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The most wonderful time of the year

A column on the beauty of junior hockey.
Highway 39 Cup Bruins
The Estevan Bruins won the Highway 39 Cup showdown with the Weyburn Red Wings.

When the Estevan Bruins dropped an overtime decision to the Melfort Mustangs on March 11, 2020, few could have imagined it would be the last junior hockey playoff game, or the last playoff hockey game of any kind, in Estevan for nearly two years.  

Just before the Bruin game started, it was revealed that a basketball player for the NBA’s Utah Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19, and that the NBA was going on hiatus. Within 24 hours, virtually every sports league in North America, and every other type of entertainment, had followed suit.  

The following day, the Bruins were headed to Melfort for Game 5 when they were told that the game had been postponed and they were to return to Estevan. 

The next day – less than 48 hours after the Estevan-Melfort game was played – the season was cancelled, as was every other postseason in Saskatchewan. 

Last year, of course, we didn’t get to enjoy playoff hockey, or much hockey at all, for that matter. Most teams only played a handful of regular season games.  

But this year playoff hockey is back. 

Some local minor hockey teams started their postseason a few weeks ago. The Estevan Apex U18 AA Bruins have advanced to the South Division Final in their league. So have the South East Aaron Well Servicing U18 AA Goldwings female team, who play out of Midale. 

The Big Six Hockey League’s playoffs have reached the final round, with the Redvers Rockets and the Carnduff Red Devils to face off. They were also supposed to meet in the playoffs two years ago.

Many other teams and leagues are in the midst of their playoffs. They range in age from youths to middle-aged adults.

And other teams have seen their seasons come to an end after what was an enjoyable season in which new memories were created.  

Playoff hockey truly is a wonderful thing. The intensity is ratcheted up. Nobody wants to lose, to see their season come to an end. They’re all united by a common goal: win their final game of the season. 

Very few get that thrill. 

And while there’s far more to hockey than winning or losing at most levels, it’s still a great thrill to win that final game.

Yeah, I love playoff hockey.

Which brings us back to the Estevan Bruins. 

As you would expect for the team hosting nationals, it’s been quite a season for our beloved Black and Gold. Forty-three wins. Just 10 regulation losses, with three of those defeats coming early in the season when the Bruins were still coming together as a team.  

They won the regular season title for the first time since 2005. And yes, I remember that 2004-05 team. They were deep and relentless, with great goaltending and numerous local talents. A team built for that era of hockey, and a perfect fit for the Civic Auditorium. If not for a couple of serious injuries sustained late in the division final against Yorkton, Estevan might have won the national title that year.   

It’s hard to believe that none of the current Bruins were old enough to play organized hockey in 2005. In fact, a couple of them were born in 2004.  

There were some lean years after that 2005 team. They didn’t win another playoff series until 2011 (a best-of-five) and they wouldn’t win a best of seven until 2017.  

The team’s been better in recent years. Much better. Four division titles in five seasons. A trip to the league final in 2018 with sold-out crowds for each game in the league final. The incredible Game 7 victory over the Humboldt Broncos in 2019, when so many in the hockey world were paying close attention.  

So many of us are hoping for a long playoff run. Estevan last won a league title in 1999. So you could say they’re due. Players don’t get many chances to win a league championship, especially in minor and junior hockey, when you only spend two or three seasons with a particular team.

A league championship would create some pretty great momentum heading into the Centennial Cup national junior A hockey championship, presented by Tim Hortons, here at the end of May.

Hopefully, the stands will be packed for the playoffs. Estevan averaged over 1,800 fans a game for the final three games of the regular season. A big crowd only amps up the intensity of the playoff games.

So here’s to some great playoff hockey. Not just for the Estevan Bruins, but throughout the southeast.  

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