Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Broncos return to WHL mountaintop is inspiring

The Broncos veteran celebrate with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    SWIFT CURRENT, Sask. - At some point, fans of the Swift Current Broncos likely thought they would never see their team win a championship again.
    When the Broncos claimed the WHL title on Sunday night before a sellout crowd of 2,890 spectators at the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex in Swift Current, the sight on the ice had to have felt surreal among the euphoric joy. The Broncos skated to a 3-0 victory in Game 6 of the league title series with the Everett Silvertips to take the best-of-seven set 4-2.
    It was one of those nights you wish would never end, if you were associated with the Broncos.
    Back in 2004-05, the Broncos missed the WHL playoffs posting a 22-41-6-3 record to end a streak where the franchise had made the post-season in 31 consecutive campaigns. During many points on that run of making the playoffs in consecutive years, the Broncos were often seen as one of the powerhouse clubs in major junior hockey, while playing in the smallest market of the Canadian Hockey League.
The fans at the i-Plex cheer on the Broncos.
    Since missing the post-season in 2004-05, the Broncos have been good, but they have never really been viewed as being great.
    From the 2004-05 season to the 2015-16 campaign, the Broncos won only one playoff series taking out the Regina Pats in a best-of-seven series 4-2 in 2008. Besides missing the post-season in 2004-05, the Broncos failed to make the playoffs in the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2015-16 campaigns.
    During the time period from 2004 to 2016, it seemed like Broncos fans saw some of their best players go on to do brighter things with other clubs. In 2010-11, star forward Cody Eakin was dealt to the Kootenay Ice in a blockbuster trade.
Glenn Gawdin has been a great captain for the Broncos.
    With Eakin, the Ice won the WHL title and appeared in the Memorial Cup championship tournament to battle for the CHL title.
    In 2015-16, the Broncos dealt star forward Jake DeBrusk to the Red Deer Rebels, who were hosting that season’s Memorial Cup. DeBrusk helped the Rebels advance to the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship series for the first time in 12 years and make an appearance in the semifinal of the Memorial Cup tourney.
    It felt like Swift Current had been given the unwelcome title of “outpost” status. From 2004 to 2016, you would often hear rumours that players didn’t want to go there because it was too much of a fishbowl.
    When players did get there, they realized the fishbowl effect did not mean the fans were hyper critical of the team and players. Like any major junior centre, criticisms do come up. What you did find was a group of fans that longed to love their team.
    If the people in Swift Current saw a Broncos player as a genuine good person, they would have your back in a serious way.
    Still, the fact that results weren’t coming on the ice was discouraging, and it was common to see crowds of around 1,800 at the i-Plex during many regular season games from 2004 to 2016.
Broncos head coach Manny Viveiros lifts the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    In July of 2009, the Broncos hired former NHL player Mark Lamb to be the team’s head coach and general manager, and he remained with the club until June of 2016 departing for a head coach position in the American Hockey League. 
    During his years in Swift Current, Lamb made it an emphasis and did a huge amount of leg work building up the respect of the Broncos to encourage players to come to the team and encourage fans to come out to games.
    When the Broncos were on the road, Lamb and Swift Current team members developed a reputation for being one the best groups to deal with among media in other centres. That was all part of the gritty leg work that was put in towards building a good reputation for the Broncos.
    Under Lamb, the Broncos brought in current stars in captain Glenn Gawdin and right-winger Tyler Steenbergen through the WHL Bantam Draft, Russian defenceman Artyom Minulin from the CHL Import Draft and offensive defenceman Colby Sissons as a list player. Lamb also acquired gritty left-winger Kaden Elder and sound defensive defenceman Sahvan Khaira via separate trades with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Tyler Steenbergen (#17) has been a shining star for the Broncos.
    In July of 2016, the Broncos brought Manny Viveiros on board as the team’s head coach and director of player personnel. Viveiros was remembered in WHL circles for being an extremely talented offensive-defenceman with the Prince Albert Raiders from 1982 to 1986, and he played a key part in helping the Raiders win the Memorial Cup in 1985.
    He had a lengthy career playing professionally in Europe and transitioned into being an elite level coach once his playing days concluded. The Broncos made a great out of the box move in hiring Viveiros for his first head coaching position in North America. Often in the hockey world, coaches working overseas get overlooked when positions open in North America.
Aleksi Heponiemi has come through in big moments for the Broncos.
    Viveiros took over a good foundation that was in place and brought the Broncos to another level with their play on the ice. They added left-winger Aleksi Heponiemi from Finland before the start of the 2016-17 campaign and placed him on a line with Gawdin and Steenbergen.
    Together, that trio has become one of the best lines in the history of the Broncos and one of the most memorable forward units in the history of the WHL.
    The Broncos posted a 39-23-4-6 record in 2016-17, took out the Moose Jaw Warriors in a tough seven game first round playoff series before falling to the Regina Pats in a tough second round seven game series, which Swift Current had led 3-1.
    In Game 6 of the series with the Pats, the Broncos held a 3-1 lead in the second period and Gawdin had a breakaway on Pats netminder Tyler Brown. Brown made a robbery of a save to allow the Pats to rally back and take that contest 5-3.
Mascot Charlie Horse meets the Broncos’ fans.
    Had Gawdin scored on that breakaway, it was more than likely the Broncos would have taken that contest and advanced to the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series.
    During the process of the 2016-17 campaign, the loud and raucous sellout crowds of 2,890 returned to the i-Plex on a regular basis. With a solid core of veterans set to return for the team’s training camp in August of 2017, there was optimism around the Broncos that the team could hit greater heights.
    It still seemed those types of thoughts still belonged in a dream. Getting to Game 7 of the second round was treated like a major accomplishment to be celebrated.
    Going into 2017-18, the Broncos weren’t listed in the CHL’s Top 10 rankings in the pre-season poll. They would be a staple in those ratings for the rest of the campaign.
Netminder Stuart Skinner (#74) tracks the puck during a net scramble.
    The Broncos finished second overall in the WHL’s regular season with a 48-17-5-2 record. As the WHL’s trade deadline neared, they actually loaded up to help the team make a long playoff run.
    On Nov. 25, 2017, a blockbuster trade with Calgary Hitmen brought the Broncos skilled overage centre Matteo Gennaro and gritty left-winger Beck Malenstyn. On Jan. 9 a day before the WHL’s trade deadline, the Broncos acquired skilled overage centre Giorgio Estephan, star netminder Stuart Skinner and gritty right-winger Tanner Nagel from the Lethbridge Hurricanes in another blockbuster trade.
    In Swift Current, locals would have a hard time remembering the last time the Broncos made these “all in” types of moves on the trade front.
Centre Matteo Gennaro was a big addition from Calgary for the Broncos.
    Viveiros was named the WHL’s coach of the year and Heponiemi was voted the league’s most sportsmanlike player due to the regular season the Broncos had.
    The Broncos proceeded to advance through the first two rounds of the WHL playoffs downing the Pats in a tough seven-game series in the first round and the Moose Jaw Warriors, who finished first overall in the WHL in the regular season, in a seven-game battle in the second round.
    Having made the Eastern Conference Championship series for the first time since 2001, fans in Swift Current could have likely said it was a great run, if it ended there.
Colby Sissons has been a rock on the Broncos blue-line.
    After dispatching the Hurricanes in six games in an extremely competitive conference championship tilt, the Broncos were back in the WHL Championship series since last winning it in 1993. They would face the Everett Silvertips, who finished third overall in the league at 47-20-2-3 and had a superstar in net in Carter Hart.
    At one point, it looked like the dream would end there. Everett took Game 1 in Swift Current 2-1 and held a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes in Game 2 at the i-Plex. Little anyone know, the “Miracle at the i-Plex” was about to take place.
    The Broncos scored once in the second to pull to within 3-1. They entered the ice for the start of the third period behind a rousing ovation from their home crowd.
    With Steenbergen scoring with 1:37 to play in the third, the hosts pulled even at 3-3. Estephan competed the comeback scoring at the 9:27 mark of overtime to give the Broncos a 4-3 win.
    In Game 3 in Everett, the Broncos trailed 2-1 in the third period, and Gawdin came to the rescue. He had the equalizer with 3:17 to play in the third and scored the winner at 2:40 of overtime to complete a hat trick performance in a 3-2 Broncos victory.
Artyom Minulin has helped anchor the back end for the Broncos.
    The Broncos returned to Swift Current for Game 6 holding a 3-2 lead in the series. On Sunday at the i-Plex in Game 6, the Broncos and their fans lived out a dream night that culminated in a 3-0 championship clinching victory. 
    They persevered taking the title playing a record 26 games in one WHL post-season surpassing the 25 games played by the Portland Winter Hawks in 1979 and the Medicine Hat Tigers in 1986.
    The Broncos WHL title wins this year, in 1993 and 1989 mark the last three times a Saskatchewan team has captured the league crown.
    For the Broncos fans, they had to be beside themselves watching their team skate around the i-Plex ice surface and celebrate with the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Even the most optimistic Broncos fan might have thought that sight was impossible.
    Swift Current reclaimed its place as the “title town” of the WHL. In the city “where life makes sense,” the Broncos had proven that anything is possible.
The fans of the Broncos got to see their team win a WHL title at home.
    Now the Broncos will try to win their second Memorial Cup in team history. Their only CHL title win to date came on May 13, 1989.
    On that day, the residents of Swift Current descended on Saskatoon to watch their Broncos pull out a 4-3 overtime victory over the host Blades at Saskatchewan Place in the tournament’s championship game on Tim Tisdale’s winner.
    The Broncos qualified for this year’s Memorial Cup winning the WHL crown 29 years to the day of winning major junior hockey’s biggest prize.
    This year’s Memorial Cup is about a two-and-a-half hour drive east on the Trans-Canada Highway in Regina beginning on Friday when the host Pats face the Ontario Hockey League champion Hamilton Bulldogs (8 p.m., Brandt Centre).
Athletic trainer Jamie LeBlanc, left, and his daughter enjoy the WHL title win.
    The Broncos hit the ice for their first game at that event on Saturday against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan (2 p.m., Brandt Centre).
    Broncos fans might to get see one more surreal sight, if their team lifts the Memorial Cup as CHL champions after the tournament’s title game on May 27.

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