100 MILE HOUSE, B.C. — The 100 Mile House Wranglers are the 2016 Kootenay International Junior Hockey League champions.
Thursday night at the South Cariboo Rec Centre in 100 Mile House, the Wranglers claimed a nail-biting 2-1 victory in Game 5 of the league championship to claim the best-of-seven series by a 4-1 margin and advance to the Cyclone Taylor Cup for the first time in club history.
If there’s one thing you can say about the Kimberley Dynamiters, it’s that they never gave up.
To the outside eye, the Dynamiters are quite simply a junior hockey team. To an inside eye, the Dynamiters are nothing short of a tight-knit family.
Heavily favoured heading into the post-season after finishing as the regular-season kings of the KIJHL, a black and blue Dynamiters squad stuck together — as families work so hard to do — and left every ounce of everything they had out on the ice Thursday night.
“It’s a tough night,” said Jerry Bancks, head coach of the Kimberley Dynamiters, Thursday. “We gave it all we had. It’s a happy/sad night. I’m very sad because I won’t be able to see them as often as I have and have these good times together.
“For us to win the league was a pretty amazing thing. To do as well as we did in the playoffs was incredible. We definitely know we could have done this. We didn’t get it done.
“All you can do is thank [the players] and tell them how much you respect them. They’re family. Once a Dynamiter, always a Dynamiter. My door will always be open for any one of them.”
The two teams battled to a 1-1 tie through 40 minutes, with Brett Harris opening the scoring for the Wranglers and Eric Buckley responding for the Dynamiters.
Then, with only 3:57 remaining in regulation, 21-year-old Prince Rupert native Brady Ward sunk the final dagger into the hearts of the Dynamiters to give the Wranglers a 2-1 lead, which they locked down en route to the first league championship in team history.
“It feels fantastic,” said Dale Hladun, head coach of the 100 Mile House Wranglers. “When you have to play such a good team like Kimberley and with how well our kids played against such a good club, I’m even prouder of our guys.
“Kimberley — they were not quitting. They were relentless. It was a good series. Any fans that didn’t manage to come out to any of these games, too bad. Because that was good hockey.”
Between the pipes, Zane Steeves was once again lights out, turning aside 40 of a 41-shot barrage from the Nitros.
“Zane, I was excited we got him and I was surprised he was even in our league,” Hladun said. “I believe as a 20-year-old next year, he will find a Junior A opportunity. If there isn’t a team in Junior A taking Zane, then they’re silly.
“You saw what he did. He’s a good goalie and there was a lot of pressure. Kimberley just came in waves and he stood them up. I think 100 Mile should enjoy was they just saw here, because I don’t think Zane will be with us next year.”
At the other end, Tyson Brouwer was in MVP form as well, making 30 saves.
Harris opened the scoring with a first period power-play tally.
With Trey Doell serving a hooking minor, it didn’t take long for the Wranglers to set up shop on the man advantage. Taking the puck at the point, Austin Turner fired a long, low shot that Harris redirect past Brouwer to give the home team a 1-0 lead with 7:46 remaining in the first period.
The Doell penalty and consequential Harris goal followed an opening half to the period that saw the Dynamiters dominate zone time. But as has been the case all series, Steeves was Johnny on the spot with the glove, keeping things relatively quiet at his end of the rink.
Yanked after allowing three goals on 18 shots in Game 4, Brouwer was back in top-notch form to start Game 5. His best save of the period came off a short-handed breakaway opportunity for Ryan Friesen. Jumping an errant pass at the Wranglers blueline, Friesen burst in all on Brouwer, only to have the door slammed in his face.
Tyler Povelofskie was in the crosshairs of the officials from the first puck drop. After taking a goalie interference penalty, the pesky 19-year-old forward then tripped up Eric Buckley, giving the Dynamiters their second man advantage of the evening with less than 45 seconds remaining in the first period.
A back-and-forth second period saw more great opportunities for both clubs.
Looking for his second of the night, Harris went outside-in on Devon Langelaar to get in tight on Brouwer, but once again, the Nitros regular season MVP wasn’t about to let anything through.
At the other end, Steeves remained active with both the glove and blocker, rejecting attempts from Jason Richter and Keenan Haase.
With time winding down in the second period, the Dynamiters grabbed a turnover in neutral ice and turned play the other way. Walking over the blueline 3-on-2, Buckley took a drop pass before raising into the high slot and beating Steeves low to tie the game 1-1 with 2:02 to go in the second period.
The Wranglers came out with good jump to start the third period, bringing out the MVP in Brouwer.
First, a long point shot was redirected from close range and labelled for the top corner. With cat-like reflexes, the 5-foot-11 native of Lethbridge shot out the glove hand, getting just enough of the rubber to send it wide of the cage.
Then, with 12 minutes remaining in the 1-1 game, Brouwer kicked out the left toe on another glorious opportunity in tight to keep his team deadlocked with a pressing Wranglers squad.
Still haven’t had enough? With time winding down, Tyler Povelofskie sent a hot shot in on net. Brouwer made the first save but the rebound popped straight up in the air above the crease. With a mass of humanity crashing in on him, the Eddie Mountain Division Goaltender of the Year managed to bat the rebound out of mid-air with the paddle of his stick, once again negating another big opportunity for the hosts.
Then Ward struck.
“[Stephen] Egan somehow got it down low off a chip in,” Ward said, recalling his championship-clinching marker. “He came around below the goal line there and I decided to come down later. He found me.
“It’s just unreal. I can’t even put it into words right now what it’s like. As a 20-bomb, it’s the best feeling in the world to win it all. I can’t even put it into words.
“We’re just a big bunch of tough guys from the north that just love to bang bodies. That’s the way we play our game. Wrangler hockey is the hard way. Yeah, we take penalties for the type of players we are, but we always bounce back.”
In true Kimberley Dynamiters form, the visitors refused to quit. Brouwer vacated the cage for the extra attacker at a timeout with 1:34 remaining in regulation. Off a face-off win deep in Wrangler territory, Jordan Busch sent a point shot that ricocheted like a ping-pong ball — up and down off the ice surface — before seemingly hitting Steeves in the shoulder.
The rebound came to Eric Buckley at the side of the net, but as he did all series long, Steeves was there to leave everyone in the arena scrambling to scrape their jaws off the floor as he booted out the right leg to make an incredible, game-saving stop.
And then the final buzzer sounded, bringing an end to an incredible season of Kimberley Dynamiters hockey.
Finishing the regular season with a marvellous record of 41-7-0-4, the Kimberley Dynamiters claimed the Eddie Mountain Division title, Kootenay Conference title and KIJHL regular-season crown for their supremacy through 52 games.
From there, as it always is at any level of hockey, the challenge of repeating as post-season heroes was more challenging than anything else short of winning it the first time around.
“I wanted so bad to bring it home Saturday night,” Bancks said. “Just because I know the energy of the fans maybe would have made up for Justin Meier being out and Brodie Buhler. We would’ve been fine. But we had to win one here. In all honestly, I thought it might be the third one because of our fitness.
“I wanted to get it back to the fans so much. It’s alive. The word is out there. It’s the place to play and Kimberley can be very proud — the executive, the people that volunteer their time that put it all together — these kids get treated very well.
“The Kimberley Dynamiters are alive and well. I just want to thank all the people making the trip from Cranbrook, too. It’s pretty cool. And I will go out of my way to see that it continues.”
And next season, the great tradition that is Kimberley Dynamiters hockey will undoubtedly continue.