Wednesday, August 10, 2011

North Star Reflections (Season Two. 2008-2009)

My second season with the Battlefords North Stars essentially started in mid-April of 2008 when (then President) Greg Gryba called me at work and told me that the Battlefords North Stars had found their new head-coach and G.M. to replace Gary Clark. The man they chose was Ken Pearson and immediately Pearson was tasked with turning around the fortunes of a five-win hockey team from 2007-2008.

The Pearson era started with a deal that sent defenceman Kirk Moore to the Notre Dame Hounds in exchange for the rights of forward Jordan Peddle, defenceman Logan Wert and future considerations. This deal would prove to be major move for the Stars. I'll explain later. Pearson also acquired 20-year-old forward Josh Clare from the BCHL in exchange for future considerations.

When training camp started, it was clear that there was a different vibe in the North Star locker-room. The returning veterans were determined to redeem themselves after last season, but Ken Pearson made it clear that the veterans wouldn't be given a free-ride. He wasn't kidding.

The Stars got off to an 0-3 start in 2008-2009 and many of the same problems that plagued the Stars in 07-08 remained. They struggled to score, their defense was sketchy, and neither Ryan Kerpan or Adrian Lemay provided Pearson with reliable goaltending. But fortunes would start to turn around after a trade, and the arrival of a new goaltender.

Ken Pearson sent 20-year-old forward Nick Kalnicki to the Humboldt Broncos in exchange for defenceman Woody Klassen and 20-year-old forward Josh Garneau. Garneau chose not to report, and was promptly traded to Drayton Valley in exchange for defenceman Martin Cole.

Klassen and Cole made an immediate impact with the team. Klassen and Cole added a much-needed spark to the blue-line, and 17-year-old Graham Hildebrand provided some solid goaltending for the Stars once he was dropped by the Brandon Wheat Kings.

The Stars beat the Yorkton Terriers and Melfort Mustangs in consecutive home-games, and ended the month of September with a 2-3-1 record.

The trades continued. Gone were the likes of Rick Cey, Shawn McNulty, Ryan Kerpan, Adrian Lemay, Joel Budd, Richard Cameron and Ryan Scheafer. In came Chris Jung, Troy Watt, Kyle Birch, while more ice-time was also given to the likes of Brett Miller, and Ryan Andersen.

In early October the Stars named 19-year-old forward Mitch Wall captain, and under Wall's leadership the Stars quickly forged a gritty, tough style. Even when the wins were hard to come by, the Stars made sure to leave an impression with their opponents.

16-year-old forward Dane Muench was providing the Stars with legitimate offense. Alex Leclerc, Colten Graf, Chris Jung and Mitch Wall showed that they could help offensively when needed. Jesse Lebreton, Coleman Brodbin and Brody Malek were showing clear improvements from 07-08, and in goal the tandem of Kyle Birch and Graham Hildebrand showed lots of promise.

The Stars got a real boost in November with the arrival of forward Blake Peake. Peake was the future considerations in the Peddle/Wert for Moore trade that I mentioned earlier in this post. Peake arrived with little fanfare or expectations, but immediately showed the Star's coaching staff and fans that he could play. Peake joined Chris Jung and Dane Muench on the team's top line, while Mitch Wall, Colten Graf and Alex Leclerc provided the Stars with a reliable second-line. Josh Clare, Troy Watt and Tony Oak provided a line with exceptional grit and sand-paper, leaving Brett Miller, Ryan Andersen and Ryan Toporowski to provide a little bit of everything on the third line.

Pearson took a chance on an American defenceman named Tom Kleidon, and after he acquired 20-year-old defenceman Nick Martin the 2008-2009 North Stars had officially taken shape.

Wins were still tough to come by, but thanks to some timely victories and the struggles of the La Ronge Ice Wolves - The Stars ended up as the number-five seed in the (then) Itech Conference, and would up facing Colin O'Hara's Nipawin Hawks in the Survivor Series playoff.

On paper it didn't look good for the Stars. They finished 23 points back of Nipawin in the standings, and Nipawin's lineup featured the offensive tandem of Torey Dyck and Brent Ottman along with Shawn McNulty, Kenton Miller and Shael Hechter. Defensively the Hawks were led by 19-year-old all-star Taylor Thiessen. Add the fact that the Stars hadn't beaten Nipawin at the Cage in over two years, and it was quite clear that EVERYBODY was favoring Nipawin in the series.

Well, almost everybody.

Before Game One of the Survivor Series, the Stars seemed relaxed and ready. It showed on the ice.

The Star's power-play continued to be the team's strength. They scored four times in a 7-4 win over Nipawin in Game One. Even though the Stars surrendered four goals against, Kyle Birch was phenomenal in net. Another sign of things to come for the Stars.

Two nights later, the Stars took the ice at home and received a boisterous welcome from the home-crowd. Blake Peake scored early in the first period, and the Stars never looked back. They beat the Hawk's 4-1 in Game Two, and went to Nipawin on Monday night needing one more victory to sweep the series.

I'll never forget how quiet and focused the guys were on the bus before Game 3. It's as if every single person on that bus knew that Game Three was going to be a special game.

It didn't start well for the Stars. They trailed 2-0 quickly, and The Cage in Nipawin was hopping with excitement. Dane Muench made it 2-1 Nipawin, and Josh Clare scored early in the second to tie the game at two. Star's captain Mitch Wall made it 3-2, and Jesse Lebreton added a goal and after 40 minutes the Stars led 4-2 in Game Three.

The Hawks did not go quietly. They scored twice in the third to tie the score, and then went to a power-play shortly thereafter. Kyle Birch managed to settle down and made some big saves, and then back the other way came the Stars. Mitch Wall was sprung on a breakaway, but was hauled down by a back-checking Taylor Thiessen.

Penalty Shot.

The first-year captain of the Stars made no mistake on Mark Currie. He slipped a back-hand shot over his left pad, and gave the Stars an improbable 5-4 lead on a penalty-shot. Kyle Birch continued to shut the door, and Brett Miller sealed the deal with an empty-netter.

After the game, Ken Pearson called it, "One of the Most Satisfying Wins in my Career."

Up next, the defending National Champion Humboldt Broncos. Dean Brockman's team had 61 more points in the regular season, and were almost pre-destined for another birth in the Royal Bank Cup. The Broncos had a formidable offense featuring: Scott and Steven Schroeder, Torey Allen,  Matt Kirzinger, Nick Kalnicki, and Spencer Braaten. Their defense was led by the tandem of Brady Wacker and Tanner Vandesype, and Andrew Bodnarchuk and Matt Larochelle provided an exceptional goaltending duo for Humboldt.

Game one went to Humboldt by a 5-2 score. But the plucky North Stars returned home and offered up one of the most exciting games that (to this day) I have ever called in my life.

** In Mid-October, Ken Pearson acquired Troy Watt from the Drayton Valley Thunder for future considerations. Watt was known for his aggressive, if not reckless style of hockey. Very little natural skill, but he played with the heart of a lion, and always went to war for his teammates. That being said, in nearly two full years of Junior A Hockey, Watt had scored ZERO goals. **

Game Two of the series was a see-saw battle between two hot goalies. Everytime Matt Larochelle would make a big save, Kyle Birch would make a bigger one. Neither team could solve the other netminder, and mid-way through the game the score was still 0-0.

The only goal of the game started on a rather innocent clear by Tony Oak. Oak (at the end of a shift) lifted the puck lazily off the glass in his own zone. The puck squeezed through the Humboldt defenceman onto the stick of Josh Clare. Clare found himself on a two-on-one with none other than Troy Watt. Clare patiently waited for the defenceman to make his move before sending a pass cross-ice to the wide-open Watt. Watt received the pass and one-timed it by the sprawling Larochelle, and from there? COMPLETE BEDLAM at the Civic Center.

The fans roared with appreciation as Troy Watt had scored his first ever Junior A. Goal giving the Stars a 1-0 lead.

Kyle Birch did the rest making a flurry of incredible saves in the third to solidify the shutout, and more importantly the victory for the North Stars.

The teams would split the next two games, setting up a Saturday night game five showdown in Humboldt.

The Elgar Petersen Arena was filled for Game Five. The City of Humboldt was on edge due to the fact that they were soon about to find out whether they would be named Hockeyville for 2009. The rowdy atmosphere was something to behold, and it set the tone for another epic hockey game between these new rivals.

The Stars and Broncos swapped goals in the second period, and headed into the late stages of the third period tied 1-1.

The Stars had the most chances in the third period. They continued to pepper Andrew Bodnarchuk with shots, but were simply unable to score and the game appeared to be destined for overtime.

What happened next still stings many to this day.

Chris Jung had possession of the puck just outside of Humboldt's blueline and appeared to be killing some seconds off the clock before dumping it back in. Jung lost his footing and the puck came free to the speedy Spencer Braaten. Braaten was off to the races, and while Jung did everything in his power to stop Braaten, he was simply too fast. Braaten raced in on Kyle Birch, faked forehand, deked backhand and JUST shoveled the puck by Birch on his glove-side to give Humboldt the 2-1 victory, and the 3-2 series lead.

The next night the Stars lost 7-2 at home, and the season came to a saddening end.

But the Stars held their heads high. They swept a good Nipawin team, and then took the defending National Champs to the brink of overtime in Game Five with the series tied 2-2. Ken Pearson spoke very proudly about the efforts from his team, and the playoff experience from 2008-2009 would prove to be extremely valuable for the team moving forward.


Josh Lewis said...

I remember how shocked I was when the Stars went on that run. No one thought anyone could touch Humboldt, let alone a team that barely squeaked into the playoffs.

Also, the first SJHL game I ever covered was a November tilt between the Stars and Klippers. I gave Blake Peake first star. It was a pretty mediocre game haha

Anonymous said...

Dan< i dont know if you remember but I sure do... In that one nothing game that Watt scored the goal, do you remember that amazing save that Birch made?? To this day I have never seen a better save than that by any goalie, including the NHL... That was sensational.. I will never forget that series...

Anonymous said...

A very well written report. it brought back chills just reading it.