It wasn't supposed to be this easy.
The Battlefords North Stars weren't supposed to set the all-time record for fewest goals allowed in a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League season with 103 in 58 games. Yet they did.
They weren't supposed to have the best goals-against-average in all of junior A hockey, at 1.77 per game. Yet they did.
And they weren't supposed to go undefeated in the SJHL playoffs, sweeping three straight series for the first time in 35 years and just the third time ever. Yet they did, after defeating Flin Flon 6-5 in game four on Tuesday night at the Whitney Forum to clinch their first championship since 2000.
"It's just one of those special moments that you'll never forget," North Stars head coach Nate Bedford said in the post-game interview on CJNB/CJNS. "To sweep through in the finals is nearly impossible to do.
"Couldn't be more proud of these guys."
Many players were at a loss for words immediately following the win while celebrating on the ice with family and friends who had made the trip to Flin Flon, especially those who finished out their junior careers on top, such as hometown native Logan Nachtegaele and Edam native Jared Blaquiere.
"I can't even explain it," Nachtegaele said. "It's what we all dreamed of. I don't know. I have no words, honestly. It's amazing."
"It's an experience come true, especially with Zach Nedelec sitting beside me," Blaquiere said of his fellow Edam native, as the two were both traded from La Ronge at the deadline. "We're actually speechless right now. Especially to do it in the Whitney Forum. It's one tough rink to seal the deal in. Thank god we have four hard lines."
"A million things went through my mind [when the buzzer went]," Nedelec added, who has been out with a lower-body injury since the quarter-finals but still made sure he had a chance to lift the cup out on the ice with all his teammates. "Absolutely unbelieavble. Couldn't have asked for a better way to end our 20-year-old season. Hometown team with all the boys – it's unreal."
Another Edam kid on this club is Reed Delainey, who scored the team's third goal that got them back into the game at 4-3. Delainey played in 198 career SJHL games between the regular season and playoffs over his four years.
"I've dreamed of this since I was 10-years-old and it's finally come true," Delainey said. "I love every one of these guys with all my heart and there's no one else I would have rather done this with than these fine group of men, that's for sure."
In the playoffs, the North Stars scored 63 goals in just 12 games and allowed 25 against.
They also got insane production from the self-ascribed 'dynamic duo' of Coby Downs and Layne Young.
Downs led the playoffs with 25 points in 11 games and was named playoff MVP. Young wasn't far behind in the points department, with 23 in 12 games.
"I almost cried a little bit [when the buzzer went]," Downs said. "Last SJHL game and I was just so excited. The boys worked hard for this one. I've never been so happy in my life."
"Complete excitement [right now] and a little bit of shock that it happened," Young added. "I'm at a loss for words right now. It still hasn't set in but it's a great feeling, watching everyone come off the bench. Unbelievable."
Game four against the Bombers was just about as close as game three's overtime win and easily could have gone either way. There were loads of odd bounces that the black and green had to overcome.
The game was tied 2-2 after one period, thanks to Troy Gerein and Bryce Hall finding the back of the net, but also thanks to a floating shot from Bomber Tyler Nyman from just outside the blueline with 3.6 seconds left in the period to even things up. Flin Flon winger Kristian St. Onge had scored earlier in the period as well.
North Stars goalie Taryn Kotchorek replaced Joel Gryzbowski to start the second and the bad bounces continued straight away after a bouncing puck from centre went past the left pad of Kotchorek, stunning the visitors.
Battlefords then found themselves in penalty trouble and Nick Shumlanski cashed in on a 5-on-3 to give Flin Flon a 4-2 lead.
"Tonight was a perfect example where we're down 4-2 in the other team's barn, supposedly one of the hardest rinks to play in in junior hockey, we didn't play particularly well, and all of a sudden we're looking at a 6-5 score," Bedford said. "It's just one of those things where we continued to battle and sacrificed our body – everyone was going, everyone was playing."
The resiliency really started to show from the North Stars after they went down 4-2. Delainey and Layne Young would score goals 10 minutes apart to make sure the score was all tied up 4-4 after 40 minutes.
For the game-tying goal, Downs fed Young a pass from the wall with Young headed towards the goal. When he got the pass, his quick release was put on display again.
"I knew that I had a chance to just bust to the net and he made a good pass and I just shot, honestly," Young said.
In the third, the North Stars proved how badly they wanted it, and it may have had something to do with what was said in the second intermission by Bedford.
"Let's just say that Nate Bedford is good at speeches and it f***ing worked," Nachtegaele said. "I was almost in tears. It got right to the heart and obviously it worked."
"Going into the second intermission, [Bedford] really said the perfect things," defenceman Ryan Rosenberg added. "He really gave a great speech and is just one hell of a coach. I give him all the credit for how we came out in the third. He absolutely got the boys fired up."
Bedford's message was about one thing.
"You can go through life and have lots of regrets but the minute you decide you're going to create change or you're going to be th change, is the day you start having success," Bedford said. "I reminded them of all the pressure that they've had on them: not winning in 17 years, all the pressure about last year against this team, all the pressure about Flin Flon, all the pressure we felt about people maybe not liking us...and I just asked them to be the change."
In that third, it was Young and Downs leading the way offensively, each netting a goal to put things out of reach.
Young's was another well-placed shot upstairs, similar to his first.
"I was the high guy and the puck just happened to come out to me and I knew from my goal before that high glove was open so that's where I put it," Young said.
Downs game-winner was scored with just over 12 minutes to go in the game, when he finished in tight on the backhand.
"I don't even know – it bounced over like four sticks and then I faked Newton out," Downs said.
St. Onge would score on another Bomber power play in the third to cut the lead to 6-5, but that's as close as things would get, as the North Stars clinched the championship.
Kotchorek finished with a 9-0 playoff record, after not getting a playoff start last year. The hometown native never played midget AAA hockey, making the job from AA straight to junior A and now he has he name on the Canalta Cup and an undefeated career post-season record.
The 2016-17 North Stars will be remembered for a long time because of how much they dominated their peers in the SJHL.
They went 60-9-1 between the regular season and playoffs combined and have now booked their ticket to the Western Canada Cup in Penticton, B.C., which will begin on Saturday, April 29.
Battlefords is joined by Manitoba Junior Hockey League champion Portage, Alberta Junior Hockey League champion Brooks, as well as two B.C. representatives – the host Penticton Vees and the Chilliwack Chiefs, who are currently still battling it out for the provincial title.
The first game will be at 8 p.m. Saskatchewan time against the Vees on Saturday April 29.
All games will be aired on CJNB/CJNS. The full schedule can be found here.
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