The final seconds ticked off the scoreboard, and the St. James Jr. Canucks erupted into celebration, with the golden glimmer of the Jack McKenzie Trophy hoisted above a cluster of blue and white jerseys.
The Jr. Canucks are the 2021-22 Manitoba Major Junior Hockey League champions, capping off a banner season by knocking off the defending champs, Pembina Valley Twisters, four games to one in the best-of-seven final series.
(The Twisters won in 2018-19, the last season in which the league awarded the trophy before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the league to a halt.)
"It was pretty surreal," said Rory Neill, the league’s top-scoring defenceman in both the regular season and playoffs. "We got up three, four to nothing, then from that point on in the third period, the anxieties ramped up a little bit. You get that feeling of getting a little bit closer and closer. Then in the last 30 seconds, we all knew it was going to happen, and it was a pretty cool experience — all of us jumping up and down on the bench together."
The team’s second championship and first in 24 years put a fine point on the greatest season in franchise history. The team shattered the Jr. Canucks’ record for best regular season, putting together a formidable 37-4-4 record.
They cruised into the playoffs on an 11-game win streak and didn’t falter under the pressure of their own success.
In round one, the team swept the storied Charleswood Hawks in four games.
In round two, the semifinals, the team stumbled with a game-one loss, but reloaded their top guns and buried 15 goals in game two, on their way to winning four straight against the Raiders Jr. Hockey Club and a berth in the championship series.
Firepower bolstered the Jr. Canucks all season, but was by no means their only strength. While scoring a league-best 5.24 goals per game in the regular season, they finished number two in goals against, at 2.82 allowed per game. Goaltender Noah Gilbert finished the playoffs with a playoff-best 2.06 goals against average, topped off with a 24-save shutout in the deciding game.
The season could not have gone much better for the team, nor for Kurtis Luke, who finished second in regular season scoring and first in points per game, and who topped all playoff point-getters by nine tallies despite playing two fewer games than the runner up. Luke was named playoff MVP.
For Luke, who is aging out of the league, the final buzzer marked a bittersweet moment.
"For the 21-year-olds, I think we’re all a little sad, but you couldn’t have ended that a better way," he said.
Both Luke and Neill mentioned how close the team was on and off the ice, and how they hoped this season would bond the team for years to come.
Head coach Blair Mooney concurred: "These guys were a special group, and it was nice to see them get rewarded, not just in the regular season but all throughout the playoffs."
Team president and general manager Justin Steeves had nothing but praise for everyone involved.
"The players really came together; the staff and everybody contributed to it and had an amazing season — a very historic year, the way we played all year. We didn’t let up. Very, very proud of the players and the staff," he said.
Steeves added the team dedicated the season to their late equipment manager Marc Wankling, who passed away in September.
"It was pretty tough to swallow. He did so much for us, and he always did everything with a smile," he said. "I know he was watching us, so it was extra special to win it for him."
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review West. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 204-697-7206.