set to five or six games with their heart.
    For the fans on both sides, the Pats and Hurricanes runs have been successful no matter what happens after puck drop in Game 1 on Friday.
    Everything will be about enjoying a moment that about three years ago looked to be impossible.

Back in the Express with Burris

    I was back in the pages of the Saskatoon Express this week having written a catch up piece with recently retired star CFL quarterback Henry Burris.
    On May 4, Burris will be the special guest speaker for this year’s Houghton Boston Dogs’ Breakfast, which starts at 7 a.m. at Prairieland Park. Since guiding the Ottawa Redblacks to a 39-33 upset overtime victory over the Calgary Stampeders in last November’s Grey Cup, Burris had settled into a life of being a co-host of CTV Morning Live, and he has enjoyed being a hockey dad.
    One thing I didn’t include was asking Burris how tight he was with veteran Regina Leader-Post columnist Rob Vanstone. Burris played with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2000 and 2003 and 2004, which allowed a friendship to grow.
    “Rob (Vanstone) was always a fan of mine before I even came to Saskatchewan it felt like,” said Burris over the phone from Ottawa. “When him and I first met, we just started talking and getting to know each other just everything just took off.
    “I’m looking forward to seeing him soon. We have to sit down and talk about business, but more so just catch up.
    “I’m looking forward to getting out there and catching up with a good gentleman like him (Vanstone) and just thanking him personally for everything that he has done for me in my career. Hopefully, we can continue to do things together.”
    Burris will also be in Regina on May 26 as the guest speaker for the Regina Thunder’s Dinner of Champions to be held at the Regina Delta hotel.
    My Express story on Burris can be found right here.

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