Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League

Reflecting On Shortened Post-Season

(Photo: Defending Champion Battlefords North Stars celebrating their 2018-2019 Canalta Cup title a year ago, were one of many teams still in the running for this season’s top prize, having captured the 2019-2020 regular season pennant)

While the Easter long weekend is a lot different this year in terms of gathering with family, there’s another element missing that we’ve been used to.  Many years, Easter weekend falls in line with the end of the SJHL Playoffs, and the presentation of the Canalta Cup to a new champion.

When this season’s playoffs started on March 6th, assuming the normal structure of series’ beginning every second Friday, the Canalta Cup Final would have begun April 3rd, with the trophy most likely being handed out, right about now, with a typical series schedule having Game 5 Friday (April 10th), Game 6 Sunday (April 12th) and Game 7 Tuesday (April 14th).

The Canalta Cup Playoffs were four games deep into each SJHL Quarter-Final when everything changed.  NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the Coronavirus pandemic just prior to a game the evening of Wednesday, March 11th, and by the end of the night, the NBA season was suspended.  The NHL finished their schedule that night, but by the next day, the entire hockey world followed suit, including Hockey Canada and CJHL, including of course, the SJHL.

The Flin Flon Bombers had already advanced to the Semi-Finals, knocking out Humboldt in a four game sweep that wrapped up Wednesday, March 11th.  Battlefords and Melfort had 3-1 series leads over Nipawin and Estevan, respectively, while Yorkton and La Ronge were headed for at least six games, in a 2-2 series tie.  The Ice Wolves in fact, were on their way to Yorkton Thursday (Mar/12), the night before the game, and got a phone call to turn around – the series, and season was suspended due to growing concerns over the fast-spreading COVID-19 virus.

Arguably, this season featured more parity and legitimate contenders than any year in recent memory, as 8th-seeded Nipawin was 3rd in the standings mere weeks before the end of the regular season, with a log-jam between them and the top seeded clubs.

One of those contenders, no doubt, were the defending champion Battlefords North Stars.  Their 2018-2019 championship came as a surprise to many, as rookie Coach/GM Brayden Klimosko and a fairly new-look roster full of youth, claimed the 2nd seed, and after first place Nipawin lost in the opening round to Yorkton, the Stars held home ice all the way to the final, where they knocked out Melfort in five games.

This year, on paper, they were even better.  The Stars claimed top spot with 92 points, 13 more than second place Flin Flon, with a record of 45-11-2-0, winning the Global Ag Risk Solutions Division by 27 points.  Especially at first, Klimosko says the suspension of the season, and likelihood that they won’t have a chance at defending their title, was a tough pill to swallow.

“When the news first hit, you couldn’t believe it, you thought they were rushing into a decision.  So obviously there was some anger initially.  You felt horrible for the 20-year-olds, and the whole team. The organization, city and community.  We had a good team, second best in North Stars’ history.  The crazy part was I felt our guys were just getting amped up for playoffs.  We clinched 1st by mid February and really wanted to make another run at it.”

Klimosko was hopeful that this year’s team was trending for a similar result as they had a year ago, he says the two teams were very different.

“The teams were so different it’s actually crazy.  Last year we had a team that was slow out of the gate and we lacked confidence offensively at times.  We lost a lot of games by giving up leads late, and we won lots of games on pure heart and determination.  Guys like Buziak, Lamb, Sinclair and Spagrud were a special group.  This year’s team came out of the gates hot. We had a great start to the season and basically rode that out to a league pennant.  When we had the lead going into the 3rd period we knew the game was over. We understood how to win those type of games. So as a coach I felt at times we were too confident and that’s where it made me nervous.  We were going to be the favourite in most series’ and knew there was added pressure with that.  It would have been interesting to see how the players, coaches and organization would have handled that.  I guess it’s something we will never know.”

In Flin Flon, the Bombers were home and starting more than a week break when the season was called, after their sweep against Humboldt.  Bombers’ Coach & GM Mike Reagan was hopeful that this could be the year Flin Flon’s championship drought, going back to 1993 could come to an end, which also led to obvious initial disappointment.

“It was real tough to see this all unfold, so many different emotions. We almost didn’t believe this was happening. There are very few times where as a coach you see your entire team get to a point where you have a 100% buy in. I felt we got there throughout the series vs Humboldt. Every game we saw more commitment to doing the little things right and to me Game 4 capped it off. That’s what had me so excited and confident about this group of guys.”

Bomber forward Donavan Houle-Villeneuve is back home in Montreal, and spent three full seasons in Flin Flon, wrapping up with an NCAA Division I scholarship to the University of Maine, starting this fall.  He says a few weeks really haven’t changed his feelings about his 20-year-old season ending early, with such promise.

“The feeling of our season getting cancelled is really hard to describe, it’s a lot of mixed emotions as it was my last junior season and we really had a team to go all the way. The fact that we didn’t get closure is really frustrating. My feelings toward the situation haven’t really changed but I’m trying to put it past me and focus on getting ready for next year.”

Estevan was also on their way to Melfort a day before their Game 5 matchup, when they got the news.  The Mustangs had the 3-1 series edge, and were potentially 24 hours away from moving on to the final four.  Their Coach & GM Trevor Blevins echoed most of his colleagues sentiments saying it was disappointing not to be able to finish the year, but totally backs the league, and Hockey Canada’s decision to be safe and protect society.

While it’s possible that both Melfort and Battlefords could have won their opening series’ with home ice, Game 5 wins the night after the season was suspended, Yorkton and La Ronge would have needed at least two more games, and quite possibly three, the way their series was playing out.  Despite being the 4th vs 5th matchup, whoever came out of that series would have felt like they could win the whole thing as well.  La Ronge had a big, physical team, tailor-made for post-season play.  While Yorkton, had they made it through, quite possibly would have been up against first place Battlefords (provided Nipawin or Estevan didn’t erase 3-1 series deficits), and the Terriers one team who had the Stars’ number this season, picking up three wins and an overtime loss in four opportunities.

Yorkton Captain, and SJHL scoring leader and MVP, Chantz Petruic says it was a terrible way to cap what was an amazing season for him personally, and as a team.

“I still can’t put into words how frustrating the end of it all was. I was devastated. Everyone was. Obviously we had no choice and did what was necessary. I would have liked to go out on my own terms in my final year as a Terrier. We had a very good chance at bringing back a title to Yorkton. The town deserves one, and so do all of the hard working people around the organization that maybe don’t get the recognition that they deserve.”

Petruic had 58-goals and 109-points in just 52-games this season, leading the league in both categories by a fair margin.

Daylon Mannon led La Ronge in scoring, and was third in the league with 36-goals, and fourth with 80-points, playing in all 58 games.  The Ice Wolves were on their way to Yorkton the night before Game 5, and turned around back for home after learning the season was suspended.  Mannon says that trip home was pretty unnerving.

“Our series with Yorkton was the tightest one in the league, it sucked to see it come to that kind of end.  I think our group was special we had the grit, the skill, and the dedication in the room to go really far.  For all the 99’s that had their junior year come to an end in that 1st round playoff not just in the SJHL but all off North America its just so unfortunate.  They boys stayed another week or two just hanging out, went on some fishing trips and just sat around and told stories.  Unfortunately being from California I will never see some of those guys again and that was the emotional part of everything knowing our time was cut short and no one saw it coming but I’ll miss those boys they were something special and we will talk in the team group chat for a long time I know that.”

Mannon’s parents, Randy and Christine were actually up from Fresno, California, with intentions of watching every game in round one.  They flew into Saskatoon, and drove back and forth to Yorkton, La Ronge, and were partway to Yorkton again when they, like the team on the bus, saw their plans change, according to Randy.

“We saw all four games. Both teams played very well.  We knew even with La Ronge being the road team to start the series, they weren’t going to be swept. They were determined to win it no matter how many games it took.  It’s so sad not to see the outcome in the end. I think after the first game a lot of the jitters were out, tough, hard-hitting games, and a lot of goals both ways, it was crazy.  We were following the bus up to Yorkton when Daylon called and told us we needed to pull over, coach was on the phone with SJHL and the games may be postponed.  As a parent I understand taking action quickly but maybe this was too quick.  My heart hurts for my son and the team.  Coach Kevin (Kaminski) did a great turnaround with these kids.”

Mannon played for Kaminski his first year of junior in Fresno, California, putting up 75-goals and 150-points in 51 games, before heading to the North American Hockey League the following year, and finishing up his junior back with Kaminski in La Ronge this season.

While many hockey fans, players and coaches would have been happy to see, at least round one of the playoffs completed to get down to four teams, most are able to take a step back and realize the COVID-19 situation is much bigger than the game, including Klimosko, who, while being a relatively new SJHL Head Coach, and champion (as a coach), the Humboldt product is also a relatively new dad.

“It’s going to be a weird, long off-season.  I am looking forward to putting in lots of time for myself.  Spending time with My 18 month old son and my girlfriend. But also time to spend in the gym and eating better, just being at the rink or on the road lots, I don’t have much time for those things.

Obviously I would like to somehow finish this season off but it’s really looking like the virus is here to stay for a bit longer than we all hoped.  I really feel like times like this there are bigger things than hockey.  Just having the 2nd anniversary of the Broncos bus crash which hits home of course.  As much as it sucks that the season is done and the 20 year olds weren’t able to have a proper playoffs to finish their junior careers, we are fortunate enough that everyone was looking after our health and safety through this all and that’s number one.”

SJHL President Bill Chow:

“To say the least the 2019-2020 season ended at a time, that as the league President I had no idea was going to happen. The CJHL called for a conference call amongst all leagues for Thursday March 12th for 5:00 PM Sask time to discuss the Coronavirus. The CJHL had informed all the leagues of the situation and that Hockey Canada’s Board of Directors were having a conference call and the outcome in all likelihood would be the ‘postponing of the 2019-2020 hockey season, effective immediately.’  Selfishly for the teams that were about to play Friday, I had hoped they would be able to get their games in, as it turned out, they wouldn’t be able to. In having further discussions over the past weeks, the cancelling of the season as it was announced on March 12th, was not even a thought 24 hours prior to the season being cancelled.  Like so many things, players, coaches, volunteers of the teams that remained in the hunt for the Canalta Cup, will be asking WHAT IF? That’s a question everyone will be able to answer in their own way and I’m sure each person would have their own outcome of who would have won the Canalta Cup for the 2019-2020 season.”