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Wheat City whoop-de-do

Wheaties kill Hitmen to reach final of Memorial Cup

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BRANDON -- The odds against them were long -- and that was before they dropped the puck. Five times in the past month, including just last Wednesday, the Brandon Wheat Kings had faced the Calgary Hitmen. And all five times they lost, including a 5-1 thumping this week.

And then they dropped the puck in the semifinal of the Memorial Cup here at the Westman Place Friday night and the odds against the Wheaties got even longer.

Despite out-hustling and outplaying the Hitmen, the Wheat Kings found themselves trailing the Hitmen by scores of 2-0 and 3-1 -- even as they led in shots by as much as 27-17 at one point in the second period.

They could have caved, this blue-collar Brandon squad, and they would have had a million excuses to have done so.

And they would only need have pointed to one -- the sensational play of Calgary netminder Martin Jones who turned away 43 shots on a night the Wheaties shelled Calgary 48-29 -- and every single one of the 5,235 long-suffering hockey fans here Friday night would have nodded their heads in acknowledgement.

But to the eternal, everlasting credit of the 2009-10 edition of the Wheat Kings -- and the delight of the host committee of the country's premier junior hockey championship -- the home team dug deeper and found a way.

And the result of a three-goal flurry by Brandon that set the stage for the 5-4 overtime winner by centre Jay Fehr is that the Wheat Kings will play the Windsor Spitfires in the Memorial Cup final Sunday (6 p.m .) with a chance to win the rabid hockey fans of this city their first national junior hockey championship.

"We battled all night," Fehr said of the winner at 3:16 of OT, "and, hopefully, I just threw the puck out front of the net. And it went in."

The crowd went nuts, the Wheaties mobbed Fehr and this city will be all Wheat Kings, all the time for the rest of this weekend as maybe the biggest hockey game this rabid community has ever hosted awaits Sunday evening, broadcast live before the nation.

"What an amazing feeling," said Wheaties defenceman Colby Robak, who scored Brandon's fourth goal. "I can't even explain it... That's the fun part of the game."

Not so much across the hall where the Hitmen will be left to wonder about how it all went so wrong for them in the only game that really mattered. "It breaks a lot of hearts in there to have to go home," said Hitmen captain Ian Schultz. "We thought we could do a lot of good things in the final."

Instead, it will be Brandon who gets the chance.

That they get to do it in a year when they only qualified for this event because they are hosting it -- and then qualified for the semifinal with a measly 1-2 round-robin record -- only speaks to the odds against them. That they earned the chance by spotting two goals -- not once, but twice, the second time on a soul-crushing short-handed flutter job -- to a Calgary team that has owned them recently is the stuff of pumpkin carriages and glass slippers and awakening kisses on the cheek.

But the long odds only continue to grow against this Brandon team, however.

This will be the third time Brandon has appeared in a Memorial Cup final -- and the first in 31 years -- and Brandon teams have lost all four previous appearances. As they have also lost all their final appearances in the Allan Cup and yes, once, even a Stanley Cup final.

Talk about the weight of history.

What's more, the Wheat Kings will be facing the best team in all of Canadian junior hockey this year, the defending champion from last year, a club with no less than 11 players already drafted or signed to NHL contracts and a team that beat Brandon 9-3 in the first game of this tournament en route to an undefeated record.

And so while they will be the home team on Sunday evening and will have the support of a nation of new fans won over by Friday night's gutsy effort, they will, once again, be the underdogs.

Bring it on, says Fehr. "We owe Windsor a better game than the first game of the tournament," said Fehr. "It should be exciting."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2010 D1

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