Thursday, 18 May 2017

Pats season triggers great memories of the past

The Pats celebrate a Josh Mahura goal from Sunday.
    When I first walked into the Brandt Centre this season, it was reassuring to see a lot of good things stayed the same.
    The Regina Pats were the first WHL team I ever covered, but those days often seem like they were from another life. I covered the Pats for a web site run by the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and Communications in the last half of the 1999-2000 season and for a short-lived sports reporting website during the first half of the 2000-01 campaign called SportsRegina.com.
    I was close to the same age as the players, and we ran in many of the same social circles. A couple of them lived two blocks south of my house. I had many good memories from that time.
    Back then, the Pats were owned by Russ and Diane Parker. In April of 2014, the Parkers sold the Pats to the Queen City Sports and Entertainment Group, which is headed by Anthony Marquart, who is the president of the Regina-based Royalty Developments.
The Pats celebrate a Joey Bastien goal in March of 2000.
    While I was in my 18th season covering the WHL, I didn’t have a whole lot of dealings with any of the current Pats personnel outside of athletic therapist Greg Mayer and star offensive-defenceman Connor Hobbs.
    Having been a beat writer that covered the Medicine Hat Tigers for the Medicine Hat News for 10 seasons from 2004 to 2014, it had been over 13 years since I was last at the Brandt Centre in a capacity that was unattached to the Tigers.
    I was unsure at first what it would be like to walk back into the Brandt Centre. I was preparing myself to encounter a different experience than from the one I remember long ago from when I covered the Pats.
    Last December, I had to venture to Regina a couple of times to nail down some items for a couple of freelance stories on two Saskatoon products for the Saskatoon Express. 
Overage captain Adam Brooks became a Pats icon.
    The trips allowed me the time to do some initial stories on the team for this blog, where I make a habit of traveling to different WHL centres to do stories on various teams.
    The Pats would finish first overall in the WHL with a 52-12-7-1 record and were ranked first in the final Canadian Hockey League rankings released on March 22. They were often rated first in the CHL top 10 rankings throughout the 2016-17 campaign, so the fact they were doing well made them an intriguing story.
    Entering the Brandt Centre on Dec. 3, 2016 for a home clash with the visiting Prince Albert Raiders, the attendant at the sign in desk was as friendly as can be. That provided the first good flashback to the past.
    Back when I covered the Pats in that long ago time, I remember the Brandt Centre staff making that facility, which was then known as the Agridome, one of the most friendly on the WHL circuit. That featured hadn’t changed, even though most of the staff obviously turned over. I was presently surprised to see a few old faces from back in the day.
Barret Jackman led the Pats with grit from 1999 to 2001.
    The seats and the scoreboard received an obvious facelift. When I went downstairs to the media and scouts lounge, it felt like a time warp. The downstairs of the facility looked pretty much the same from when I used to cover the team.
    When I was in the media and scouts lounge doing preparation work, Pats head coach and general manager John Paddock entered, went around shaking everyone’s hands and had short visits with each person. Paddock does this on a regular basis during the regular season, and I thought that was a pretty cool and classy touch.
    I jumped up with surprise and glee when I ventured out of the media and scouts lounge to see that 81-year-old Rollie Bourassa was still dressing up as the Pats dog mascot K9. He has been doing that since 1978. I didn’t realize he was still around.
    I think my freak out line was, “Oh my God! You’re still here!”
    I also had a chuckle when I shot pictures at that contest against the Raiders. My eyes often drifted to various points in the Brandt Centre where really good-looking girls used to sit game after game in the old days. Of course, they were no longer in those spots, but memories for a second drifted off to other good social times from the past.
Connor Hobbs works the point for the Pats.
    The Pats hammered the Raiders that night 12-2 before 5,749 spectators. When I looked at the stands, I couldn’t really find many empty seats.
    Seeing how packed the stands were, my mind drifted back to the days of when I used to cover the Pats. The players from that time like Barret Jackman, Garth Murray, Ryan Thomas and Matt Hubbauer got extra pumped to put on a show, if they saw that the stands were full like that.
    During post-game interviews, Paddock and his players were so easy to deal with, and that provided another flashback to the past. With the Pats doing so well, I figured I would be back to cover other games and potentially a decent playoff run as the season progressed.
    It was nice to see my mind was drifting back to a past life rediscovering a high comfort level and a professional joy I had covering that team.
    Having been a Regina resident, I realized the importance the Pats played in that city and knew the long history they had as the world’s oldest major junior team dating back to 1917. I also knew that the Pats best playoff runs were back in a distant past.
    Still, the Brandt Centre always contained at least 4,000 hard core fans no matter what happened with the team, and the Pats had a deeply embedded culture in the Queen City. They were an institution there, and I often wondered what it would be like to see the team on a long playoff run.
Garth Murray warms up for the Pats in 2000.
    When I saw Pats live for the first time this season in the romp over the Raiders, I remember telling former Pats head scout Todd Ripplinger that this was the best Pats team I had ever seen.
    As the season progressed, I made more trips to Regina to do stories about the club, and I saw the Pats frequently on the WHL playoff trail be it at the Brandt Centre or at rinks in other WHL cities. I began to get to know some of the players’ parents by face, who I didn’t know before.
    Friends in Saskatoon, where I am based, would tease me I was just heading down to watch Hobbs, who is from Saskatoon, and Sam Steel, who is the Pats superstar centre who has no ego. I replied you can throw in the team’s charismatic overage captain Adam Brooks too, who became one of the club’s icons spending a spectacular five complete seasons with the team.
    Besides that trio, forwards Jake Leschyshyn, standout rookie Nick Henry, speedy Austin Wagner, overager Dawson Leedahl, import Filip Ahl, Robbie Holmes and Braydon Buziak were fun to watch. Overager Chase Harrison, Josh Mahura and import Sergey Zborovskiy helped cement an impressive defensive unit.
    Gutsy goalie Tyler Brown slammed the door in net stealing the odd game when called upon and allowing the Pats to stay in other contests in order to manufacture an exciting comeback.
The Pats pour off their bench after their Game 7 victory over the Broncos.
    The Pats this season were as fun to watch as the skilled Tigers teams I used to cover in Medicine Hat.
    In the playoffs, one of the biggest memories came when the final seconds ticked off the clock when the Pats downed the Swift Current Broncos 5-1 in Game 7 of a second round series erasing a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in team history. The sellout crowd of 6,484 fans at the Brandt Centre were rocking as they never rocked before knowing the Pats were going to the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series for the first time since 1993.
    Shooting pictures of the team coming off the bench for the victory celebration, I saw shots that were similar to those of the 1980s Edmonton Oilers celebrating Stanley Cup title wins. A rink staffer told me to get out on the ice and take pictures of everything.
The Pats Regiment celebrates one of the team’s goals on Sunday.
    From the ice, I remember looking up at the crowd and thinking, “Holy (explanative)!”
    I wished the Pats teams I used to cover back in the day could have experienced a moment like that.
    The Pats would down the Lethbridge Hurricanes 4-2 in the best-of-seven WHL Eastern Conference Championship series to make the WHL Championship series for the first time since 1984. 
    Regina fell in the best-of-seven WHL title series to the Seattle Thunderbirds in six ultra-competitive games. The Thunderbirds captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup for the first time in their history.
Sam Steel is the Pats humble superstar.
    Between the regular season and playoffs, the Pats sold out a record 26 contests, which was something that was beyond the imagination of most.
    I went out after covering games a couple of times socially and had a chuckle watching people in Regina celebrate Pats playoff wins like Saskatchewan Roughriders wins in the CFL playoffs.
    There was part of me that never thought I would see the Pats play in a WHL Championship series, and it was special to see that happen to create a link to the team’s success of a distant past. 
The Pats give a final salute to the Brandt Centre crowd on Sunday.
    While Pats fans endured heartbreak when the club couldn’t hold on to a late 3-1 third period lead in Game 6 of the WHL title series with the Thunderbirds at the Brandt Centre on Sunday, they could be proud the Pats went down fighting in the 4-3 overtime loss.
    For myself, I never thought I would enjoy covering games involving the Pats as much as I did this past season or it would bring back as many old memories as it did. 
    In between and including the work, I was glad I could make some more good memories and enjoy some more good times involving Regina’s historic major junior team.

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