Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Hurricanes take fans on ride with rise and revival

The Hurricanes celebrate a post-season goal at the Enmax Centre.
    It might not be an overstatement to say the citizens of Lethbridge have never been more emotionally attached to their Hurricanes hockey club than they are in the present day.
    A couple of days have passed since the Hurricanes gave one final salute to the 5,098 faithful that packed the Enmax Centre on Sunday after a 7-4 loss to the visiting Regina Pats that eliminated the host side from the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series. The night also came with a final bow from overage captain Tyler Wong, who came out to give a final thanks to the fans and be saluted when he was named the game’s first star.
    Later that same night, Hurricanes general manager Peter Anholt took to Twitter to type out an emotional 10-point thank-you list. Anholt has always worn his heart on his sleeve and his heart was never more evident than when you checked out that 10-point list.
    This season, it seemed like a love affair bloomed between team and fan that might have never been seen before in Lethbridge. It was a stark contrast to the not so long ago dark days, when the team missed the playoffs for six consecutive years from 2010 to 2015.
Tyler Wong will depart Lethbridge as an enduring figure.
    The low point came in the 2013-14 campaign, when the Hurricanes finished last in the entire WHL with a 12-55-2-3 record.
    The Hurricanes averaged 3,089 spectators a game over their 36 home dates, but outside of the diehards, there wasn’t a lot of excitement about going to Hurricanes games. The Enmax Centre seats 4,980 and can accommodate standing room.
    Before the 2014-15 campaign started, Anholt, who was a long time veteran coach and scout in the WHL, was hired as the Hurricanes assistant general manager. About halfway through that campaign, the Hurricanes board of directors named Anholt the team’s head coach and general manager.
    They finished second last in the league that season with a 20-44-5-3 mark, but they were no longer pushovers.
    Before the 2015-16 campaign started, Anholt made a brilliant move to bring in Brent Kisio to take over the role of head coach. Kisio, who was 32-year-olds old when he was hired by the Hurricanes, 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. He was more than ready to run his own team as a head coach.
Hurricanes fans do the wave at the Enmax Centre.
    In Kisio’s first year, the Hurricanes vaulted to finish first in the WHL’s Central Division with a 46-24-1-1 record. They dropped a best-of-seven first round playoff series in five games to the Regina Pats.
    The fans in Lethbridge wanted to go to games, and the Hurricanes averaged 3,746 spectators per contest over their 36 regular season home dates in 2015-16. A number of supporters started following the team around for various road games. From the fan bus trips, the hashtag term #CaneTrain was born.
    The revival continued this past season. The Hurricanes hovered around .500 for the first bit of the campaign before taking off and finishing second in the Central Division with a 44-21-4-3 mark. Attendance remained solid as the team averaged 3,709 spectators per contest over their 36 regular season home games.
Hurricanes fans hold up “cheer heads” on the road in Medicine Hat.
    Lethbridge proceeded to make a magical run though the playoffs. In a best-of-seven first round series, the Hurricanes trailed the Red Deer Rebels 3-1, but roared back to take the series 4-3 with three straight wins. That marked the first time in team history the Hurricanes erased a 3-1 series deficit.
    What followed was an exciting seven game series with their Highway 3 rivals the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Hurricanes took a series-deciding Game 7 at the Canalta Centre in overtime, when captain Tyler Wong rifled home the winner as the Tigers defence backed up to give his side a 5-4 victory. It is a moment that will be remembered fondly for a lengthy time in the history of the Hurricanes.
    In the best-of-seven Eastern Conference championship series, the Hurricanes took a 2-1 series lead on the Regina Pats.
Stuart Skinner (#74) made a number of huge saves in goal for the Hurricanes.
    The series turned in Game 4 at the Enmax Centre, when a positive bounce goal from Pats captain Adam Brooks deflected in off of Hurricanes defenceman Igor Merezhko to break a 2-2 tie, give the visitors a 3-2 lead and ultimately a 6-2 win.
    Regina won Games 5 and 6 to eliminate the Hurricanes from the post-season, but the Lethbridge side went down fighting in each game.
    As the Hurricanes went on their run, their fans were right there with them. The Hurricanes averaged 4,730 spectators a game over their 10 post-season home dates. The #CaneTrain was following the Hurricanes on the road as well, and the Hurricanes were happy to see friendly faces in opposition rinks.
    When the Hurricanes arrived at a road contest, the players seemed to make it a point to find and acknowledge where their fans were. When they scored a goal, the Hurricanes players made sure to jump into the glass or Green Bay Packers style Lambeau Leap into the glass in areas where their supporters were concentrated. After road wins, the Hurricanes players directed salutes to areas of the rink where their fans were sitting in.
Giorgio Estephan put up big numbers for the Hurricanes.
    On one return trip home, Kisio flashed a picture on Twitter upon meeting one Hurricanes fan at the Enmax Centre parking lot. It came after the series win against the Tigers, when a Hurricanes supporter showed off a stuffed tiger strapped to a pole.
    In Lethbridge, city buses flashed “Go Canes Go” signs to show support for the hockey club. You often found people wearing Hurricanes jerseys when you went to stores to run errands on game days.
When you walked into the Enmax Centre, you could sense a warmth for the home team, and it was a warmth that was deserved.
    During the rise, Anholt often said the successful results were a team effort and gave big credit to the players and staffers that stayed with the team over the toughest times. Wong was the poster boy of that statement.
    A career member of the Hurricanes, you had to think Wong encountered his share of negative comments about the team, when he was a 16-year-old rookie. From those early years, the Cochrane product was viewed as one of the team’s most well-mannered players and one of the club’s best community ambassadors.
    He became the only player in team history to win the club’s “Fan Favourite” player award for all five complete seasons he was with the squad. He was also named the WHL’s Eastern Conference nominee for the league’s Humanitarian of the Year award this season marking a third straight year for that honour. Wong departs the Hurricanes as the team’s most enduring, likeable and most respected figure.
Jadon Joseph (#23) is one of the Hurricanes bright youngsters.
    As the Hurricanes rose to be one of the WHL’s elite clubs, Wong, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 176 pounds, was recording magical moments like his Game 7 overtime winner against the Tigers. Those moments made him that much more endearing to the hearts of Hurricanes fans.
    Wong was always there to be part of the solution to the Hurricanes woes, and he got to enjoy being part of the solution to end the dark times.
    He also had a pretty good cast of characters to go through the good times with like linemates Giorgio Estephan and Egor Babenko, gutsy goalie Stuart Skinner and offensive defenceman Brennan Menell. The good cast of characters also included a group of feisty youngsters like forwards Jadon Joseph and Dylan Cozens as well as rearguard Calen Addison.
    The best might be yet to come for the Hurricanes in the future, but the team’s run in the 2017 playoffs will always be warmly remembered in Lethbridge.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.