Monday, 27 May 2019

Raiders rise fun to witness

The Raiders raise the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions.
    The idea of a long and successful Prince Albert Raiders playoff run came to me during a visit to Swift Current just over a year ago.
    On May 13, 2018, I was on the ice surface of the Innovation Credit Union i-Plex in Swift Current interviewing members of the host Broncos about winning the team’s third WHL Championship. It was the first time the Broncos had won the league title since 1993.
    Swift Current had just blanked the Everett Silvertips 3-0 in Game 6 of the WHL Championship series to take the best-of-seven set 4-2. The Broncos built a 2-0 lead in the first period and were fairly clinical shutting down the Silvertips from that point onwards.
    The sellout crowd of 2,890 spectators rose to their feet cheering through the final three minutes of what appeared to be a decided contest. 
Dante Hannoun (#17) celebrates his famous OT winner for the WHL title.
    The certainty of the final outcome grew as the last few seconds ticked away.
    The cheers hit even bigger heights when Broncos left-winger Beck Malenstyn scored into an empty net with 6.4 seconds remaining in the third period to cement the 3-0 final.
    The Broncos erupted off their bench as the time in the third period expired. A euphoric joy filled the building that contained a special and unique good vibe you wished you could take with you in anything else you did for the rest of your life.
    While I was on the ice surrounded by fans that were trying to lift the roof off the building, I saw Broncos veterans in captain Glenn Gawdin, Tyler Steenbergen, Aleksi Heponiemi, Colby Sissons and Antyom Minulin celebrate the moment hugging teammates, Broncos coaches, Broncos staffers and family. A tonne of different pictures were taken on mobile phones to remember that moment.
Dante Hannoun will forever be a hero in Prince Albert.
    It was so good to be in that time and space that a thought crossed my mind.
    I thought, “It would be so great if this could happen next year in Prince Albert, so the Raiders and their fans can enjoy a moment like this.”
    Fast forward to this past May 13 - one year to the day from the Broncos league title celebration in Swift Current.
    The Raiders were hosting the Vancouver Giants in a series-deciding Game 7 of the WHL final. The game went into overtime with the two clubs locked in a 2-2 tie.
    With 1:35 remaining in overtime, Raiders standout overage centre Dante Hannoun took a feed from linemate Noah Gregor at the right side of the Vancouver net. Hannoun made a backdoor tap into an open cage to give the Raiders a thrilling 3-2 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 3,289 spectators at the 2,580 Art Hauser Centre.
    I couldn’t believe it. It happened.
    The Raiders were celebrating a WHL championship on home ice in front of their adoring fans.
Brett Leason had a breakout season for the Raiders.
    I saw this type of moment over a year ago, but it was on a scale that was just a little more grand than I envisioned due to the Raiders championship win coming on Hannoun’s overtime winner.
    You were digesting the suddenness of the victory that came on top of the joy that was felt in the building.
    Until the Raiders won the WHL title, the only person I told about the thought that came to my mind during the Broncos WHL championship victory celebrations in May of 2018 was Kim Jackson, who is the Raiders manager of team services and a long time friend.
    This season, the Raiders lived up to their romantic image of being the team of Mike Modano and Dave Manson - the franchise where honour still matters.
    At first, I didn’t want to write a self-serving style of piece for obvious reasons.
    I covered the Raiders as a beat writer from 2001 to 2004 with the Prince Albert Daily Herald, and I knew how special the link was between that hockey team and the community.
Ian Scott was the CHL goaltender of the year.
    As the days have gone on since Hannoun’s winner, I have reflected on how fun it was to see the Raiders rise to the point they could win the WHL title. It was too bad the Raiders, like the three WHL championship teams before them, went 0-3 at the Memorial Cup tournament and weren’t able to win the CHL title.
    The Raiders season was still a big success and developed excitement that hadn’t been seen in that area for some time.
    What took place this year wasn’t just something that happened in the 2018-19 season, but it was the culmination of the work that went on for the four or five previous seasons.
    During the 2016-17 campaign, I remembered watching the eight players that made up the core of this year’s team in Brayden Pachal, Sean Montgomery, Parker Kelly, Cole Fonstad, Spencer Moe, Zack Hayes, Max Martin and netminder Ian Scott take their lumps in a 21-44-5-2 season.
The Raiders faithful backed their team vocally.
    While the Raiders finished third last in the WHL, you could see that core group improve. You could tell they were playing with heart and really cared about the team and the community. I thought that group might do something special together in future seasons.
    When the possibility of the Raiders winning the WHL title popped in my head during the Broncos victory celebrations, the Raiders performance in the 2018 playoffs made me think the team could realistically have a run to great things.
    The Raiders put together a 32-27-9-4 regular season record in 2017-18 to be one of five clubs from an extremely tough East Division get into the WHL post-season.
Sean Montgomery takes a memorable spin with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
    In the first round of the playoffs, Prince Albert faced the Moose Jaw Warriors, who finished first overall in the league with a 52-15-2-3 record.
    After four hard fought games, the Warriors held a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Raiders rallied back with two straight wins to force a series-deciding Game 7.
    In Game 7 of that series in Moose Jaw, the Raiders held leads of 2-0 and 3-2. The contest was tied 4-4 late in the third period when Brayden Burke scored the winner with 3:50 remaining in the third to give Moose Jaw a 5-4 victory.
    Had the Raiders won that game, many prognosticators would have pegged Prince Albert as a team to watch out for in 2018-19.
    In a 13-year period from 2006 to 2018, the Raiders had missed the playoffs seven times and were eliminated in the first round six times creating caution to expectations.
    It felt like Prince Albert could be in the mix to do good things playing out of the East Division along with the Saskatoon Blades and Brandon Wheat Kings. 
The Raiders players meet the fans returning home from the Memorial Cup.
    Since Brandon had experience by far the most success over the past 15 years between that trio of clubs, it seemed the Wheat Kings were a likely choice to finish first in the East Division.
    The Raiders would be able to go into the campaign under the radar. They didn’t stay there long.
    Prince Albert stormed out to a 26-1 start that included a team record 19 game winning streak. Brett Leason, a 19-year-old right-winger, broke out and hit star status leading the team in scoring with 36 goals and 53 assists for 89 points in 55 regular season games.
    Brett’s breakout was that much more special for me, because he is also the son of my long time bud Darryl Leason.
The Raiders celebrate a goal from Noah Gregor (#18).
    Gregor, who has a signed NHL entry-level contract with the San Jose Sharks, had his WHL rights acquired by the Raiders in the off-season from the Victoria Royals. When the Sharks returned Gregor to the junior ranks, he had an outstanding campaign netting 43 goals and 45 assists in 63 regular season games.
    Scott was spectacular posting a 38-8-3 record, a 1.83 goals against average, a .932 save percentage and eight shutouts in 49 regular season games. His goals against average, save percentage and shutout totals were all regular season club records, and he became the first Raiders netminder to be named the CHL goaltender of the year.
    Leason and Scott would suit up for Canada’s world junior team.
    Montgomery had a heartwarming farewell as he piled up a team record 345 career regular season games played with the Raiders. During the regular season, Montgomery posted career highs in goals (29), assists (30), points (59) and plus-minus (plus-41).
Raiders GM Curtis Hunt was all smiles on winning the WHL title.
    On top of everything, the Raiders players were a respectable and classy great group of guys.
    The Raiders topped the WHL regular season standings with a 54-10-2-2 record and were rated second in the final CHL Top 10 rankings. In the WHL playoffs, the Raiders captured the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champions on Hannoun’s winner that will never be forgotten.
    The hard work by general manager Curtis Hunt and head coach Marc Habscheid paid off in a big way. I was happy to see Hunt enjoy a WHL title win from a management role, because he had always done things the right way as a head coach or general manager with every team he had worked for in his career.
    He played defence for the Raiders when they won the WHL and Memorial Cup titles in 1984-85.
    It was cool to see long time veteran athletic therapist Duane “Puff” Bartley relish a WHL title win.
    The Raiders ensured they remembered those in the organization who passed away. 
A player card for the late Adam Herold.
    The list included Raiders prospect and defenceman Adam Herold, who was killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018.
    Last December, Ron Gunville, who was the Raiders director of player personnel, passed away as well. In March, former Raiders player, head coach and general manager Donn Clark passed away too after a long battle with cancer. Clark was inducted on to the Raiders Wall of Fame in his final days of life.
    Over the years, Clark became a valued friend, and we stayed in touch after I moved away from Prince Albert in 2004.
    Last summer, Habscheid’s father, Nicholas, passed away and the bench boss said his players were big in helping him through that.
    I was able to identify with that. During the 2003-04 campaign, my dad passed away. I rode the bus to cover in division games with the Raiders that season, and the team gave me great support back then, when my dad passed away.
    I believe the Raiders will be in good hands as long as Hunt and Habscheid are in their roles with the team. I am also well aware in sports that things change.
    The contracts for both are due to run out, and it is likely they will get well deserve opportunities to do other things in the game likely at the professional level.
I covered this classic Game 7 in the WHL final in 2007.
    Even for me, there were no guarantees I would cover the campaign until the end of the season depending on what life sends my way.
    It is possible I might not be around next season. If different opportunities come up in my personal life or a communications position with a sports team, sports organization or mental health organization, my life might be changed too in a different good way.
    You always hope your life doesn’t change due to a difficult situation.
    After Hannoun scored his OT winner for the Raiders, a few people have asked me what it was like to be in the building on both occasions when Game 7 of a WHL final was decided in overtime.
    Way back on May 14, 2007, I was in The Arena in Medicine Hat when Brennan Bosch scored the winner in double overtime to lift the host Tigers past the Giants 3-2 in Game 7 of that year’s WHL Championship series before a sellout crowd of 4,006 spectators.
    I was a beat writer covering the Tigers for the Medicine Hat News that game.
The Raiders enjoy their WHL championship win.
    Reflecting on seeing both Bosch and Hannoun score their winners in person, I am thankful the factors I can’t control in life allowed me to be there in those moments. I am one of the few individuals that saw both of those goals live.
    I don’t think I could ever find the words to adequately describe what it was like to be in the building for both of those goals. It is something I can look upon on, when I am having a bad day.
    I am happy life worked out to the point I could cover this special season the Raiders had. I gained a lot of sweet memories to add to the ones I have already collected in life.
    As I work to make the best out of life on a day to day basis, perhaps fate and the forces I can’t control will allow me to continue to experience special moments like these.

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