It was a long winding road filled with many obstacles, but The North Island Bantam Eagles persevered and reached the promised land.
After hearing they didn’t belong at the Tier 3 Bantam Championships because they hadn’t won the playoff banner in their division like everybody else, the Eagles were determined to prove their naysayers wrong by earning their way into the gold medal game.
And that’s exactly what they did.
The tournament started bright and early on Sunday morning at the Don Cruickshank Memorial Arena in Port Hardy, and it was the Eagles who came away with a huge 6-2 win over the Kelowna Rockets.
The Eagles would then fight to a 5-5 tie against the Dawson Creek Canucks later that night after the tournament’s opening ceremony.
“The buzz for the opening ceremony was electric and we knew there would be a good crowd showing up, but we never expected it to be as big as it was,” said Eagles head coach Ryan Handley. “The Dawson Creek game was the one that really started the ball rolling. Down 2-0, they dug deep and wanted to show the fans what it meant to them and they found a way to get back in the game and fought hard to tie a very tough team. We felt like we should have won, but we knew with a win and a tie our fate was now in our own hands, and they started to believe they could pull off something special.”
The Eagles would draw the Whistler Winterhawks in their next game on Monday night, and once again the Don Cruickshank Memorial Arena was packed to the brim with passionate North Islanders screaming and chanting for their hometown team.
The Eagles would take the fight right to the Winterhawks from the first drop of the puck, but neither team was able to get on the scoreboard throughout the entire first period.
It was almost midway through the second when the Winterhawks ended up drawing first blood thanks to a goal from Jaxon Cooper.
The Eagles would quickly return fire just seconds later. Captain David Klatt stole the puck, skated in, and fired it top shelf past the Winterhawks goaltender Chad Pereverzoff.
Kai Verbrugge would then get the feed from Klatt and bury the puck past Pereverzoff to make it 2-1.
Into the third period the game would go, and the Eagles would find themselves in penalty trouble halfway through.
Even though the Winterhawks had a staggering five on three man advantage, Klatt refused to let it break his team. He stole the puck, skated in and snaked it past Pereverzoff as the hometown fans in the crowd exploded with cheers.
After that, Tristan Mardell took over with two beautiful back to back goals to seal a 5-1 win for the Eagles.
“The turning point in that one obviously was Klatter’s shorthanded goal,” said Handley. “It’s a 2-1 game at that point and they are on a five on three powerplay that could have changed the momentum.”
The Eagles would move on face the Cranbrook Hornets the next night, and this game was another intense, action packed affair.
The Eagles would get out to an early lead in the first period at 12:26 thanks to Cole Klughart skating in and firing a rocket top shelf past the Hornets goaltender Nicholas Butler.
The Hornets would strike in the second period at 12:52 with a goal of their own, but Verbrugge answered right back less than 30 seconds later on a breakaway, flipping the puck over Butler and into the net to make it 2-1.
The Hornets were down but refused to quit on themselves, and they came back down the ice less than a minute later and scored to tie it up again.
That was when Klughart responded with his second goal of the night at 5:47, roofing the puck top shelf to give the Eagles the lead back.
Into the third the game went, and no one was able to score until there was less than a minute left on the clock.
The Hornets had pulled their goaltender for the extra attacker, but the Eagles somehow got hold of the puck, flipped it down the ice, and Klatt outraced everyone to bang it home.
The Hornets would score right away off the next face-off, but Mardell would respond just six seconds after that with a beauty of a shot that iced a 5-3 win for the Eagles.
After the game, Handley noted Klughart played like “an absolute beast” and “Klatter blocked four or five shots on one penalty kill sequence. They knew it was going to take sacrificing their body to win the game. Tristan flying down the wing and scoring the last goal six seconds after the faceoff was huge and really sealed the deal for us.”
After going 3-0-1, the Eagles were awarded the top seed in their pool and had a date the next morning at 11:00 a.m. against the Terrace Kermodes to see who would advance to the gold medal game.
The game turned out to be a real dogfight, with both teams not wanting to lose at all costs.
The Eagles would go up 2-0 early in the first period thanks to goals from Mardell and Verbrugge, but the Kermodes would answer back with two goals to tie it right back up.
Klatt would then score off a shot from the side of the net at 5:26 to give them the lead back going into the second period.
The Kermodes would come out of the dressing room fired up, and they scored at 15:09 and then 11:20 to take a 4-3 lead.
Klughart, however, refused to let the Eagles go away quietly. He fired a cannon of a shot from the blue line into the net at 8:51 to once again tie the game.
The third period was another tough battle, and the Kermodes would score early at 14:33 to take the lead once again.
With time winding down, Klatt would get the feed in the slot and fire it past the Kermodes goaltender Logan Tweedy to send things into overtime.
Just 5:56 into the 10 minute sudden death period, Verbrugge would convert from the side of the net off a pass from Klatt to win the back and forth game, sending the Eagles onwards to the gold medal game against the Mission Stars.
“Our big guys were banged up so much,” said Handley after the game against the Kermodes. “Klatter played with what looked like a softball on his knee, Cole was getting treatment for pretty much sore everything, Griff hurt his groin late in the semi-final game and basically was playing on adrenaline, Tristan and Kai were hurting, Mannie was banged around … These kids put all that aside and focused on trying to beat a very tough team in Mission. It was unbelievable, they have hearts the size of the North Island, and they deserved to be where they were on that alone. We all knew it would be tough, but we knew we just had to find some extra gas and energy from somewhere and leave it all out there, and if we did that then it didn’t matter the outcome.”
The gold medal game was one for the ages.
The Stars came out aggressive and laid a beating on the Eagles with huge hits, but it was the Eagles who would get on the scoreboard first in the second period thanks to Verbrugge banging in a rebound from the side of the net at 7:07.
The game would stay 1-0 for the Eagles until less than five minutes into the third period, when the Stars finally converted to tie the game.
That was when Verbrugge once again put the team on his back, this time scoring off a hard shot from the point that just trickled past the goal line, giving his team back the lead.
The Eagles tried to hold on from there, but the Stars were just too big and too fast, and they would ultimately end up scoring four unanswered goals to skate away with a 5-2 win and the gold medals firmly wrenched from the Eagles’ grasp.
Handley said it didn’t matter what the final score was. “To hold that team off the scoreboard for two periods after all we had gone through was something I didn’t expect.”
He added the team “just finally ran out of steam — They had nothing left to give and the crowd really got them to that point. I have never in my life been a part of anything like that, it was like an NHL playoff game atmosphere in there. Someone told me they counted over 1,000 people. These boys gave the North Island something to be proud of and it was truly out of this world.”
Handley said throughout Spring Break the Eagles kept hearing from other teams they “didn’t belong and didn’t earn it, and we wanted to prove we did. You always want to set yourself up for reward and by making it to that game, they were going to be nothing less than second best in BC. They showed everyone just how hard you can work as an underdog and we proved our worth.”
He added this was a “one in a million ride and an experience we will never forget. This is now a piece of North Island history and will be talked about for many years to come. These boys will become the motivation speech for teams moving forward and used as the measuring stick.”
After the realization started to sink in that they were now officially known as the second best Tier 3 bantam team in all of British Columbia, Verbrugge, Griffin Handley, Mannie Browne and Klatt all reached out to the Gazette with their thoughts on how the Championships turned out for them as players and as teammates.
“I am very proud of how we came together as a team and a family,” said Verbrugge. “For being the underdogs of the tournament, I think we opened up the eyes of a lot of people that didn’t think we deserved to be there.”
Griffin Handley agreed, noting, “there were other teams saying we didn’t belong there and we shouldn’t be there and stuff like that, but we used that to our advantage and showed them 100 per cent we belonged there. We may have lost in the final but we proved we can play with and compete with the best of the best.”
Browne said it felt amazing to score the Eagles opening goal of the tournament, and that he thinks the team “played great and I am so proud … (we were) the only team in the tournament who (hadn’t) earned their way there.”
The team’s captain, Klatt, was a man of few words when asked about the Championships, stating, “I am super proud of how our team came together, played disciplined, and came out true underdogs.”
Griffin Handley was named as the top ranked goaltender at the Tier 3 BC Bantam Championships, Klatt was named as the top ranked forward, and Verbrugge was named as the sixth best forward.