Top-ranked Fighting Gophers pursue provincial glory


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It’s been a dream season — so far — for the Garden City Fighting Gophers.

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It’s been a dream season — so far — for the Garden City Fighting Gophers.

The Gophers went 20-0-1 during the 2022-23 Winnipeg High School Hockey League season and 44-1-2 overall en route to a Platinum Promotions Division title. The only blemishes on their record? An overtime loss in the regular season with a regulation defeat and OT loss in the playoffs.

Despite all that, head coach Dustin Hughes has a healthy appreciation for the other five teams at the AAAA provincial boys hockey championship, which opens Friday at the hockey for all centre.

“All the teams are here for a reason,” said Hughes on Tuesday. “We had a very challenging final series against a really good St. Paul’s team. Westwood is as good as it gets in terms of their top-end talent and Steinbach has been progressing really well all year and I do have a lot of respect for how they play as well. And I’m sure that the rural teams will have a say by the end of it as well.”

Garden City Fighting Gophers (ranked No. 1)

The Gophers are blessed with high-end offensive talent. Centres Colson Smith and Lucas Desousa were 1-2 in league scoring, each averaging more than two points per game.

Forward Owen Lourenco, who had 30 points in 19 games before injuring his left shoulder, returned for Games 2 and 3 of the city final only to sustain a season-ending injury to his right shoulder of the series-clinching win. He will be missed.

Garden City can also expect offensive production from defenceman Nixon Carriere, who was fourth in league scoring with 39 points in 24 games.

“We were close in 2018 and 2019 but I would say this is definitely the best overall team,” said Hughes, who took over the program in 2018 and guided his squad to a third-place finish at the 2019 provincials. “At the end of the day, they’re the team (that) got it done and came together at the right time and has been battling hard and bringing a positive attitude all year. And we’re definitely hoping that we can sustain that for one more week.”


St. Paul’s Crusaders (No. 2)

The defending provincial champs are not favoured after going 24-8 in the regular season and 26-11-1 overall, losing a three-game city final.

“I think being an underdog is not a bad thing at all,” said Crusaders coach Rob Puchniak, the long-time bench boss of the school’s No. 2 team before taking over the No. 1 team from Andrew Harder in 2022-23. “Garden City is very strong team and they’re deserving as the favourites for sure.

“I think that we’ve got to approach this with some humility and realize that we’ve got to be a very hard-working team to compete against the likes of Garden City and the other talented teams that are here.”

The WHSHL’s best defensive team is anchored by blue-liner Jack McFeetors. Forwards Dario Macchia and Jonah Crossland both averaged a point per game.


Westwood Warriors (No. 3)

Westwood is winless against Garden City in 2022-23 but managed two regular-season wins over St. Paul’s en route to a 19-4-1 record. However, the Warriors were swept in the post-season by the Crusaders and will be looking for a rebound performance.

Leading scorer Tristen Arnason and Madden Parnell are key offensive performers.

“We have a shorter roster compared to other teams,” said Warriors shutdown defenceman Jarrett Ross. “We’ve got our three lines and our three pairs of D compared to some teams with four lines. But we did it last year like that, too, and so we’re used to playing short.”


Steinbach Sabres (No. 4)

The Sabres have established themselves as contenders with a balanced offence that boasts high-scoring forwards in Mark Plett, Theoren Koop and Lucas Jolicoeur.

Steinbach went 14-6-4 during the regular season. But three of those defeats were 4-1, 4-2 and 4-2 decisions to Garden City, while two losses to St. Paul’s were tight games.

The Sabres have shown they can hang around with the league’s heavyweights and now they’re aiming to show they can beat them, too.

“That’s the plan and that’s the hope,” said Sabres coach John Laninga. “We’ve got that wild-card label, but we feel like we’re right there in the mix. And we’re a confident group heading into this weekend and looking forward to playing some some good, tough hockey games.”


Dauphin Clippers (No. 5)

Sparked by forwards Logan Chapman and William Miner and goaltender Owen Chubka, the Clippers went 26-5-1 during the Westman High School Hockey League regular season.

They have a tough schedule, facing Garden City and Steinbach in games only four hours apart Friday.


Portage Trojans (No. 6)

The Zone 4 champions, led by MVP and captain Alex Van Deynze, went 20-4 during the regular season but will be missing one of their big guns this weekend.

High-scoring forward JJ Oke is attending a family function and will not participate.

“He was our leading scorer throughout the regular season this year so he was obviously a big part of it,” said coach Dave Van Deynze. “But we feel like we’ve got some depth and we’ll move some things around and we’ll be ready to go.”

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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