Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Westernly past

It's always an exciting time when Western Hockey League training camps are about to get into full swing. I'm hoping to bombard this blog with much aligned WHL content over the next several months as I have already completed the critically acclaimed(in my own mind)  2015-2016 WHL preview which you can find if you scroll through my entries from late June/early July. What I wanted to reminisce on this evening is my top five all time Western Hockey League memories, and as a disclaimer they mostly all involve the Regina Pats because being born and raised in the Queen City you can understand what I was brought up with, and that was the St.Patricia's. I will be counting down from five to one with one being my all-time greatest memory.

5. "Hustlin for Dustin"

The 2003/2004 campaign was a forgettable one for the Regina Pats. Personnel change was imminent as they were immersed in a full out rebuild. Josh Harding, the local fan favourite goaltender was dealt to the Brandon Wheat Kings in a complexion of moves which eventually saw Dustin Slade be shipped in via Kamloops-Brandon to become to new Regina Pats starting goaltender. Bob Lowes, who had a reputation of being a stern, stoic bench boss from the out set wouldn't of meshed well with the robust Dustin Slade who's temper on the ice was  a turn-off for some Regina hockey traditionalists. The night in question that was one of my highlights was January 9th,2004 which pitted the Pats against Slade's former organization, the Kamloops Blazers. The Pats, in lieu of the rebuild accumulated more losses than wins and were up against a team that trotted out Grant Jacobsen, a former Pat great who was sent to Kamloops in an earlier deal which brought in future captain and Sedley native Kyle Deck and Jonathan Bubnick. Needless to say, this Kamloops team was heavily favoured who also rostered Devan Dubnyk and great junior stalwart Jarrett Lukin. It was one of, if not Dustin Slade's first game with the Patricia's and at that point no one knew the temper that would later be evidenced or what kind of game he brought to the table. On this cold January evening, which saw me bowl a great game before I arrived at the Brandt center(shows the wacked up memory I have)Dustin Slade endeared himself early and stood on his head in route to a 1-1 tie. The Blazers peppered Slade all night with the shots and without having an official game sheet handy, must of held a 20-25 advantage in that category. The Dustin Slade era was upon us in Regina and boy were things just getting started.

4. Chris Phillips and his rubber legs

Chris Phillips, the first overall pick of the Ottawa Senators in 1996 when describing his career in the NHL could be described as a little bland. Usually, first overall picks provide more of an impact on their respective organization but what Phillips provided was a little more mundane as he was never the top two defenceman Ottawa thought they were selecting. One of the more memorable nights from the Western Hockey League that I remember took place on February 19th,1997 when Phillips and his Lethbridge Hurricanes who had acquired him from Prince Albert earlier that season went up against the Brandon Wheat Kings. This match-up was showcased on TSN during the time that TSN had rights to the Canadian Hockey League. The game if I'm not mistaken was broadcasted  by my journalistic hero in Paul Romaniuk with Gary Green providing color and the significance of the game to where Romaniuk so eloquently laid out was due to some sudden change of events in the pre game, the Hurricanes were forced to dress only four defenceman, one of them being Phillips. Phillips,  I kid you not, because I vividly remember the play by play team lauding his efforts, played close to fifty minutes in a 4-2 victory.He single handedly carried the Hurricanes on this night and those heroic efforts on TSN will never be forgotten.

3. "The Fight"

Reverting  back to the legend that was Dustin Slade for a moment, his aforementioned temper brought forward mixed emotions amongst Regina hockey enthusiasts. The youth loved it, the adults despised it but in the end had to live with it for a brief time. In the famed Highway # 1 rivalry featuring the Regina Pats and the Moose Jaw Warriors, their have been more memorable battles then I'll ever be able to recount but one evening, I can't recall the date and any almanac source hasn't been able to assist me, all I know it was a school night as I was enrolled in high school that saw myself witness my first ever goaltender fight. Dustin Slade v Joey Perricone. On television, I had seen it numerous times but was never privy to it happening live so as a high-school student, I was in amazement. To parlay another useless tidbit about this hockey game, I recall buying a 50/50 but the friend I was riding with wanted to leave early so to this day we'll never know if I won. It's ok....... I've won several luck box contests since.  In a heated battle, the two goalies met up at center ice and dropped the ginormous glove and blocker and started firing haymakers back and forth. It was an entertaining scrap with no parties heavily invested in the proceedings. The game may have been a  route that night, basing it off of the assumption that with the Warriors as title contenders with the nucleus including Kendal McArdle, Dustin Boyd, and Troy Brouwer, aside from the Slade dust-up, it's doubtful the Pats put up much of a fight on this night.

2."Bozon's Bravery"

The Kootenay Ice faithful won't have much to cheer about this upcoming season, so I hope they take solace that one of their now alumni will go down as one of the most heroic, defiant individuals the league has ever seen in Tim Bozon. On March 1st,2014, Bozon after finishing up a game against the Kootenay Ice fell ill and at the request of the team trainer, was admitted into the Saskatoon hospital. According to reports, during his stay at the hospital his condition worsened falling into a coma after being diagnosed with meningitis.  It's a condition that hampers the ability of the brain and spinal cord so when it was announced what was happening to the young Swiss player, the hope was that some day he could recover to a point where he could live a normal life. Hockey wasn't even on the radar. Tim Bozon never got the memo and showed an unprecedented courage and determination encountering endless hours of physical therapy to learn how to speak and walk again, with re-acquiring the skill of skating coming sooner then most thought.  Bozon prior to the ailment was a coveted prospect with the Montreal Canadiens. If the unfortunate illness didn't happen, it's more than likely that he would of spent the 2014-2015 season in the American Hockey League, but after all he's been through the Canadiens made the organizational decision to send him back to Cranbrook for one more year of development.  I suffice that the fact that he was even able to touch foot on the ice again speaks volumes of Tim's character and I made a conscious effort to make sure I was front row when Tim Bozon and the Ice returned to Regina, because I'm positive years later we'll still be fascinating about the Tim Bozon hardships and what it took to regain control of his own self.

1. "The Finicky Foreurs"

The 2001 Memorial Cup in Regina was in many ways my introduction to my lifelong passion of Junior Hockey.  The tournament consisted of the host Pats, eventual champions Red Deer Rebels, Ottawa 67's, and those pesky Val'dor Foreurs. I could literally write a novel recounting my experiences and memories from the tournament as it was some of the most prolific hockey I've seen to date. To say the Regina Pats had a shaky beginning to the MasterCard Memorial Cup would be a massive understatement. In the tournament opener, they got thumped by the 67's in a Donald Choukalos goaltending performance that would've made Roman Cechmanek proud. Game two didn't fare much better for the Patties falling to aforementioned Foreurs. The two consecutive losses led coach current Vancouver Giants head coach Lorne Molleken to make a change between the pipes, now entering into the fold is someone well beknownst in Regina hockey lore, that being Chad Davidson. The third game was a must win for the Pats going up against the Red Deer Rebels. The myth still believed to this day, and something Brent Sutter vehemently denies is that Red Deer threw the game thus guaranteeing tiebreakers which would further wear out teams. The Pats reigned victorious setting up a tiebreaker against the Ottawa 67's. The tie-breaker took place the next night, and this is actually the one game I didn't see(some hockey fan I am right!). In all actuality, I had a baseball commitment that evening and considering I was the team ace, I may of regretted my decision but the team certainly didn't. Okay....so I lied, I was anything but the team ace as my throwing mechanics were widely panned as one of the more memorable quotes I ever received was from a good friend's father when describing my pitching/throwing, classified my delivery as the "drop ball" because it would never reach the intended glove.  I missed that game, but saw the highlights and was PUMPED because I knew I was now going to the semi final v Val'dor in what turned out to be the greatest hockey game I've ever been to. In one of those "where were you when" moments, so many things stick out about that game. For starters, in the pre game they handed out foam Thunder sticks that by the end of the afternoon I had shredded to pieces due to nerves. It was a back and forth affair with at one point Regina holding a three to one lead only to see it evaporated. In a game knotted at threes with a minute and a half left, team captain Barrett Jackman scored the decisive goal for what most fans including myself thought to be game winner. We're off to the final versus Red Deer right......not so fast! Electric sniper Simone Gamache broke the hearts of Regina fans less than a minute later to tie up the game which led to an overtime period being required. I just recall throughout that intermission the tension in the then Agridome. You could hear the dime drop and I was bracing onto what little I had left of that thunder stick. Overtime came, and a fairy tale ending wasn't in the script this time around as third liner Chris Lyness trailed an odd man rush and potted home the winner. The devastation in my fourteen year old self was paramount as I felt like I had my heart ripped from within me. To make matters worse, the friend who accompanied me to the game, who's dad was our ride was boxed in by two idiots in the parking lot leading to a two hour delay sitting around waiting for the vehicles to clear out. The intensity was like no other and based off of my experiences, I can only hope the now Brandt Center will have the flexibility to host another Memorial Cup.

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