SWAN RIVER, MB – How quickly times have changed in the COVID-19 world we’re currently living in.
With much of our ‘normal’ on pause the past six weeks, professional athletes have taken a back seat to medical and emergency personnel, grocery store employees and other essential workers.
That’s not at all a bad thing as those on the front lines deserve all the accolades we can heap upon them these days.
With little to no sports available to distract us from the current pandemic, there’s no harm in looking back at a playoff run that had the entire Swan River Valley on the edge of their seat, a mere 365 days ago.
Exactly one year ago today, the Swan Valley Stampeders were 24 hours away from heading to Portage la Prairie to battle the Terriers for the Manitoba Junior Hockey League championship. It was Game 7 of the final series and only one team was going to come out on top.
Stamps Head Coach and General Manager Barry Wolff took some time last week to reflect on what is now a bitter sweet memory.
“In a playoff run, as a whole, a lot of things have to go right to have success,” said Wolff.
“We needed and had the right personnel, skill, character, pride and commitment. You need to get the right calls at the right time, have solid goaltending, play as a team and for one other.”
The Stampeders’ staff did everything they could in terms of dealing with injuries – which plays into monitoring the proper rest and practice time and, unfortunately, suspensions can be a huge factor.
For any athlete, playoffs are the best time of the year. Everything is elevated – the pace of the game, the intensity, the crowds. The excitement around the Valley was nothing short of remarkable at this time last year.
“For us, we had all of the above,” continued Wolff.
“We had a solid team that had all the pieces of a championship group. They were committed and played with so much pride for the Stampeder logo and the Community. Merek (Pipes) provided us with great goaltending. We had guys scoring clutch goals when needed and several guys that were grinding it out, finishing checks, blocking shots, thus making the games very difficult for our opposition to gain momentum.”
The Stampeders also played a very hard defensive game and, with an explosive offense, they road that to within a goal of bringing an MJHL championship back to Swan River.
Wolff couldn’t praise the Valley enough with how the crowds continued to grow until that final, Game 6, sold-out crowd. Having that seventh man on the ice in the form of cheering was something never seen in these parts.
“The noise level was incredible,” said Wolff.
“It’s so much fun playing in front of that type of atmosphere. It gives you that extra gear to have success and we had several fans travel to out of town games as well. There’s nothing better than getting a loud roar after your team does something great in an opponent’s home rink.”
The team had several schools visit them at the Centennial Arena, always bringing good luck letters, posters and hand drawn pictures. It was a special time not just for the Stampeders, but for Valley hockey fans as well.
Wolff recalled some of the special moments away from the ice surface that he’ll take with him in life.
“I remember leaving town 10 minutes earlier so we could drive by the Minitonas school that Josh Tripp attended as a kid,” said Wolff. “The whole school was on the street cheering us on holding up big signs. Taylor School beside the arena did the same. We had a police escort on our way out of town, with main street lined up with fans cheering us on.”
With countless businesses in town posting a “GO Stamps Go” sign in their window, Wolff said that was even more encouragement for his squad as they marched on. It excited the players to see that support everywhere they went.
“This is something no one on the team will ever forget and words can’t say enough how much we appreciated all that effort from the community,” said Wolff. “They were a huge part of our success”
But, back to Game 7. If fans ever wondered what the mood was like inside the dressing room walls, Wolff was happy to share a glimpse of what his troops were feeling.
“We were ready, no question about that,” said Wolff. “The biggest thing was shaking off the Game 6 loss on home ice. Everyone wanted so badly to win on home ice for our fans and the community. The emotional low after that game, you can’t explain it, but we had to quickly put it behind us and start preparing for Game 7.
“With three days between Game 6 and seven, it gave the Stampeders a great opportunity to rest, refocus, as well as get physically and mentally ready for the winner take all contest. Despite the eventual loss, they did an amazing job of that.”
When the teams hit the ice for Game 7, back on April 22, 2019, a crowd of 2,200 people packed Stride place in Portage, in anticipation of an exciting finish to the series.
No one in attendance can say they went home disappointed with the game – until, for Stampeder fans in attendance – the final goal was scored, of course.
For those that made the trip down, myself included, it was a definite roller coaster of emotions. It was no different for Wolff and company as well.
“It was sort of even keel for most of the game,” said Wolff.
“The shots were close, and low, in all three periods.”
The Stampeders went down 1-0 after the first period, but Matt Osadick tied it up early in the second period to give Stamps fans plenty to cheer about. The Terriers scored their second goal a couple minutes later, setting the stage for an exciting finish.
The third period was a back-and-forth affair, with shots continuing to be at a premium.
With the Stampeders still trailing 2-1 late in the contest, forward Tucker Scantlebury was called for what most thought, was a series ending tripping penalty. After all, with only 43 seconds remaining in the period, the chances of a comeback was remote at best.
“When we got that late penalty with under a minute remaining in the game, a lot of people probably said series over,” said Wolff.
“But one thing we did all year, is come from behind and win games, so we felt as a group we weren’t finished. We just focused on the job at hand. We were in the penalty box, but off the face-off, as soon as we started heading north with puck possession, Pipes was on the bench to make it five-on-five player wise.”
With time winding down and the Terriers looking to take the puck up ice with the Stamps’ net empty, nothing short of a miracle unfolded.
After Tripp forced a turnover at the Terrier blue line, he was able to feed Osadick the puck who was still down low with not a Terriers player in sight. After a quick dangle, Osadick buried the puck past a sprawling Nathan Moore, with seven seconds left on the clock, to throw Stampeder fans into pandemonium.
“Osadick’s goal was unbelievable and certainly sent our bench into a frenzy,” smiled Wolff.
“Meanwhile with all this going on, my assistant coach Ryan Bettesworth was called off the bench in the third period to head to the Dauphin hospital where his wife Juanita was going into labour.”
While everyone left in the building had their nerves wound up as tight as one can imagine, the series would be forced into overtime, where one player was going to single handedly dash the hopes of their opponent and fan base alike.
Sadly, despite outshooting the Terriers by an 8-3 margin in the extra period, it was a goal by Reece Henry that would lift the host team to raise the Turnbull Cup trophy.
“The feeling when that OT goal goes in against you… unless you live it – you cannot describe the feeling,” said Wolff.
“We out shot them in OT, and missed a partial breakaway (by Bradly Goethals). I know a lot of fans were also devastated. You feel so bad for everyone involved. We all had an important role in it all. The players worked so hard, and the community and all their support was unbelievable.”
Wolff emphasized just how hard it is to win a championship. To be one shot away is a tough pill to swallow. As Wolff puts it, your heart is torn out and is like getting hit in the face with a frying pan.
For those wondering how long it takes to get over such a heartbreaking loss, the truth is, Wolff isn’t able to answer that question. The reason is simple – he hasn’t yet gotten past it.
“You don’t get over these situations,” lamented Wolff. “For me, personally, I have a hard enough time getting over a regular season loss, never mind a championship, Game 7, overtime loss.
“I see parts of that series, Game 7 and plays in the overtime in my mind every day. But, we’re so proud of that team, the community and what we did accomplish.”
Story Credit Brian Gilroy, Swan Valley Star and Times