Cowbells and thundersticks – a personal journey to the AJHL

By Bruce McCurdy.

I’ve followed the Alberta Junior Hockey League since my arrival in Alberta in 1971. When I say “followed” I mean as a lurker, because the AJHL was regularly covered in the Edmonton Journal and I always did devour every word about hockey of whatever stripe. I followed when Doug Messier’s Spruce Grove Mets (and later Saint Albert Saints) routinely used the pre-game brawl as an intimidation tactic, I followed when Mark Messier and Troy Murray were making their mark, I followed Mike Comrie and Jamie Lundmark ripping up the league, I followed when Shannon Szabados was breaking down gender barriers and making the All-Star team in the process. But for all that following, I never once had seen an AJHL game, not even on TV. After 40 years, an old virgin.

Last night that finally changed. Intent on keeping my pre-season promise to David Staples to honour the fact this blog is named the Cult of Hockey, not the Cult of the NHL, it seemed as good a time as any to fill that glaring space on this lifelong hockey fan’s personal dance card. Said season was rapidly running out, so I finally got on my horse.

During the hour-long drive to Camrose for Game Three of the AJHL Final between the Kodiaks and the Spruce Grove Saints (still getting used to that!), I reflected on all the live hockey I’ve seen over those years. Having grown up on high school and senior hockey in Newfoundland, since my arrival in Alberta I’ve seen the better part of a thousand NHL games, 100+ WHA contests, 100+ CIS matches, dozens of WHL/WCHL games, plus samples of the American, Central and East Coast minor professional leagues. I’ve attended ACAC hockey, midget triple A, and a women’s national championship game. I’ve enjoyed international hockey at the Winter Olympics and the World Juniors, as well as the occasional touring European squad (Druzhba ’78). I lived through the full twelve-year cycle of minor hockey as a hockey dad, and all the “trappings” from assistant coach to penalty timekeeper. The game is in my blood. But still there was this gaping hole in my resumé where Tier Two – or as it’s known nowadays, Junior A – hockey was concerned, and I found myself pumped for what I was sure would be an excellent hockey game.

I didn’t know the teams well at all, didn’t know who were the hotshots with NCAA scholarships in their back pocket or who might be touted to move on to the Dub next season. While I kept an eye peeled for prominent individuals, my interest was more in the game, in the calibre of play in one of this country’s finest feeder leagues. And I’m both happy and unsurprised to report, it’s damned good.

The 2011 AJHL final is an interesting match-up between dominant powerhouse and resilient underdog. The Saints ruled the roost in the AJHL all year, posting a 48-8-4 record over the 60-game schedule to reach the 100-point pinnacle. They outscored their opponents by a greater than 2:1 margin (233 GF, 106 GA), the sign of a truly dominant team in any league. They’ve hardly taken their foot off the gas in the playoffs, rolling to ten straight victories, including two series sweeps and the first two games of this series back in Spruce Grove. The Kodiaks meanwhile posted much more modest results, 32 wins, 70 points, a +27 goal differential. It has been in the post-season where they have written a remarkable story, coming from behind to win three different series against Drumheller Dragons, Brooks Bandits and Okotoks Oilers in the AJHL’s Alliteration Allocation (a.k.a. the South Division). Camrose faced five elimination games, winning two Games Seven on the road. In Game Five in Brooks, they came from two goals down in the last five minutes to tie it at 2-2, then battled through 66 minutes of overtime only to lose the game anyway and fall behind in the series. Coming back from that had to be toughest of all, but come back they did winning Games Six and Seven, 5-1 and 2-1. They then came from 3-1 down against division champion Okotoks and a 1-0 deficit with five minutes left in Game Five in their barn to win out, 2-1 in OT, 3-1, and 3-2. Pretty amazing stuff.

One of the interesting elements about this final series is that the two teams do not have equal incentive. In a month’s time Camrose will be hosting the national Junior A championships, the Royal Bank Cup, and thus are assured of playing in the five-team tournament for the national title. Of course, they’ve had that assurance all along but it hasn’t seemed to have stopped them from playing like their lives depended on it. For the Saints, losing is not an option: they must win this series, then go on to beat the BCJHL champs in the Doyle Cup to earn their way into the nationals.

Of course the national title is one thing and the AJHL championship quite another, and both teams played this game like they wanted that latter bauble real bad. The game was played at a very high level, great tempo, lots of hitting, and fierce battles wherever the puck may be. Which was usually, but not quite always, in the Camrose end. The Kodiaks scored against the flow of play in the first when Camrose won a puck on a strong forecheck followed by a seeing-eye centring pass to Kenny Bradley who wired a perfect shot in the top corner. After that score effects redoubled the fury of the Saints’ attack, and nine powerplay opportunities had their effect on the tilt of the ice as well.

Against all this stood a determined wall of Camrose defenders who gave away absolutely nothing for free, diving in front of shots, furiously battling along the boards and hacking pucks to safety. And behind them stood (or kneeled, or slid, or dove) the implacable Dalyn Flette, the central character throughout the Kodiaks’ remarkable run. Despite having allowed just 15 goals in Camrose’s 11 postseason wins, Flette himself had a tiny hole in his resume – no shutouts in the playoffs – and he filled it by stumping the league’s best team for 60 minutes and 39 shots. I heard iron at least once, and an apparent goal was waved off due to a whistle, but the former Oil King stopper was full value for the shutout and the win with a performance that was cast in bedrock.

The final was 2-0, with Tanner Marshall having doubled the count with a third-period breakaway deke that he celebrated as if it was his first career goal. Which it turned out, it was. Heckuva time to get it. The crowd went nuts, and so did the Kodiaks bench.

While the game was terrific, I derived a whole ‘nother layer of enjoyment from attending a live hockey game in small(er) town Alberta. Hockey Night in Camrose was a delightful experience, better shared with a few pictures than a few (more) thousand words.

The Edgeworth Centre in Camrose is a splendid new sports complex whose centrepiece is the 2500 seat EnCana Arena, new home of the much-decorated Kodiaks. It has a roomy open concourse above the lower bowl with all the amentities, large washrooms on the sides, concessions on the corners, including a popular row of tables offering a variety of beverages from beer to coolers to liqueurs for a flat $5. (Unlike Oiler games, the vendors didn’t have to spend half of their time making odd amounts of change that differed for every product.) Last night I judged the arena to be about two-thirds full, which nicely matched the official attendance of 1705 that was announced in the third period. It was a very loud crowd to say the least, with a few pockets of Saints supporters sprinkled about.

The press box was jam packed so I made my way around the arena and sat in various spots just to get a feel of the event, and enjoyed the experience thoroughly. The fans were great. Everywhere I sat or stood it seemed somebody would pull out some noise maker or other, Saints fans preferring bells and whistles and Kodiak supporters pounding on thundersticks and clappers. For a while I stood beside a toothless old guy with a permanent grin who would cackle with glee when anything happened, “anything” defined as a save, a hit, a blocked shot, a puck battle, a shoot-in … I couldn’t help but cackle right along with him. I had a great chat in the concession line with a guy in a Kodiaks jersey who had travelled to every game in the playoffs, and was still over the moon over the two Game Seven road wins. Many of the fiercest supporters were women, which surprised me not in the slightest but was fun to watch regardless. It was a family reunion-type environment, from kids to geezers and every generation in between. A couple little knots of scouts stood out like sore thumbs, otherwise no matter where you went you sat next to mom and pop.

This being hockey, Mr. Referee was on the receiving end of invective from supporters of both teams, a fact of life that caused me, neutral, no small delight. My favourite epithet was when he was deemed a “homer” … by a Kodiaks fan. Maybe Stripes lives in Spruce Grove.

I was surprised my how many folks preferred to stand despite there being sufficient seats for all. The big board on the wall showed the complicated brackets that will lead to five teams representing ten leagues at the RBC Cup. All 137 teams were listed, from Truro Bearcats to Flin Flon Bombers, from La Tuque Les Loups to Waywayseekappo Wolverines. Hockey in Canada … gotta love it.

No doubt every available space, seats and standing spots alike, will be packed for the RBC Cup which will be held in this arena from April 30-May 8. Team officials advised there are still a few tournament passes available, at $199 for 13 games. Bound to be some great hockey played then … I’m hoping to take in some of the action myself.

Back to the game at hand, where the Kodiaks and Saints were engaged in fierce combat. Much of it took place in the Camrose defensive zone, where the Saints applied intense pressure while the Kodiaks resisted every bit as intensely.

Twice Dalyn Flette’s mask came flying off in the melee, the second time possibly saving him a Saints goal on the continuation. For all he was the focal point of the action, Flette’s composure was apparent in his body language and facial features alike.

The score clock at game’s end shows the magnitude of Camrose’s upset. To be fair neither the score nor the shot count was truly reflective of the comparitive quality of the teams, as Camrose gave as good as they got in many aspects of the game while making the most of their chances.

Spruce Grove still leads the series 2-1, with Game Four going tonight in Camrose, Game 5 Friday in Spruce Grove. Even after this series is decided, it’s very possible there will be one or even two more Saints-Kodiaks games in early May.