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This article was published 20/3/2020 (187 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Portage Terriers are at a loss.
People from all walks of life are being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic but the Terriers, a perennial Manitoba Junior Hockey League powerhouse, are processing the effects of junior hockey being shuttered across the country.
When the Canadian Junior Hockey League, which serves as the governing body of the country's 10 Junior A leagues — including the MJHL — cancelled the rest of the 2019-20 season it also eliminated the May 9-17 Centennial Cup national championship at Portage la Prairie's Stride Place.
The Terriers won the championship as hosts in 2015.
"To go from having two more months of hockey to being done completely there, it’s been pretty tough," said 18-year-old right-winger Joey Moffatt, the club's leading scorer during the regular season. "Just knowing what we could’ve had and watching the RBC Cup in 2015. It would have been cool to play in front of my family and all my friends. It hits a little closer to home."
Moffatt, born and raised in Portage, shares a hometown connection with overage defenceman Lane Taylor, a four-year member of the team who played all his minor hockey in the area. He took the cancellation news particularly hard.
On March 10, Portage dropped a 1-0 decision to the Dauphin Kings in double overtime.
The Terriers, who led the best-of-seven quarter-final series 2-1, convened for practice the next day and were alerted by GM and head coach Blake Spiller there would be a team meeting 24 hours later.
What the players had come to dread became reality when Spiller delivered the news.
"I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything that’s been as hard that has any relation to sports," said Taylor. "I don’t think I ever knew how much it means to me to be playing and looking forward to what we were doing there… and to have it all come to an end like that has kind of left me at a loss for words. It left a lot of guys at a loss for words."
Teammate Kolton Shindle was philosophical a few days after absorbing the news.
"I was somewhat prepared, but I was going through some kind of denial," said Shindle, a 19-year-old forward from Carman who, like Moffatt, works as an educational assistant in a Portage-area school. "I didn’t want to believe it was true but that was the moment where you really accepted the fact it was over.
"Everyone was devastated, for sure. We were all in shock. It was especially hard on our 20-year-olds. Some guys, like Lane Taylor, have been around forever. He was at the (national championship) last year and he’s been here his whole junior career."
For Spiller, the club's longtime bench boss, losing a shot at a national championship was a bitter end.
"We’re just going day by day," he said. "I talked to most of our guys on Friday, especially the 20-year-olds and a few more guys on the weekend. But you have to start worrying about the next season as soon as the season’s over.
"It’s a big change and obviously very disappointing the way it turned out but, I mean, the health of everyone is the most important thing and that’s why Hockey Canada decided to cancel it."
The abrupt halt has an added complication for Taylor, who said he is considering offers to play college hockey on both sides of the border. It was a decision he hoped to put off for a while.
"My parents feel for me, for sure, and they’re definitely supporting me because they know how hard it was," said Taylor, who has worked part-time at a family owned heating and plumbing business since high school. "Same with my friends. I’ve got a good support group here and it’s awesome to see everyone come together when this all happened.
"There’s ton of people affected by this, not just the players. The coaches, everybody. A lot of people put hard work into it."
The community-owned Terriers are run by a 10-member board, which is currently assessing the damage caused by the shortened season.
More than 200 volunteers had signed up to work the national championship tournament. Those volunteers who paid apparel fees and earlybird purchasers of tournament passes will all get refunds.
"Under different circumstances I think it would be more difficult, but realizing what was going on around us and the safety concerns throughout the world and across Canada and Manitoba now, you had it in the back of your mind something could come," said board president Dave Koroscil. "The reality set in once the NBA and NHL shut down. You knew there would be a trickle-down effect."
The club will be unable to recoup startup costs for hosting the nationals. Meanwhile, playoff revenues will fall far short of what was anticipated. Koroscil said it's too early to estimate the losses.
"Playoffs are really the bonus," he said. "You budget for the year based on the regular season and hope you get at least one round of the playoffs and then after that, that’s your additional revenue for the year. The two home games we had in the playoffs will create some financial issues for sure."
Koroscil wouldn't rule out another bid to host the national championship but Portage will have to wait. Penticton, B.C., and Estevan, Sask., will host in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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