This may be the toughest blog entry yet. I say that because now that 2009 is (almost) over for the Battlefords North Stars, and now I'm charged with the task of reflecting on the past 12 months.
Thankfully the past 12 months have been nothing short of exhilerating. This team has been through it all:
- Jubilation after an unpredicted playoff run which saw them take Humboldt to the limit.
- Frustration when consistency lacked, and close games were lost.
- Resiliency when key players went down with injury.
- Regrouping during the offseason, and finding new key players to take this team to the next level in 2009-2010.
Thankfully, I've been in a position to witness it all. The laughs, the devastation, and the joys that accompany life in junior hockey. I'm going to do my best now to summarize the past year based on memory. I hope you feel compelled to share your thoughts and memories of 2009 in the comments section of this piece.
At the start of 2009, the North Stars held a three-point lead on the La Ronge Ice Wolves for the final playoff spot in the SJHL's Itech Conference. The Nipawin Hawks and Melfort Mustangs had long since seperated themselves from the bottom two teams, and it was widely agreed that either La Ronge or the North Stars would be fighting until the bitter end for a playoff spot.
The Stars lost in overtime to both Kindersley and Notre Dame in the first week of 09. The loss to Notre Dame was particularly devastating because Hounds forward Jaden Schwartz scored the winner six seconds into OT. The Hounds were short-handed at the time.
The Stars went down south to Notre Dame and Weyburn a week later and did not fair well.
The losses kept mounting for the Stars, yet fortunately the Ice Wolves were struggling even more so.
The undisputed January highlight came on the 17th during parents weekend when The Stars defeated the Melville Millionaires 3-1. Of the 15 victories during the 08/09 regular season, this was easily one of the most exciting games. Melville was the best team in the Sherwood Conference at the time, and the Stars simply outworked them. That game (in my opinion) was the best game that I had seen Brett Miller play. In Miller's case, the best was clearly yet to come.
Heading into February, the Stars would only win twice more. Once on the road in Kindersley when Dane Muench scored four goals. The final victory came at the Civic Center against Nipawin, the eventual first round opponents for the Stars in the Itech Conference Survivor Series.
Heading into the Itech Conference Survivor Series, the Battlefords North Stars were the heavy underdog. The Nipawin Hawks had 23 more points than the Stars did during the regular season, and boasted two of the premier forwards in the SJHL in Torey Dyck and Brent Ottman.
The North Stars took game one in Nipawin by a 7-4 score. The power-play was clicking, and Kyle Birch was making crucial saves for his team. It was the first time in over two years that the Stars had won a game at the Cage.
Game two of the series was held at the Battlefords Civic Center, and the Stars came out firing right away. Blake Peake opened the scoring early, and Kyle Birch was steady for a second straight game, and the under-dog North Stars beat Nipawin 4-1, and held a commanding 2-0 lead in the Best-of-Five Survivor Series.
I remember the bus trip to Nipawin before game three. I had never heard the bus so quiet. There was a focus and a confidence that was only starting to materialize. There was not a single player, coach, trainer or broadcaster that didn't 'believe' at that point that the North Stars were going to win the series.
Game three did not get off to a good start. The Stars trailed 2-0 towards the end of the first period, and Nipawin seemed to finally have some extended momentum. The Stars scored late in the first, and then Josh Clare tied things up early in the second period.
After 40 minutes of play that night, the Stars held a 4-3 lead. Nipawin tied it early in the third on a power-play goal from Taylor Thiessen. Moments later, the Stars were short-handed again. Only this time the Stars grabbed momentum when captain Mitch Wall was hauled down by Thiessen on a short-handed breakaway.
Mitch Wall skated in on Mark Currie and snuck a back-hand deke into the net to give his team a 5-4 lead at the Cage.
The next 13 minutes were the longest 13 minutes of my life. Kyle Birch continued to make saves, and the Stars finally sealed the deal with an empty-netter. They won the game 6-4 and swept Nipawin in three-straight games.
After that win, Ken Pearson said it was one of the most gratifying series victories that he's ever experienced. This coming from a former league champ! What a compliment that must have been for the boys.
Up next for the Stars, a battle with the defending R.B.C. Champion Humboldt Broncos.
Game one from Humboldt went the way of the home-team 5-2.
Game two at the Civic Center may have been the most exciting hockey game I've ever called to this point my broadcasting career.
Only one goal was scored, and it came off the stick of Troy Watt. It was the first goal that Watt had ever scored at the Junior A level. How could the team not be fired up after a goal like that?
Humboldt kept getting chances, and somehow Kyle Birch kept making saves. Birch made one save off of Kyle Cowan that still gives me the chills to this day.
The longer the game went, the more it became evident that Humboldt was frustrated. They simply could not score! When the final horn blew and the Civic Center went nuts! It was the loudest I had ever heard that place. For the first time in over two years, the Stars had beaten the Humboldt Broncos.
Game three was a 5-1 win for Humboldt, but they did so on the strength of four goals in the third period. The Star's efforts were not properly rewarded that night, and confidence remained high heading back to North Battleford for game four.
Game four brought forth a similar atmosphere to that of game two. The Star's fans were loud and proud, and got the chance to cheer early when Brody Malek wired a shot past Matt LaRochelle to give the Stars a 1-0 lead.
Humboldt tied it late in the first period.
The Stars got their lead back early in the second period thanks to a clutch goal from the previously scratched Ryan Toporowski.
Kyle Birch stopped Torey Allan on a penalty-shot, and the Stars took a 2-1 lead into the final period.
The third period was all Battlefords. Mitch Wall scored twice, and Tony Oak and Ryan Andersen also found the back of the net, and just like that, the Stars had beaten Humboldt 6-1 and tied the series at two games a piece.
The following Saturday, fans from the Battlefords hopped into vans and join the North Star's in Humboldt. The Stars had a cheering section of about 150 people at the Elgar Petersen Arena, and they certainly helped.
It was 1-1 heading into the third period and the North Stars and Broncos continued to trade chances. Late in the third period, Andrew Bodnarchuk made a point-blank save off of Alex Leclerc which may have saved Humboldt's season.
Overtime was looming, and the North Stars continued to pepper Bodnarchuk with shots. But late in the third period, Humboldt got the luckiest break of their season.
Bronco D-Man Dmitri Levin cleared a puck out of his own zone to center. The Star's defence were slow getting back, and North Star's centerman Chris Jung was the last line of defence between Kyle Birch and the Broncos. Jung grabbed the puck just outside of the Humboldt blueline but fell, letting the puck go free.
Bronco forward Spencer Braaten seized the opportunity and grabbed the loose puck. Jung quickly got to his feet and tripped Braaten to the ice. The ref's hand shot-up in the air, and Humboldt was going to get a power-play. But Braaten didn't give up on the play. He got back up to his feet, cut in on Birch and lifted a back-hand over his left pad to make it 2-1 Humboldt.
My heart broke. So did 24 others on the bench, and 150 more in the stands. Spencer Braaten's goal with 23 seconds left in the third period of game five essentially won game five of the Itech Conference Semi-Final.
Game Six was a no-doubter for Humboldt won won 7-2 at the Civic Center.
If the Stars had gone to overtime in Game Five, who knows what would have happened.
The North Star's fans rightfully applauded their boys when the horn sounded in Game Six. It was a wierd feeling because on one hand, the season had to be considered a success, yet the agony of defeat truely stung. The fact is that the Battlefords North Stars gave Humboldt the toughest battle of anybody in the post-season, and
Humboldt would go on to win the league, but lost in the Royal Bank Cup Final to Vernon.
The Battlefords North Star's Awards Banquet took place in early June before the Annual Golf Tournament.
Dane Muench, Jesse Lebreton, Kyle Birch, Blake Peake, and Troy Watt were some of the notable winners.
All sorts of optimism surrounded the Battlefords North Stars during the offseason. Fans were chomping at the bit to get going for 2009-2010. Ken Pearson was busy re-tooling his team.
Gone were 20-year-olds Chris Jung, Josh Clare and Nick Martin.
The Stars also learned in the early summer that defenceman Tom Kleidon would not be returning due to an injury.
In were the likes of Nathan Tomac, Ward Szucki, and Blake Tatchell.
In the days leading up to training camp, Ken Pearson also informed me that a player from Pittsburgh would be attending training camp. His name was Josh Daley, and his resume was impressive.
Training Camp started in late August, and it was an incredibly busy one from a North Star's perspective.
Colton Graf, Alex Leclerc, Skyler Dunser and Dusty Iron were shipped away in trades while Shay Neufeld, and Cody Folstad were brought back in.
Dane Muench and Brett Miller a long with defencemen Woody Klassen and Dominic Perrault were going to stick with their respective WHL clubs while goaltenders Graham Hildebrand and Kyle Birch, and forward Jordan Lane would be coming back.
The month of September started well enough for the Stars, who were 5-4 when all was aid and done. Miller, Klassen, and Perrault had all re-joined the club, and all were making significant impacts. Miller and Andersen in particular were finding a ton of early offensive success.
Josh Daley's play quickly turned him into a fan favourite, while local players Blake Tatchell, Boyd Wakelin, Justin Waskewitch, Mitch Wall and Troy Watt were making daily contributions to the team's success.
Ryan Andersen was named Player of the Month for September.
October was a good month for the North Stars, who won every single one of their home games that month, and continued to establish themselves as a legitimite threat in the Bauer Conference.
The Stars learned at the end of October that they would get Dane Muench back from the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL.
The highlight of October came in the middle when the Stars won three straight home games in a shootout. They beat Flon Flon, Weyburn and Notre Dame consecutively. Brett Miller and Blake Peake scored each time.
Miller was named Player of the Month for October.
November was highlighted by the SJHL Showcase coming to the Battlefords. The Stars dropped a tough-one to Humboldt on the Friday night (November 27th) 2-1 but bounced back the next night to beat Kindersley 7-6 in overtime. Overall the Showcase was deemed a success from a league stand-point.
The Stars continued to battle with the Flin Flon Bombers for supremacy in the Bauer Conference.
The best player for The Stars in November was Blake Peake. He scored seven goals and added 10 assists. For the first time all year, it was easy to select a player of the month.
December has been an up-and-down month for the Stars. They started with a 7-3 win in Melville, and also notched a 5-4 shootout victory in Humboldt, but they lost twice to Flin Flon, once to Melfort and were battered with injuries. They also lost Brett Miller to the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League.
They did go out and grab 20-year-old forward David Lawrence from the MJHL's Dauphin Kings at the December 1st Roster Cut-Down deadline.
Mitch Wall, Troy Watt and Shay Neufeld are all currently sidelined with various ailments, yet the Stars continue to persevere. At this point today, the Stars remain in second place in the SJHL's Bauer Conference, but are now being hotly pursued by the Melfort Mustangs. The 'Stangs have played four less games than the Stars, and are only four points back.
The standings could look a little different come the start of 2010, but irregardless of inconsistency and injury the Stars have proven to the league and to their fans that they are legitimite contenders this year.
In closing, a ton of of thanks and credit is in order for the Star's coaching staff. Ken, Blair and 'Shepp' have done a fantastic job at turning a 15-win team into a contender. Hiring Ken Pearson was the best decision this organization has made since my time here, and I am grateful for my friendship and great working relationship with all three coaches. These three make coming to the rink everyday a privilege.
I want to publically thank Ken for being so forthcoming and accomodating with me. Professionally he has been of my biggest supporters. I owe a huge chunk of my professional success in the present and in the future to Ken Pearson.
Blair Atcheynum is a fantastic coach, and an even better person. He's never shy about giving me wardrobe advice, and I know he does so because he wants me to dress the part and find success. A long with Ken, Atch has been one of my biggest personal supporters, and has been instrumental in allowing me to not only call games for the Stars, but to run their website and become an employee of the team. Had it not been for a conversation in Yorkton back in February, perhaps I'm not in the position I am in now. Thanks Blair.
The North Star's training staff is 'second to none' in the SJHL. Dale Jackson is the hardest working man in the SJHL, and this team is so lucky to have his services. He's also a great roommate, and a good pal. Missy Reiter also deserves recognition for her efforts as a trainer and as an interim marketing manager. Best of luck with the baby Missy, and I'm wishing you nothing but the best.
To new Marketing and Office Manager Dawn Cardell - It's great to have you here! I look forward to seeing great things from you in 2010.
I am so grateful to the North Star's Board of Directors for supporting me, and allowing me to thrive this season. This year I've worked very closely with Debbie and Kara, and these are two of the hardest working gals out there.
Ray and Stew (and pals) deserve so much credit and appreciation for forming a committee and bringing the SJHL Showcase to the Battlefords.
Thank you Cheri for your baking!
To Cody Nickolet, Matt Ryan for providing some fanstic color commentary throughout the season. I'm blessed to work with you guys, and you are two of the best friends a guy could ask for.
Thank you Julie for taking amazing photos, and sharing them with parents, fans and readers of the blog. I think it's awesome that half the team are using your photos for their facebook profiles. Your hard work is strongly appreciated, and I look forawrd to seeing what you can do in 2010 with that camera of yours.
To the many parents/fans that I interact with during road trips and home games. I enjoy our conversations more than you'll ever know. Your compliments, listenership, and support means an awful lot.
And finally I'd like to wish all of the players a Merry Christmas. I love chatting with you guys, and I wish you nothing but the best moving forward. You guys have something special this year, and I truely hope that you can put it all together, because there is no telling how far this group can go this year.
Thanks for reading this blog and thanks for supporting the Battlefords North Stars in 2009. I'll be updating more in the days leading up to 2010, but I assure you that none will be this long.
Any and all comments are welcomed.