The Estevan Bruins' SJHL championship victory was a special moment for the team's players and staff, and for the community as a whole.
The Bruins defeated the Flin Flon Bombers 2-0 Friday night at Affinity Place in Estevan in the seventh and deciding game of the league final. Kian Calder and Olivier Pouliot scored for Estevan. Boston Bilous made 29 saves in the victory.
It was the Bruins first championship since 1999. They also won the title in 1985.
Head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic is thrilled to bring a championship back to the city.
“Being new to the community, you got a real sense about about how passionate the fans are about winning this championship. It’s been a long time. I’m just glad to be a part of it, and I’m looking forward to celebrating it a little bit more down the road.”
Bilous was named the playoff MVP after the game.
“This is amazing,” said Bilous. “It’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to do it for each other and for this city. We’re just so happy we could bring a trophy to this town.”
Tatarnic said there were plenty of deserving candidates for the MVP award, including forwards Pouliot and Eric Pearce and defenceman Dayton Deics, but Bilous was a worthy pick.
“Boston was a big factor in those games for us to win, and in that position, everything you do, every play matters. You’re not on the bench when a goal is scored on you. You’re always on the ice,” said Tatarnic.
Bilous said he was surprised when he heard he was the playoff MVP. He thought it could have gone to five or even 10 other players.
“I could go with so many guys, literally. A handful of forwards and a handful of defencemen,” said Bilous.
Bilous said the Bruins didn’t make a lot of adjustments after they lost 6-1 in Flin Flon in Game 6 three nights earlier, but they played the type of game they always play at Affinity.
“It’s definitely difficult playing in Flin Flon, and I think that definitely had a play in the outcome with the atmosphere in the arena. We didn’t change too much coming back. It’s not nice losing 6-1 … but we just forgot about it right away and we knew we had one game to get the job done at home.”
Tatarnic thought the club didn’t play their best defensive hockey in Games 4, 5 and 6, but he thought Game 7 felt more like Games 1 and 2, which the Bruins won at home and allowed only two goals.
“I thought we were really good on the D [defensive] side of the puck, and we really didn’t give them too many Grade-A scoring chances,” said Tatarnic.
While Estevan was outscored 21-16 in the series, Tatarnic said their confidence didn’t waver.
“You could lose 15-0 in the game before, and it doesn’t really mean anything for the next game,” said Tatarnic.
Two local products were part of the Bruins throughout the year: forward Cody Davis of Alameda and defenceman Alex Von Sprecken of Estevan. Both players are in their third season with the club.
“It’s something I’ve been dreaming about, and it’s good to do it in my hometown of Estevan, so it feels good,” said Davis, whose older brother Jayden spent four years with the Bruins.
It was particularly special to win the clinching game on home ice.
“It definitely felt better, I think, at home in front of all the fans and in Game 7. There was a little bit of nerves, but overall it was a great experience and definitely better,” said Davis.
Davis was inserted on a newly formed checking line alongside Houk and Keagon Little. They were tasked with containing Flin Flon’s top line, led by Kuzma, who had been strong the previous four games.
It was the first time they had played together this season, but they quickly proved to be effective.
Von Sprecken marvelled at the support from family and friends.
“I just wanted to say thanks to all of them and it was just a great group of guys to win it with,” said Von Sprecken.
He recalled being at the Bruins’ games when they advanced to the 2018 SJHL final against the Nipawin Hawks and Game 7 against the Humboldt Broncos in the 2019 quarter-finals, and remembers how electric the crowds were for those games.
“It’s unreal. The people up there. Everyone cheering. It’s loud in there. I couldn’t believe it,” said Von Sprecken, who hadn’t played before a crowd as big as Game 7.
A sold-out crowd of 2,662 fans attended the game. The winner of the 50-50 took home more than $65,000.
Game 7 is a nerve-wracking situation, but Von Sprecken thought they came out strong and it carried over throughout the night.
Bilous said he knew from the moment he joined the team that they had the potential to be great.
“Tarts [Tatarnic] was recruiting great players who just wanted to come to a team and win,” said Bilous. “Right from the get-go, we knew we were going to have a long season and playing a lot of hockey, and right from the get-go, we had our mind set on a championship to win that thing.”
Both teams had already qualified for the Centennial Cup national junior A hockey championship, presented by Tim Hortons, before the final. Estevan is in as the host team for the 10-team tournament, which will run from May 19-29. Flin Flon will be the SJHL representative.
Joining the Bruins and the Bombers at nationals this year will be the champions from the other eight junior leagues in the country. This is the first time it has been a 10-team tournament.
But the guaranteed spot in nationals didn't diminish the intensity of the SJHL final, as all seven games created lots of intensity and physical play.
Players took a few days off after the final before returning to the ice. The league trophy has been making appearances throughout the community. Tatarnic expects the team will be healthy for nationals.
Tatarnic has won several junior A league championships as a coach and guided the Woodstock Slammers to the national championship game in 2012 when the tournament was held in Humboldt. He told the players to enjoy the championship and then be ready to get back to work.
“Embrace it and enjoy it, and live in the moment, because this might not come back around again for you, so just enjoy being there,” said Tatarnic.
Estevan will be making its first appearance at nationals since 1999, while the Bombers last played at nationals in 2001, when they hosted the tournament.