The North Island peewee Eagles’ dream of playing at Provincials has finally come to an end.
After losing 5-2 at the Don Cruickshank Memorial Arena in Port Hardy back at the end of February, the Eagles found themselves down 1-0 in a best-of-three series against the Port Alberni Bulldogs.
Knowing game two was do-or-die, the Eagles travelled down to the Weyerhauser Arena in Port Alberni last Saturday, where they ended up pulling off a huge 6-5 upset win to tie the series 1-1 and extend the teams’ best-of-three Vancouver Island Tier 3 hockey championships to a decisive third game on Sunday.
“That was a testament to North Island hockey, right there. No quit whatsoever,” assistant coach Glenn Moore said of the rally that knotted the finals series 1-1.
“After we lost that first game at home, we were actually pretty loose,” said Coach Ryan Handley. “We knew the task at hand, and we were confident we could push it to game three where it would be anyone’s series.”
Game three proved to be a bitter pill to swallow for the Eagles.
With the score tied 5-5 late in the 3rd period, Handley said the officials decided it was their time to get involved in the outcome.
The Eagles were given two penalties with less than three minutes to go – penalties the coaching staff definitely did not agree with – and the Bulldogs capitalized with the five-on-three power play, scoring the game winning goal with only 1:22 left on the clock.
Final score; 6-5 for the Bulldogs, who advanced to play in the Provincials.
“It was a devastating way to lose a game at any time, but in a game of that magnitude, it was especially tough,” said Handley. “They fought so hard and dug deeper than ever before, and to have an official basically take the control away from them in a tie game with 2 minutes left is hard to fathom. I walked into the dressing room afterwards and saw 17 hearts on the floor, stomped on – the hurt on their faces was a picture I will not soon forget.”
Handley added while he still has some hard feelings regarding how the final three minutes of the game went down, “there’s nothing you can do to change it – you have to push on and use it as motivation for next year. We (the coaching staff) made sure they knew how proud we were of them.”
The peewee Eagles 2016-2017 season saw some very high high’s for the team, but it didn’t exactly start out that way right from the beginning.
“The start of our season was not very good,” said Handley. “We lost our first two tiering games and then in our first tournament we were 1-2-1 and didn’t look good.”
He said the Eagles were definitely struggling early on to find their identity as a team.
“We had really hit rock bottom,” said Handley, adding the coaching staff had to rebuild the team’s confidence from the bottom up.
From that point on, “we were a different team. We went on a tear where we didn’t lose for 16 straight games, winning two gold medals at tournaments and setting ourselves up to play for a league banner.”
Were the coaches surprised at all by the team’s sudden turnaround?
“No, we knew this group had what it took,” stated Handley. “They just had to realize it themselves and put the effort in.”
While the Eagles ended up falling just short of their goals this year of winning a league banner and making provincials, Handley felt the season altogether was “tremendously positive. The boys can hold their heads high as they fought with everything they had, right to the final whistle.”
This was Handley’s sixth year coaching minor hockey, with the last three seasons spent specifically as a coach for the North Island Eagles’ association.
He played as a goalie during his own minor hockey career, and now his son Griffin is following in his footsteps, playing between the pipes for the Eagles.
“Griffin has a tremendous amount of talent,” said Handley. “He can go far if he wants to, but it’s not going to be easy. Once he realizes that, he will become more motivated.”
Handley added Griffin will be going to a very tough goalie school this summer, “and that should help him in all aspects of the position.”
As for what’s in the future for the peewee Eagles other two standout players this season, David Klatt and Ethan Bono, Handley felt Klatt “has really matured this year emotionally with his leadership skills. Moving forward, I expect him to push himself even harder and reach for the goals he needs to set.”
Handley had nothing but praise for Bono, who wore the ‘C’ this year for the team and was their main offensive spark.
“Ethan is an amazing talent and I feel very fortunate to have been able to coach him. The sky is the limit for him, and as long as he doesn’t get burnt out, he will go far. When he’s playing junior hockey or beyond, I will be proud to say that I was a part of his dedication and development when he was young. He has grown into a fine leader and young man.”
Handley pointed out it wasn’t just those three players who were responsible for the Peewee’s accomplishments this year.
“The entire team had so many great moments, and that’s why we were able to accomplish what we did.”
All told, Handley felt the reason they were so successful was due to the entire team’s commitment level.
“You make them accountable and respectful and they will give you everything they have. They could see the coaching staff’s passion for the game, the way we dealt with situations, and they fed off it. They also became a group of brothers who would do anything for one another. The bond they formed was amazing to see – hard work and heart goes further than talent alone.”
Handley also had high praise for his assistant coaches this year, Glenn Moore and Cody Diotte.
“Glenn brought many years of experience to the table that the boys could draw from,” said Handley. “He did a very good job keeping the team level headed, not too low or too high. I have a great deal of respect for him as a coach and a person and thought we worked very well together.”
Diotte brought youthful enthusiasm to the team, “and he kept things light for the fellas,” Handley said. “He is a great young man to have on the bench, and to put in the time and effort he did without having a kid involved, is incredible. He will be a very good coach moving forward and I hope to work with him in the years to come.”
Handley added he didn’t really have a specific favourite moment from the season, he just truly enjoyed being at the rink every day working with the kids and teaching them the game of hockey.
“I have a tremendous amount of passion for it,” said Handley. “Being around the team and watching them grow, not only as hockey players but as people. You smile with them, you hurt with them, and it motivates you – you push them to get all you can from them, and then when they succeed, it makes you proud and you feel accomplished. I love to coach and will continue to teach our great game to the kids as long as I can.”
Handley confirmed he is already counting down the days until next season.