Underdog stories in sports are as cliché as hockey players who give 110 per cent or teams that take it one game at a time.
Whether on the big screen or in real life, every year an individual or team battles valiantly against all odds en route to a championship win.
In 1992 the movie Mighty Ducks did it, the 2007 New York Giants did it – heck, even Slumdog Millionaire accomplished the feat this year using the classic long-shot formula.
The 2003-04 edition of the Brandon Wheat Kings aren’t as well known as a lot of other underdogs, yet their story captivatingly fits the mold nonetheless and it’s one Manitobans will be telling for decades to come.
Brandon’s journey to the National Midget Championship ended with a goal for the ages, but to truly appreciate what the Wheat Kings achieved, their entire season must be taken into scope.
After plowing their way through the Manitoba Midget AAA Hockey League, the Wheat Kings took care of business at the West Regional and waltzed into the National Midget Championship not knowing what to expect.
With the slogan The Chance May Never Come Again guiding its way, Brandon stumbled out of the gates with back-to-back overtime losses and it looked like the underdogs were ready to roll over and play dead.
“We were shocked, but we knew that if we could recover it would only make us stronger,” recalled Wheaties netminder Tyler Plante, a 2005 Florida Panthers draft pick who currently tends the net for the AHL’s Rochester Americans. “It was such a disappointing start and everyone thought that we were beaten, but that just made us work that much harder.”
A tie and three decisive wins later and the Wheat Kings found themselves up against College Charles-Lemoyne on the championship stage, playing in front of 2,500 fans in Kenora, ON and thousands of others watching across the country on TSN and RDS.
A scoreless game through two periods, Andrew Clark, now a four-year veteran with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings, put Brandon on the board first with a power play goal five minutes into the final frame.
Hugo Martin retaliated for Charles-Lemoyne three minutes later – “I remember my heart just dropping in my stomach when I let that backhander goal in from in front of the net,” said Plante – but all that goal did was force an overtime period that the dark horses ran away with.
In true Hollywood form, Brandon captain Taylor Langford netted the overtime game-winner, setting off a raucous celebration.
“It was one of those things where I don’t even really remember what happened, it all just came together so quickly,” said Langford, currently a forward with the NCAA’s Div III St. Norbert College Green Knights.
“We picked the puck up in our zone and I cut through the middle and took a pass. It was a play where the coaches were yelling for me to just dump it in, but I made a quick little move at the centre line and I kind of went in, split the defence and then shot low blocker side.
“I don’t remember too much after the puck went in.”
Being trampled by overjoyed teammates and coaches can have that effect, but considering the team made history as the first, and to date, only Manitoba team to win gold at the national championship, their reaction was justified.
“It was just overwhelming,” said Plante. “It didn’t seem real. Little small-town Brandon winning the championship was pretty amazing.”
The aftermath of the win was also amazing as junior teams from across the country pursued all 19 Wheat Kings and all but one played at least one year of junior hockey.
From there nine players spent time in the MJHL, five went to the BCHL, seven cracked the WHL, two have played in the AHL and although he has yet to record an NHL start, Plante has dressed as backup with the Panthers.
“I think it really showcased a lot of players,” said Plante. “If you’re on a championship team, that says a lot about every player and the character they have.”
Topping that gold medal win won’t come easy for Plante – he says winning the Stanley Cup might be the only way to beat it.
Langford has since won a BCHL championship and a national championship with St. Norbert and although he said they were both utterly blissful experiences, they don’t compare to the title he captured as an underdog.
“Every championship win is different, but that win we had in Midget still stands out in my mind as the best, and it always will.”