It takes warriors to win hockey games, especially the big ones, especially the finals with everything on the line.
So here's a snapshot of the warrior that won his school a little piece of local hockey history at the St. James Civic Centre on Monday: There, in the scoreless second period of the AAAA Provincial High School Hockey final, was John Taylor Pipers forward Christian Vallance, down on one knee and sliding towards the bench, his foot buckled after blocking a bruising shot fired by an Oak Park Raider.
Fast-forward now to near the end of the third period. Under three minutes left in regulation and the game tied at one apiece, and there was Vallance again: out by the left goalpost during a late-game power play, after the Raiders captain took a holding penalty. The puck came to his stick after a shot from teammate Graham Philp, who took it from Tyler Kemball. Vallance felt it thwack against his stick. It went in.
"Once I saw it go in, I was just at a loss for words, I was so excited," Vallance said of that goal, the game-winner.
With that, the Pipers became just the third school in Manitoba history to take both the city and provincial championship in the same run. Vallance would add another goal a minute later, an empty-netter to seal the 3-1 win.
After the game, as friends and family poured onto the ice to snap photos with the new provincial champs, Vallance was still a little tongue-tied. The Pipers were never expected to make it this far, not after last year where they struggled to get wins; but this year, driven by a core of Grade 12s who had played together since they were kids, the team just clicked.
"It couldn't have been a better story," Vallance said. "We started from the bottom, we worked so hard. We worked this summer and in the end we got it done... it's amazing. We've worked together all our lives and finally we came out on top."
Not that it was an easy ride. The game began as a high-stakes rematch, a chance to revisit unfinished business from the Winnipeg High School Hockey League final, where the Pipers beat Oak Park to become the city champs.
The first period was brisk but scoreless, even after the Raiders took a pair of penalties in the dying minutes before the buzzer. In the second, Oak Park came out harder, faster, throwing bodies and keeping John Taylor hemmed in their end for long stretches at a time.
Still, the puck stayed out of both nets, thanks to some key saves by Pipers goalie Brett Bigourdin -- who was named the championship tourney MVP -- and Raiders goalie Tyler Dodd. The scoreboard, stubbornly, was stuck at zero.
"We knew the Raiders were going to push back. They pushed back pretty good in the second," Pipers coach Justin Steeves said. "But we have faith not only in our goalie but in our whole defensive system. We knew it was coming, and then we regrouped for the third."
When the stalemate finally snapped, it was a beauty: just over four minutes into the third period, John Taylor's Philp and Kemball rushed up ice on a two-on-one. Kemball took a shot on Dodd, and Philp banged in the rebound to put the Pipers up by one.
The Raiders returned fire under three minutes later, when Oak Park's Robbie Cairns found the puck during a scramble around John Taylor's net, and slipped it past Bigourdin. Dylan Zeke and Jeremy Hope earned assists on the Raiders' game-tying goal.
Even though the Pipers were battling through a short bench -- only eight forwards and "basically five defencemen," Steeves said -- the team bent under that pressure, but did not break. The last-minute penalty was a gift, yes -- but the game-winning goal was earned through the effort warriors make.
"They never quit, it's unbelievable," Steeves said. "They never cease to amaze me."