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Column: Hail to the champs

An opinion piece on the Estevan Bruins, this year's SJHL final and the emotions associated with sports:
Estevan Bruins celebrate Game 7
The Estevan Bruins celebrate after winning their first SJHL title since 1999.

I’m a life-long hockey geek. So when I first moved to Estevan in September 2000, the Estevan Bruins immediately became my favourite beat.

My first Bruin game was Sept. 8, 2000, a preseason game against the Yorkton Terriers at the old Civic Auditorium. Estevan won 6-4. The next day, I drove to Wilcox for a preseason mini-tournament involving the Bruins, the host Notre Dame Hounds and the Humboldt Broncos.  

When I arrived, the Bruins were about 16 months removed from winning their last SJHL title in 1999. I didn’t imagine it would take 22 years for the next one. Then again, in 2000, I didn’t think I would be here in 2022.

Yet, thankfully, here I am.

And your Estevan Bruins are the SJHL champions.  

The 23-year championship drought came to an end Friday night in the Bruins’ 2-0 win over their very worthy adversaries, the Flin Flon Bombers. It was a night to remember for the fans who were present, a nerve-wracking battle in which the result was in doubt until the final minutes.

In fact, it’s the only time the Bruins beat the Bombers by multiple goals this year without having an empty-net marker.

The only downside for me about Friday’s game was that I wasn’t there. I tested positive for COVID-19 the day before. While my symptoms would be light to mild, and I probably could have gone, I decided to stay home, watch the game on SaskTel Max, and not risk attending an event with more than 2,7000 people present (including players, staff, volunteers and media).

A big thanks to Wanda Harron Photography for sending photos throughout the night, and my colleague, Eric Westhaver, at the Flin Flon Reminder for some celebration photos. 

(And I feel fine, so don’t worry about sending “get well soon” wishes).

Anyways, enough with the self-pity. The important thing is the Bruins won, not whether I was there. Let’s talk hockey.

When the Bruins were awarded the 2022 Centennial Cup in December 2019, following a very competitive bid process, I was obviously fired up for the great hockey we would see here. All these great teams from across the country. All the great young talent. And all the people who would get to see what a great community we have.

But I also thought about the team that the Bruins would have, and the opportunity to win a league championship.

It wasn’t always pretty my first years covering the team. At times, I felt like a jinx. They missed the playoffs that first season – their first time missing the playoffs in a decade - and four times in the first six seasons.

One of those seasons they did make the playoffs was in 2004-05.

What a team that was. Built for the times and for the cozy confines of the Civic Auditorium. At one point, they were the top-ranked team in Canada. And they were loaded with local talent. Players from Estevan, Bienfait, Lampman, Carlyle, Carnduff, Benson, Tribune and other communities.  

Estevan lost in seven to Yorkton in the South Division final. If it weren’t for a couple of key injuries in the Yorkton series, Estevan might have won the national championship that year.

It seems like yesterday. Yet this year’s Bruin squad has a few guys born in 2004.

That 2004-05 team would be the only time the Bruins would win a best of seven in an 18-year span.

Starting with the 2017 season, the Bruins have now won seven series in six years. There was the thrilling run to the SJHL final in 2018 that captivated our region and saw the Bruins lose in Game 7 of the league final against a highly-favoured Nipawin team. Then they beat the Humboldt Broncos in the first round in Game 7 in overtime in 2019 – a game that had all sorts of national attention after the horrible Humboldt bus tragedy in April 2018.

Before this year’s final began, a lot of people were telling me Estevan would win handily. I knew otherwise. Flin Flon has a great team. Even if it didn’t go seven, Estevan would have to win four tight games.

We saw during the regular season that Estevan and Flin Flon couldn’t play an uninteresting game. (Sorry for the double negative).

There were also concerns about the intensity of the final. After all, both teams were going to advance to nationals, regardless of the result. Would they have the same intensity if they didn’t have to worry about elimination?

We got our answer.

Both teams had the chance to win a championship. And anyone who has had anything to do with the game at a high level will tell you they don’t get many chances to win a title. So when you get a chance, seize it, even if there’s more hockey to be played after the championship game.  

I don’t know if there’s been a league final with more memorable moments. I wouldn’t say it was the best league final ever, but it delivered so many twists and turns.

There was a power failure before Game 2 and another during the game. Flin Flon players and fans were irate after a member of the Bruins tried to swipe Flin Flon’s cherished moose leg after a narrow Bomber win in Game 3. That seemed to be a catalyst for the Bombers’ 7-1 win in Game 4.

Game 5 looked bleak for Estevan until Eric Houk redirected a Nolan Jones point shot with 5.8 seconds to play in the third to tie the game. Then Olivier Pouliot notched the winner in overtime for the Bruins.

Flin Flon responded accordingly on home ice with their season on the line in Game 6.  

But we saw the Bruins experience and coaching shine through in Game 7. They made the adjustments and executed the game plan. When Flin Flon had quality scoring chances, playoff MVP Boston Bilous made the big saves. Flin Flon was game, but in the Game 7, the Bruins were better.  

Rivalries are born in the postseason. Hopefully we’ll see a damn good rivalry between Estevan and Flin Flon for a few years.

Last night, I reflected back on those previous years covering the team. Some of the great games I’ve watched and some of the memorable moments. Some of the great teams that just came up short. Some of the local guys who deserved to win a championship with their hometown team, but didn’t. And some of the friends I’ve made through the organization and the game over the years.

We’ve been able to watch a great team this season. We, as a community, should be very proud of them, not just the players, but everyone who is involved with the organization and helps make Bruins hockey possible.

I know I am.

And with the Centennial Cup national junior A hockey championship, presented by Tim Hortons, less than two weeks away, they aren’t finished yet.