If provincial high-school hockey hired a Hollywood screenwriter to plan tonight's AAAA championship game, the script would look more or less like this: The Oak Park Raiders versus the John Taylor Pipers.
Game, set, rematch.
For the Raiders, there is a shot at redemption, at finally solving the team that beat them in five of six tight games this year -- including the city championship final in February. For the Pipers, the game is a chance to cap a beautiful season, one that saw them come in as underdogs and skate confidently to within a game of the province's top high-school hockey prize.
So you know when the puck drops at 7:30 tonight at the St. James Civic Centre, this final will be a nail-biter. But beneath those bigger storylines, there is also this: Two old friends facing each other across the rink, not knocking pucks in shinny any more but the architects of a blooming rivalry.
See, Raiders coach Joel Nedecky and Pipers bench boss Justin Steeves, who both graduated from John Taylor Collegiate in 1998, have been buddies since their teens. They never played hockey together: Steeves skated for the high-school team, while Nedecky went triple-A. But they spent so many youthful hours bonding over the game, glued to NHL action on television, hauling hockey nets into the street.
"Those are vivid memories," Steeves said on Sunday afternoon, taking the day to relax before the final. "It's kinda neat that we're on the big stage now, getting to face off against each other. It's just a lot of respect... he's a good coach, and a good guy."
That the two would end up at the top is something sort of special. The Pipers weren't pegged to make a ton of noise in the playoffs this season, and only 21 players even tried out for the team. But a tight-knit core of Grade 12s came together with what Steeves describes as a remarkable composure; they finished with a record of 42-11-1, and claimed the Winnipeg High School Hockey League title with that feisty February game against Oak Park.
On Saturday afternoon, the Pipers punched their ticket to the final with a firm 3-1 victory over the Morden Thunder, one that saw them driving pressure for most of the game. A couple of hours later, the Raiders nabbed the other final spot, dispatching the plucky Stonewall Rams 4-2 in a chippy match.
So now there is the rematch, the story waiting for its final chapter. After notching the Raiders's game-winning goal on Saturday, Raiders captain Tyson Bannatyne said his team knew what they were up against; Nedecky stressed the importance of pushing deep into the middle against a Pipers team that loves to hold its own along the boards.
Meanwhile, the Pipers will be fighting to take a little piece of high-school hockey history. If they can take the provincial championship tomorrow, they will become just the third school in Manitoba history to win both the Winnipeg league and the top provincial title in the same season.
They know it won't be easy. "To beat any team three times in a row (in playoff games) is extremely difficult," Steeves said.
"We have a really tough task.... But I think the guys are zoned in. I don't think it's sunk in what we've accomplished yet. We're just so focused on the game."