Friday, May 1, 2009
06 ROYAL BANK CUP CHAMPIONS REMEMBERED
The 2009 RBC Cup is on the verge of getting underway this weekend in Victoria.
So I thought it would be fitting to reminisce about the Express' magical run to the 2006 Canadian Junior A Championship.
There are plenty of story lines about that magical season.
First of all, the Express were starting new that season. A new home after re-locating from Coquitlam to Burnaby in the off-season. A new home also meant a new look. The blue, black and silver sweaters with the Thomas the tank engine logo was replaced with a new sleeker and aggressive logo. The new colors were black, red and silver.
There was plenty of optimism heading into the Express 5th season in the BCHL. It would be the first full season for head coach Rick Lanz. He was brought in midway through the previous season to take over from the teams only other head coach Sean Crowther.
Now that Lanz had a full off-season under his belt to re-build this team which went 25-31-1-3 in 04-05, this Express team was preparing to establish itself as a team on the rise in the BCHL.
At the start of the season there were a number of new faces that the Express brass was relying upon to turn this team into one to be reckoned with.
It started with an off-season trade that sent defenceman and former team captain Chad Betts to the Victoria Salsa in exchange for sniper Geoff Irwin. Irwin was expected to help carry the offensive load left behind with the departures of top scorers Mark Soares and Brandon Yip to college.
Plus, there was plenty of excitement about the recruitment of a fresh faced Kyle Turris. The orgnization knew that the just turned 16 year old had the potential to be the best player in this league for his age group.
In between the pipes, the Express had brought in goaltender Bryce Luker. He had spent 2 seasons playing NCAA hockey with limited success. Luker was looking for an opportunity to play Junior A hockey to maintain his college eligibility to have a shot to return to college hockey the following season. He was expected to carry the load between the pipes.
The returning core included Paul Crowder, Tyler McNeely and Brady Cook upfront. The defence including the finesse and skill of all star Alan Mazur, Keith Seabrook and the steady Peter Merth.
When the puck dropped that September, this team was expected to be a very competitive one in the BCHL.
However things didn't start the way the Express had hoped. And by the 15 game mark, the Express had just 4 wins under their belt. Paul Crowder had gone down with a shoulder injury that would sideline him until the playoffs. Goaltender Bryce Luker was injured after suffering a serious cut on his leg after a collision with a Surrey Eagles player. The cut required over 150 stitches to close the wound and Luker had to spend a few days in hospital.
24 hours after Luker went down, his backup Bryan Mahoney Wilson went down as well after being run by a Chilliwack Chiefs player. Then all of a sudden, things were looking really dark for this team. It wasn't supposed to go this way.
With both goaltenders on the shelf, Lanz brought up Matthew Gordon from junior B and he immediately began to help stop the bleeding and stabilizing the Express crease until Luker was ready to re-take his spot as the Express number 1 puck stopper.
At this point, Lanz began to asses his team and realized he needed to make a few trades to get this team going. It quickly became apparent that Alan Mazur wasn't going to be the impact defenceman he was a year ago. He was shipped to Merritt in exchange for hard nosed BCHL veteran Dave Simoes. That trade was shortly followed by a deal that sent forwards Mark Shefchyk and Jamieson Orr to Williams Lake for defencemen Jeff Orban and Shawn Witschen. Orban, was traded by Alberni Valley to Williams Lake in the off-season but didn't report hoping for a deal that would keep him closer to home.
The third trade Lanz made, was picking up Mark Santorelli from Salmon Arm for the recently acquired Witschen who played only 5 games in Express colors. That trade was deemed necessary when it was learned, Paul Crowder was sidelined for the rest of the regular season. Lanz had coached Mark's older brother Mike when the two were in Langley.
With a revamped roster, the Express looked to get this season on the rails it was expected to be on at the start of the season. And that appeared to be the case.
Kyle Turris was proving to be the best rookie in the BCHL. Geoff Irwin and Tyler McNeely we're clicking on the top line sitting among the top scorers in the BCHL. Keith Seabrook was emerging as a BCHL all star. Orban, Simoes and Merth suddenly made this Express defence much tougher to play against.
And, 6 weeks after suffering his gruesome injury, Bryce Luker was back and appeared to be a better goaltender than he was before the injury.
Then just before Christmas, the Express got an early present. Mark Soares was leaving Bemidji State due to a lack of playing time to return to the Express to finish his junior A eligibility. All of a sudden, the Express had added a 37 goal scorer from a year ago into their top 6 without giving up anything.
At this time, the Express had dug themselves out of their early season hole and had put themselves in a position to overtake the Chilliwack Chiefs for first place in the division with a pair of back to back games in early January. But the Chiefs sent the Express a message that it wasn't their time yet. Knocking off Burnaby in both of those games.
The trading deadline saw the Express bring back another face from a season ago. Veteran forward Jovan Matic who played just 2 games at the start of the season with the Vancouver Giants before suffering a shoulder injury was back with the Express.
Matic would provide the team with a strong play making centre who could score as well. The Express also brought in Anthony Wild who had spent some time in Saskatchewan. Wild would provide the Express with a versatile player who would add depth either on defence or in the bottom 6 forwards.
Now that the pieces were in place, it was time for this team to start to send a message to the rest of the BCHL that the Express were for real. But, before that could truly happen, the Express needed to get some bodies back in the lineup. Injuries had kept a number of players on the sidelines at various points of time during the season. Crowder was the most notable. Matic still wasn't completely recovered from his shoulder injury.
While the Express waited for the injured bodies to return, the team that was dressing was already starting to gel.
Shortly after the deadline, the Express went out on the road for a 4 game in 4 night road trip on the island. No question it wasn't going to be easy. It opened up with a pair of losses vs. two of the top teams in all of Canadian Junior A Hockey the Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Nanaimo Clippers. That was followed by controversial overtime losses the next 2 nights in Victoria and Cowichan Valley. Head coach Rick Lanz came out of that trip suspended for 3 games after arguing with the referee following the tough loss in Victoria.
The next weekend, the Express went up north for games in Prince George, Williams Lake and Quesnel. The trip opened up with Geoff Irwin playing his first game after the all star game in Salmon Arm. Irwin set up all 4 goals including Keith Seabrook's OT winner in Prince George in a 4-3 victory. The next night, the Express tied Williams Lake at 4. The trip wrapped up with Irwin scoring the winning goal in overtime to give the Express a 3-2 win in Quesnel.
The Express finished the trip with 5 out of a possible 6 points. The success of this trip, and the adversity of the Island swing proved to be vital for this team as it would be the start of a long run of success away from home.
As the calendar turned to the month of February, the Express were still in a position to compete for top spot in the Mainland division. The Express had a crucial game with the Chilliwack Chiefs on the afternoon of Sunday February 12th at the Bill Copeland Sports Centre. This game was an opportunity for the Express to send a message that they were to be respected as a contender in this league.
However, after 60 minutes of hockey was completed, the Express were fed a huge piece of humble pie after being hammered 8-0 on home ice. Certainly the most devastating loss of the season. There wasn't anyone who attended that game that didn't leave with a feeling of embarrassment if you were either a player, coach, staff member, fan or volunteer with the Express organization.
But when the sun rose the next day, and the sting of the 8-0 loss had gone away, this loss would prove to be the best thing to happen to the 2006 Burnaby Express. This team had learned it's lesson about what it was going to take to win if this team was going anywhere in the playoffs.
That loss would wake this team up and it would win it's final 6 games of the regular season. The Express finished the season with a record of 34-20-1-5. Good for 2nd place in the Mainland division.
The Express drew the Langley Hornets in the first round of the playoffs. It was the first time in franchise history the Express did not play the Chilliwack Chiefs in the playoffs opening round. The Express and Chiefs had faced each other in the opening round in each of the first four seasons of the Express existence.
The Express opened the playoffs with a bang as Bryce Luker stopped everything he faced with a shutout win in game 1. The Express had quickly opened up a 3-0 lead in the series. In game 4, the Express were cruising along with a 6-1 lead early in the third period and it appeared a trip the 2nd round was in the bag. But the Hornets did everything in their power to get back in the game and had cut the lead down to one with just 1:25 to go. But that would be as close as the Hornets would come as the Express hit the empty net for a 7-5 win and a 4 game sweep for the first ever series win in Express franchise history.
Round 2, the Express drew their playoff nemesis and number 1 rival the Chilliwack Chiefs. It was the 5th straight season the teams had met in the playoffs. Chilliwack had won each of the previous 4 meetings including the previous 3 seasons in the decisive 7th game in Chilliwack. The 7 game loss one year ago really stung as the Express had opened up a 3-1 series lead. Only to let it slip away.
Chilliwack dominated the season series in the 60 game campaign. Winning 8 of the last 10 meetings and 4 straight overall. But the Express went into this series looking to prove things would be different this time around. The Express got a boost with the return of Paul Crowder to the lineup. He had missed 51 games in the regular season and playoffs after having shoulder surgery. He was immediatly placed back on the top line between Geoff Irwin and Tyler McNeely.
The Express opened up a 4-1 lead in game 1. But the Chiefs came storming back with 3 goals in the third period to tie the game and force overtime. As mentioned earlier, the goal of this Express team in this series was to prove that things would be different this time around and that was the case in game 1. Tyler McNeely took advantage of a Chilliwack turnover and scored on a breakaway in the final seconds of the first overtime to give the Express a 5-4 win.
Game 2 proved that Paul Crowder was back for good. He scored a hat-trick in just his 2nd game back from injury to lead the Express to victory and a 2-0 Express lead after a pair of road wins.
The Express opened up a 3-0 series lead when the series shifted back to Burnaby after a 5-4 win. The win extended Burnaby's winning streak to 13 games dating back to the regular season following that 8-0 loss to the Chilliwack Chiefs.
The Express couldn't complete the sweep on home ice after dropping a 4-3 overtime decision in game 4.
The series shifted back to Chilliwack for game 5. And the Express finished off the Chiefs with a 6-3 win. Tyler McNeely scored a hat-trick for the Express.
Tyler McNeely, Geoff Irwin and Paul Crowder had destroyed the Chiefs offensively in this series. That trio combined for 16 goals and 19 assists for 35 points in the 5 games. McNeely led the way with 8 goals and 10 assists in the series.
The 5 game series win over the Chiefs felt like a huge monkey off the back of the Express organization. The losses in each of the previous 4 seasons left wounds that weren't healed until the Express completed a series victory of their own.
It is hard to describe the emotion involved following the win over their top rival. It had felt like this team had won a championship. The series win also proved to be another vital moment for this Express squad. It gave them the confidence that this team was truly capable of doing some damage the rest of the way in the playoffs.
The Express caught a break when they got ready for their opponent in the Coastal Conference finals. The Victoria Salsa were writing a cinderella story after knocking off the heavily favoured Nanaimo Clippers and Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Both the Clips and Dogs had aspirations of going to the Royal Bank cup after finishing the season with the top 2 records in the BCHL.
Victoria's cinderella run continued in game 1 with a 4-3 win over the Express. The game 1 win however would prove to be midnight for the Salsa. The Express hammered Victoria on home ice 9-2 in game 2 evening the series. Mark Soares had a hat-trick in the win. It was a similar story in game 3 in Victoria. The Express won big 8-1 and Mark Soares had his second consecutive hat-trick. The Express took the next 2 games to take the series in 5 games. The Express had outscored Victoria 27-10 in the final 4 games of the series.
The Express were now off to the Fred Page Cup finals for the first time in frachise history.
The Penticton Vees were Burnaby's opponent in the battle for the Fred Page Cup. If the players weren't sure about what they were playing for. They just had to look up in the concourse of the Penticton Memorial Arena and see the Fred Page Cup on display in the BC Hockey Hall of Fame located inside the arena.
Game 1 proved to be a indicator of what to expect in this series and that it was going to be a hard fought title battle. The Express took the first game by a score of 3-2. Mark Santorelli scored the game winning goal in the third period. The goal snapped a prolonged scoring drought for Santorelli which had dated back to the opening round vs. Langley.
Game 2 was tight as well. The Vees prevailed with a 4-3 overtime win. Micheal Guzzo scored after a Burnaby turnover in their own zone. The loss snapped Burnaby's 14 game unbeaten streak on the road. The Express went over 3 months between losses on the road. Their last loss came in overtime in Cowichan Valley back in January as part of that 4 game in 4 night road trip.
The series shifted to Burnaby for games 3 and 4. Burnaby took game 3 with a 7-2 win. The series was even again after a 3-1 Penticton win in game 4.
That set up a pivotal game 5 in Penticton. Prior to the game, coach Rick Lanz had given his troops a great motivational speech from my understanding that truly got everyone fired up. It certainly worked.
The teams were tied at 1 after 2 periods. Then came the games turning point, with the Express on a powerplay, Ryan Costanzo stole the puck and went in on a breakaway but was turned aside twice by Bryce Luker. That save proved to be large as the Express took the puck up the ice seconds later and Keith Seabrook scored his 2nd of the game to give the Express a 2-1 lead. And that would be the final.
Burnaby came home for game 6 looking to wrap up their first BCHL Championship.
Heading into the game, the Express wanted to wrap the series up on home ice. They were really motivated to get it done on this night. Knowing they had to hop on the bus and try and win the series in Penticton the next night in game 7 if they had lost was all the motivation this team needed.
The teams traded goals in the first period with Dave Simoes finding the back of the net for Burnaby. And that would be all the scoring in regulation. And the game went to overtime.
In ot Luker stepped up again. And again it came off Ryan Costanzo. The Vees forward had Luker down and out. All he had to do was roof the puck on the backhand and the series was going back to Penticton for game 7. But somehow Luker fired up the glove and kept the puck out.
Moments later, Paul Crowder carried the puck into the Vees zone and his pass was re-directed by Tyler McNeely over the shoulder of Cory Milan and the Express were BCHL champions.
After the celebrations were over, the Express were off to Fort McMurray Alberta to face the Oil Barons to begin the Doyle Cup.
The Express kept on rolling in Fort Mac taking game 1 by a score of 6-3. The Oil Barons evened the series with a 2-0 win and forcing a third game to be played in Fort McMurray. This one went to overtime. Paul Crowder had a number of great scoring chances on one shift to end it, then finally on the third try he beat Jimmy Bernier with a snap shot to the stick side to give the Express a 4-3 win and a 2-1 lead in the series coming home.
The series was even again after a 5-4 Oil Baron win in game 4. But the Express would dominate the rest of the way and Kyle Turris' time to shine had arrived. He along side Jovan Matic and Mark Soares really started to lead the offensive attack for this team. The trio was instrumental in Burnaby's 4-1 win in game 5. Turris scored twice in the win.
In game 6, Turris got the Express off on the right foot by scoring twice in the opening period. Keith Seabrook then took over offensively. He scored twice in the 2nd period and the defenceman completed his hat-trick in the 3rd period as the Express wrapped up the Doyle Cup win with a 6-0 white washing. The win punched the Express ticket to the Royal Bank Cup.
Now the Express were off to Ontario for the RBC. The Express opened up with a 4-3 OT loss in the tournament's opening game to the host Streetsville Derbys. The Express let this one slip away as they had built up a 3-1 lead in the third period before Streetsville rallied with a pair of quick goals then winning in OT.
The rest of the round robin saw the Express knock off Yorkton 4-2, Fort William 3-2 and Joliette 5-3. The Express finished the round robin with a record of 3-1 good enough for a tie of first place with Streetsville.
That set up a semi final matchup with the Fort William First Nation North Stars. And heading into this game, one thing was clearly apparent. The Express still hadn't played their best hockey in the tournament. But were still finding ways to win despite not playing to their potential. That trend carried over into the semi finals and the Express were trailing 2-0 after 40 minutes.
In the third period with the Express facing elimination for the first time in the playoff run, they finally got going. But as the clock ticked down, it appeared that Fort William goaltender Carter Hutton was going to be too much for the Express. They finally broke through when Mark Santorelli scored with 1:50 remaining to pull the Express within one. Now the Express poured it on looking for the equalizer. Kyle Turris scored one of the most dramatic goals in Express history as he roofed it over Hutton to tie the game at 2 with just 11 seconds left in the Express season. Burnaby had rallied from a 2-0 deficit with less than 2 minutes remaining in the third period.
So it was off to overtime, Fort William had a chance to end it early as Bryce Luker came up with another one of his timely save as he sprawled to keep the puck out.
Moments later, the Express were off to the Royal Bank Cup. The puck came around the boards to Keith Seabrook. He found Mark Soares in the slot who wired a quick wrist shot past Hutton to send the Express to the Royal Bank Cup final. A comeback for the ages for sure. And for those who experienced it, the emotions were unreal.
In the Royal Bank Cup final, the Express faced the Yorkton Terriers. And it was evident early that the Express were saving their best for last. They scored early and often. Kyle Turris scored the first two goals for the Express. Steven Cunningham had given the Express a 3-0 lead by the eleven minute mark of the 1st period banging home a rebound of a Mark Santorelli shot.
The offence kept rolling in the 2nd period with goals by Mark Soares, Kyle Turris' 3rd of the game and Mark Santorelli and all of a sudden the Express had a 6-0 lead in the championship game of the Royal Bank Cup. The prize was coming home. The score finished 8-2 in favour of the Express. On this night, the Express easily could have hit double digits. They were truly that dominant. Kyle Turris finished the game with 3 goals and 1 assist for 4 points. He could have had 5 goals on this night at least.
The tournament proved to be a coming out party for Turris as he was named the Royal Bank Cup MVP after leading the tournament in scoring with 7 goals and 6 assists for 13 points.
For head coach Rick Lanz, the win erases the sting of losing the Royal Bank Cup final in 1997 when he coached the South Surrey Eagles.
Mark Soares, who played 5 seasons with the Express and suffered through all the playoff dissapointments of the franchises first four seasons was going out as a champion.
It was a long road. The team played a total of 92 games in the regular season and playoffs. Their playoff record was 25-7. If you want to go back to the 8-0 loss to Chilliwack on February 12th, after that game the Express went 31-7.
They had never lost consecutive games during the playoff run.
Other moments that personally stand out for me, I remember interviewing goaltender Bryce Luker in the final game of the round robin of the Royal Bank Cup. He wasn't dressed in order to give him some rest in preperation for the semi finals. Bryce and I were dicussing how far he's come after suffering the cut on his leg. And I don't think he was aware he was doing it. But I just recall Luker rubbing his cut leg probably just subconciously.
Another moment that stands out for me, I was in the dressing room after the championship game, and the team had gathered together in the locker room for a huddle to talk about what they had accomplished. But one person was missing and that was defenceman Jeff Orban. He had suffered a seperated shoulder in the RBC and played through it. I just remember him sitting off on the bench on his own in tears. Probably a moment of reflection about what he had gone through in order to win the RBC. I never asked him what was going through his mind, but that moment is one thing that really stands out in my mind.
Just spending the time reflecting on that time and the memories come flooding back. And I understand that this is extremely long winded, but as Scott Morrison told me when I first started the blog, it's a labour of love. And I wouldn't spend the time writing something like this if I didn't love it. As exemplified, the memories from 3 years ago are as fresh as ever. I hope you enjoyed it.