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Opinion: Bruins and their fans will never forget the 2021-22 season

The Estevan Bruins gave fans many reasons to be proud, and many reasons to be proud of themselves.
Estevan Bruins celebrate Game 7
The Estevan Bruins celebrate after winning their first SJHL title since 1999.

The Estevan Bruins have given us plenty of reasons to be proud of them over the past nine months.

Granted, the Centennial Cup, presented by Tim Hortons, might not have gone according to the plans of the team or its fans, but that doesn’t take away from all of the other accomplishments.

This is a team that delivered Estevan its first SJHL title since 1999, and the first regular season pennant since 2004-05.

We knew all along that the Bruins would have a powerhouse team. It’s hard not to have a strong team when you are hosting the national championship. It’s just a matter of how good the players will be, and if they can come together as a team.

But it’s not just a matter of finding high-impact players, it’s about having the great players spread throughout the lineup. Your fourth liners and your third-pairing defencemen need to be better than those of anyone else.

And again, you need to hope they can all come together.  

The Bruins’ training camp in August was evidence of the talent. Players such as Olivier Pouliot and Mark Rumsey – the two acquisitions who hadn’t been here before – dazzled the fans with their skills. And you could tell there was plenty of talent back from the team that only played six games in 2020-21.

Worth noting is that only three players at the end of this season – forward Cody Davis and defencemen Dayton Deics and Alex Von Sprecek – were on the Bruins when the team announced it had been awarded the Centennial Cup back in December 2019.

Success didn’t come early for the Bruins. They were 6-3-1 to start the season – a fine start by normal standard, but this couldn’t be a normal team. They dropped both games at the SJHL Showcase, although it should be noted the second loss came in a game that started 16 hours after the previous game ended.

The sixth win of the season – a fantastic 3-1 victory over the Flin Flon Bombers on Oct. 20 – seemed to light a spark under the team. So did a 4-1 road win over North Battleford six days later.

They never went on the 10-game or 12-game winning streak during the regular season. But there were a lot of successful runs, with eight or nine wins in a 10-game stretch. After the 6-3-1 start, they lost just seven times in regulation the rest of the way.

Perhaps the most impressive part about the regular season is that out of the 10 regulation losses, there was just one in which they didn’t surrender an empty net goal – a loss in Yorkton just before Christmas.

It showed that this team was in virtually every game they played, and even when they lost, there was a chance to tie.

This was not only a team that won the lopsided games, but they won the close ones, too.

And there were the lopsided victories, highlighted by a 10-0 victory over the Weyburn Red Wings on Feb. 19 in which Kade Runke scored four times, triggering a promotion in which everyone in attendance received a voucher for a free eight-inch Tower Pizza. The announced crowd for that night was 2,300 people.

Runke and the Sereggela family (owners of the Tower) were tied as the most popular people in Estevan for the rest of the regular season.

(I actually thought there would be more free pizza giveaways this season, with the talent on the team). 

Players bought in to the chance to win a championship. Jamie Valentino was a top scorer in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League when he came to Estevan. He spent a lot of nights on the fourth line. The forward contingent might have been one of the deepest for any Bruin club in the 50-plus years since joining the SJHL.

It made it difficult for anyone to put up big numbers. Eric Pearce was arguably the top forward in the league after joining the Bruins partway through the season.
And the defence had stand-outs too, led by Deics, who might be the best junior A defenceman in Canada who doesn’t have an NCAA scholarship announced as of yet.

The big winning streak finally came in the playoffs, a 10-game stretch in which they won the final four games of their series against Notre Dame, four straight against the Yorkton Terriers and the first two against Flin Flon.

The Flin Flon series, as has been documented before, had all sorts of storylines. Two power failures amid a spring snowstorm in April. Valentino tried to swipe Flin Flon’s fabled moose leg during the Bombers’ victory celebration after Game 3, giving the Bombers added incentive for Game 4.

Game 5 saw the Bruins down 2-1 late in the third, but Eric Houk redirected Nolan Jones’ point shot with 5.8 seconds to play, and Pouliot had the overtime winner.

After a loss in Game 6 in Flin Flon, the adjustments were made, and the Bruins delivered a near-flawless defensive performance in Game 7 to win 2-0 and bring this city its first championship in 23 years.

Yeah, the Centennial Cup didn’t go as planned. You have to wonder how the first game against Quebec’s College Francais de Longueuil would have gone if the scheduling had been different. Longueuil had played the night before; Estevan was playing its first game in two weeks.

Rust wasn’t a factor the next night, a 10-7 loss to Ontario’s Pickering Panthers. Seven goals surrendered in the final 25 minutes of the game was stunning, especially when you consider the polished, consistent game the Bruins played this season. (To put it in perspective, they allowed seven goals in six regular season and playoff home games against Flin Flon this season).

The Bruins responded with a solid 6-2 win over another Ontario team, the Red Lake Miners, but the Bruins knew they weren’t going to make the playoffs at the tournament without a lot of help. They didn’t get it, and by the time Wednesday’s game against Brooks rolled around, they knew it would be their final game of the season.

The game against Brooks – the pre-tournament favourites – didn’t start well, with Brooks leading 1-0 22 seconds into the first period and 2-0 by the midway point of the game.

But the Bruins’ effort didn’t stop. Yes, they lost 4-0, but they carried the play for good stretches of the second half of the game. The players wanted to give the fans a few more reasons to cheer. Still, the Bruins cheered plenty Thursday night.

There’s a lot of people who are disappointed, but the disappointment fans are feeling is dwarfed by the feeling the players and coaches are feeling. It’s been hard on them knowing they won’t be in the playoffs at a tournament being played in their rink, especially when you consider many picked Estevan to be in the tournament final against Brooks.

We also have to remember that these kids are basically playing for the love of the game. They travel great distances – Rumsey is from Newfoundland and Labrador – and spent nine months away from family and friends to play here and entertain us. But there isn’t a fat paycheque waiting for them every second week.

Best of luck to the team’s eight graduates – goaltender Boston Bilous, defencemen Deics and Jones, and forwards Rumsey, Pouliot, Houk, Pearce and Mikol Sartor.

And hopefully most of those eligible to return will be back in 2022-23. There is a lot of great talent who could be back next season. A lot of guys who were in support roles this season could be impact players next season.

And that could mean even more wonderful memories to be made next year.

When the players and staff look back on this year’s team and its accomplishments, I hope they’ll do so with pride. Not just because they brought a championship for themselves and for the Bruins’ faithful for the first time in 23 years.

The coaches and scouts should be proud of the team they assembled, the people they brought to Estevan and all that was achieved, both on and off the ice. Head coach and general manager Jason Tatarnic has a reputation as a top recruiter, and it showed since he arrived two years ago. 

I hope they’ll reflect fondly on the strides they made, both individually and collectively. I hope they’ll remember the great times, the laughs and the friendships made.

And I hope they’ll remember the support they received from the community, and the pride and gratitude the Estevan area had in this team.