The St. Paul’s Crusaders proved to ultimately be the immovable obstacle in the River East Kodiaks’ way this season.
The two men’s hockey sides collided in the Winnipeg High School Hockey League finals earlier this month, with St. Paul’s winning the best-of-three series in two straight in early March. Entering the Milk Provincial "AAA/AAAA" Hockey Championships, the host Kodiaks jumped from No. 4 to No. 2 in the provincial rankings, and once again met the top-ranked Crusaders in the one-game final with a 4-1 victory on March 17.
The Kodiaks, who were fourth in the WHSHL with a 13-8-1 record in the regular season, feel they have what it takes to jump the single spot needed to become a champion. Two Grade 11 students, goalie Myles Piche and forward Nolan Wisniewski, were named tournament all-stars, and are among the 11 players eligible to return to the fold next year. Defenceman Tyler Hall, a Grade 12 student, also received the honour.
"We’ve just got to build off what we’ve already got, try to get stronger, make sure we’re not screwing around in the off-season," Piche said.
In the regular season, River East spent much of the year hovering just above the break-even mark before finding its feet in the final few games of the season. The Kodiaks went 3-1 down the stretch after winning the 2014 Texas Star Winter Classic in Dallas in late January, a result head coach Ben Zajac said sparked a turnaround in the team, defeating two strong squads in Las Vegas and Santa Margarita.
"We were losing to teams we had no business losing to," said Zajac, who noted he saw the team’s potential right from the start of the season. "(After the tournament) they were comfortable doing what they were doing because they knew it would work."
"It wasn’t really like we were playing hockey — we were just doing our thing," Piche added.
In the provincial final, the Kodiaks had a couple fine opportunities to get on the board early, but rang one shot off the post and were stopped on a breakaway, and were otherwise stymied, by goalie Ben Thorlakson. The Crusaders then scored two quick goals and never looked back.
"We played well, and they took advantage of a couple of mistakes we made," Zajac said.
Piche said the loss "left a bad taste", while Wisniewski said it’s been awhile since he and his teammates were the kings of the heap in the city — at any level.
"We know what it’s like to make it to the finals, but it’s been awhile since any of us have won a city championship," Wisniewski said. "We got a taste of it, but it’s nowhere near as sweet as it would be to win the whole thing."