Sabres capture shocking AAAA provincial hockey championship
For the first time in school history, the Steinbach Regional Secondary School Sabres have captured a provincial hockey championship, defeating Garden City 2-1 in a tight-checking final game to claim the AAAA Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association hockey banner.
Just making the six-team provincial tournament was a struggle this season for Steinbach. The Sabres finished in fourth place in the top tier of the Winnipeg High Schoool Hockey League (WHSHL), but failed to defeat the top three teams a single time all season.
With no wins against Westwood, St Paul’s or Garden City, Steinbach looked to be drawing dead with all of the “big three,” teams making the tournament semi-finals alongside the Sabres. Garden City even defeated the Sabres 2-1 in pool play.
Instead, Steinbach picked the best time of year to finally find success at the highest level, defeating St Paul’s 4-3 in the semis, before battling Garden City for a hard-fought 2-1 victory, setting off jubilant celebrations inside the Hockey for Life Centre in Winnipeg March 13.
To even make the tournament, Steinbach had to defeat Lord Selkrik in a wildcard game, which had bounced the Sabres out of the league playoffs earlier this season.
“Boy was it tough to get back to the practice ice and work hard, but that’s been our M.O. all year,” Sabres head coach John Laninga said on his team’s mentality heading into the tournament.
“We’ve got good leadership this year, we’ve got guys who just push the pace at practice, and that’s where it’s gotta start. This group of guys committed themselves to greatness, and I think that’s what we saw today.”
Many Steinbach fans and students were in attendance, appearing to outnumber the Garden City fans despite the longer trip to make the finals.
“To be honest, I was hoping for that crowd that the volleyball team got,” Laninga said, referring to Steinbach’s provincial volleyball championship earlier this year.
“That energy propelled us today.”
All of the scoring took place in the first period of the final. Sabres captain Seth Bergman drew first blood, picking up a loose puck in the slot and wristing it home right after a Garden City penalty had expired.
Bergman is in grade 12 and was jubilant after the game, praising Steinbach fans for motivating the team.
“There’s a lot of pride in wearing this logo,” he said, tapping the front of his jersey.
“I’m excited, I’m never going to forget it, (winning) means a lot.”
The Gophers would strike back with a powerplay marker of their own, scoring just moments into their first man advantage of the game on a nice passing play.
Grade 10 forward Drew Heide would get to play hero, scoring what would turn out to be the game-winning goal on the powerplay in the waning moments of the first period. After a point shot, Heide, recognizing there was only a couple seconds left in the frame, managed to slap a backhand shot towards the net and promptly began to celebrate with his teammates, despite no signal from any official.
After an extended conversation, referees ruled the puck did cross the goal-line with only 0.9 second remaining, awarding Steinbach a 2-1 lead they would never relinquish.
Heide was confident the puck actually entered the net after the game.
“I saw the puck go around the net, and I’m just thinking ‘I’ve gotta swing at it,’” he said.
“I’m really glad I didn’t take an extra second there, it’s a really crazy moment.”
With a 2-1 lead, facing one of the top teams in the province, Steinbach players put together a masterclass of defensive hockey in the third period, playing with physicality, but not taking penalties, defending well without falling into a defensive shell. It was a tough task considering Garden City had lost less than five games this year.
“A big part of that is staying out of the box,” Laninga said on how his team was so dominant in the third period.
“We know five-on-five we’re pretty even with Garden City, they’ve got a lethal powerplay… I think the depth of our team was evident in this game. We’ve got three-lines that can wear you down.”
No penalties didn’t mean the Sabres were lacking in physicality, as the Sabres looked to be on the front foot throughout most of the game.
“We had to bully them, we needed to do something to get them off their game,” Bergman said.
“Maybe scare them a little bit — I think they were already scared of us, and rightfully so, I mean look at us. We had to scare them a little more, and that was definitely a game plan of ours.”
Laninga said scoring the first goal allowed Steinbach to dictate the pace and play an “annoying” style of hockey.
Shots on net at the end of the game were 28-18 for the Sabres, with Steinbach goalie Hunter Fehr picking up tournament most valuable player honours.
“We knew with 20 minutes (to go), if we get those details right, if we get it deep, hustle back, forced rushed shots as much as possible, Hunter was going to do the rest,” he said.
“It’s an emotional couple of wins, especially as our first couple of wins against the big three.”
In the final five minutes, the Sabres pinned Garden City in thier own end, forcing the Gophers to only pull thier goalie with 40 seconds remaining in the period. After holding on that final minute, the celebrations were on.
In addition to Fehr and Bergman, Steinbach players Mark Plett and Lucas Jolicoeur were named to the tournament all-star team.