Underdog Sabres shock Gophers
Rugged Steinbach squad takes top prize in provincial high school hockey
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It was a brutally physical storybook ending to Steinbach Regional Secondary School’s Cinderella run. The team wouldn’t have it any other way.
The glass slipper fit the rugged Sabres squad, that roughed up Garden City Collegiate en route to a 2-1 victory in the Manitoba High School Athletic Association provincial AAAA boy’s hockey championship at the hockey for all centre on Monday.
The Sabres outshot the Gophers 28-18 on a night Seth Bergman and Drew Heide scored andnet minder Hunter Fehr made 17 saves to bring the school its first provincial title in hockey.
“Amazing. Once the feeling settles in, I can only imagine,” said head coach John Laninga, in his second year heading the program. “It’s quite an accomplishment to win a quad-A banner. I can’t even really put it into words for you today, it’s very raw. But I’m so proud of the guys, it’s a testament to the hard work they put in.
“Not the prettiest game. But we committed to winning battles, keeping it a clean D-zone, and we like to use the tall glass here at the hockey for all centre.”
The fourth-seeded Sabres played the role of underdogs against a top-ranked Garden City Gophers squad — who won the Winnipeg High School Hockey League championship — and suffered just one loss in regulation all season, boasting a 44-1-2 overall record entering the title bout. It was a familiar role for Steinbach, though.
The Sabres, who were 36-13-1-2 entering the game, knocked off the five-time reigning provincial champion St. Paul’s Crusaders 4-3 just 24 hours earlier, then mustered up the emotional energy to best the highly-skilled Gophers.
“All year, we felt like we (could) compete with them,” said Sabres captain Bergman. “They’re one hell of a team. I have so much respect for those guys but we all believed in us and we had so much faith in our team and believed that even though we didn’t beat them in the regular season, we knew we could.
“It’s an unreal feeling. The boys are hyped right now. I’m excited right now, just a great feeling. I’m never going to forget this.”
A high-octane first frame was the main course that had all three goals while both sides imposed their will physically.
Steinbach, which outshot the Gophers 13-8, carried over a piece from Sunday’s game that saw them net four goals against St. Paul’s in the first frame. The Sabres drew first blood again when Bergman jumped a loose puck in front of the net and made no mistake picking the top-right corner.
Moments later, the Gophers were awarded a power play and Garden City’s horses made quick work of it.
Forward Tyler Nault passed up a shot opportunity beside the net and instead threaded a sweet spinning backhand feed to the front of the crease, where defenceman Nixon Carriere was waiting alone with a yawning cage. The blue-liner, who finished fourth in the Winnipeg High School Hockey League in goals (18) during the regular season, buried the easy goal to knot things up.
An exhilarating opening stanza came to a dramatic close with Steinbach on the power play again. With 0.9 seconds remaining, forward Drew Heide took a bounce off the boards before jamming the puck past Gophers’ goaltender Evan Banera. The refs didn’t signal a good goal, however, and took more than a minute to convene about whether the puck had actually crossed the line. The goal was eventually confirmed, which drew a roar from the big crowd of out-of-towners in attendance.
The pace persisted through a second period that saw Steinbach up their physicality another notch. The pressure appeared to take its toll on Garden City as the period wore on. The Sabres were able to put on a full-court press in the period’s waning moments, which the Gophers managed to narrowly escape.
“This group we have, the boots were moving all season long and we knew with 20 minutes (left), if we get those details right… (goaltender) Hunter (Fehr) was going to do the rest,” Laninga said.
Like a great football team does in the fourth quarter, the Sabres salted away the clock in the final period, continuing to bully the Gophers into submission with every big check. Garden City wasn’t given much room to operate, and when they did get an open look, Fehr, who was awarded the game’s most valuable player, was there to shut the door.
“They’ve only lost three games all year before this, and we had to bully them. We needed to do something to get them off their game. I think they’re already scared of us and rightfully so. I mean, look at us,” Bergman said while turning around and showing his teammates to reporters. “And we just had to scare them a little more.
“The key of tonight was the key all year: working to come together as a team and doing it all together — not one individual, everybody going hard, 100 per cent.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.