Thursday, 4 May 2017

Pats and their Regiment can finally relish a return to glory

The Pats celebrate their Game 7 victory over the Broncos.
    Named for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry when born in 1917, the Regina Pats seemed destined to become a royal franchise.
    As the world’s oldest major junior hockey team, the Pats have appeared in the Memorial Cup championship series and later tournament 12 times and have won the Memorial Cup on three occasions in 1925, 1930 and 1974. 
    They once had links to the NHL’s storied Montreal Canadiens as the big club’s junior hockey affiliate for a time in the 1950s and 1960s. This was in an era the pre-dated the current NHL Entry Draft.
    Since the Pats were born, around 145 of their grads have gone on to play in the NHL. Alums have spanned the ages including Murray Balfour, Dave Balon, Eddie Litzenberger, Red Berenson, Clark Gillies, Greg Joly, Ed Staniowski, Ron Flockhart, Lyndon Byers, Mike Sillinger, Derek Morris, Barret Jackman, Josh Harding and Jordan Eberle.
Part of the Pats Regiment cheers their team on to victory.
    While the Pats have a rich history, it feels like the squad’s storied exploits were from another time and only the odd historian would seem to remember them.
    On Friday, the Pats will open play in the best-of-seven WHL championship series against the Seattle Thunderbirds (7 p.m. local time, Brandt Centre). It will mark the first time the Pats have stepped on the ice to play in the league championship series since 1984, when they lost out in a series deciding seventh game to the Kamloops Junior Oilers. 
    They haven’t won the WHL crown since 1980, when they downed the Victoria Cougars 4-1 in a best-of-seven set.
    It is safe to say numerous citizens in Saskatchewan’s capital city barely have any recollection of the exploits of Dale Derkatch and crew from 1984 or the late Doug Wickenheiser and his teammates from 1980.
Sam Steel was named the WHL’s MVP.
    Between 1984 and 2017, the Pats have put up some strong regular seasons that include finishing first in the WHL’s East Division on a few occasions. When it came to the post-season during that time span, the Pats usually bowed out in the first round, made a handful of second round appearances and did reach the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series in 1993 only to be swept away by the Swift Current Broncos.
    They appeared in the 2001 Memorial Cup tournament as the host squad falling in the event’s semifinal 5-4 in overtime to the Val d’Or Foreurs.
    While it has to be noted it is hard to win it all in junior hockey and make long runs through the post-season, the Pats appeared disconnected from their storied past. It felt like only a handful of people in Regina remembered the team’s glory days like veteran Regina Leader-Post columnist Rob Vanstone or 81-year-old Rollie Bourassa, who has suited up as the Pats mascot K9 since 1978. Bourassa is still known to slide stair rails in his mascot attire.
    Over the past 15 years, it seemed like long playoff runs belonged only to WHL franchises like the Brandon Wheat Kings, Kelowna Rockets, Medicine Hat Tigers and Portland Winterhawks, who seem to consistently float to the top of the league’s standings and make deep post-season forays.
Adam Brooks is the Pats charismatic captain.
    Still the Pats are an institution in Regina, and even in the worst times, there always seemed to be a group of 4,000 followers that would turn out for games.
    In 2016-17, the Pats faithful, which has become dubbed as the “Pats Regiment,” has been rewarded for their patience with a dream season that almost seems too good to be true.
    The Pats finished first overall in the WHL standings for the first time since 1974 with a 52-12-7-1 mark. For much of the campaign, the Pats were rated first in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10 rankings and topped the final rankings that were released on March 22.
    Into the playoffs the Pats ventured. First, they swept away the Calgary Hitmen in a best-of-seven series 4-0.
    Regina received a major scare in the second round falling behind 3-1 to the Broncos. The Pats proceeded to erase that type of series deficit for the first time in team history with three straight wins to claim the best-of-seven set 4-3. During the final moments of the 5-1 Game 7 victory over the Broncos on April 17, the Brandt Centre rocked and jumped like it hadn’t in some time.
Connor Hobbs has been a beast on the Pats back end.
    Next up in the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series were the Lethbridge Hurricanes, who were a club high on talent and heart. The Hurricanes built a 2-1 series lead before the Pats raised their game to another level to win three straight and take the series 4-2.
    During the entire campaign, the Pats Regiment cheered for a group of players that seem to be almost super-hero like in WHL MVP Sam Steel, charismatic captain Adam Brooks, standout offensive defenceman Connor Hobbs, clutch overager Dawson Leedahl, skilled rookie Nick Henry, speedy Austin Wagner, steady rearguard Josh Mahura and gutsy goalie Tyler Brown.
    The exploits of this group of stars is overseen by veteran head coach and general manager John Paddock, who was named the WHL’s coach of the year and executive of the year.
    Between the regular season and playoffs, the Brandt Centre has seen 23 sellouts of 6,484 spectators. The fans have witnessed pageantry pre-game that has included a military veteran marching with a torch to centre ice to light up the team’s logo providing a link to the club’s beginnings in 1917.
Mascot K9 has been a fixture at Pats games since 1978.
    The best part of this Pats run is it is all new for their followers. Since the last run to the league championship series was in 1984, it didn’t seem like this season would ever happen.
    Even as the Pats piled up the wins, a few followers had to think the bottom would fall out somewhere. The excitement around the team should be nothing but pure at this point in time.
    While the team topped the CHL rankings and finished first in the WHL standings, you couldn’t expect a long playoff run until it actually happened.
    Going into the league championship series, there are no guarantees the Pats will win the Ed Chynoweth Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup tournament, which runs May 19 to 28 in Windsor, Ont.
    The Thunderbirds are back in the league championship series for a second straight year returning a number of key players including spectacular star centre Mathew Barzal. 
The Pats hope they can celebrate a few more wins in May.
    They fell in last year’s league title series in five games to the Brandon Wheat Kings and will be looking to take care of unfinished business.
    The fact the Pats have made it this far has to be considered a major success. The Pats Regiment should just enjoy the ride no matter how it plays out from here.
    Even with that in mind, the fans have to be excited about the possibility of watching their heroes create a May to remember, because the Patricia’s are still carrying the torch.

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