It was a Cinderella season for the Notre Dame Hounds.
The storied school located in the small community of Wilcox had been famous for its sports ever since Father Athol Murray had moved west to establish Notre Dame.
In the spring of 1987 the school’s Midget AAA Hounds team had gone to the Air Canada Cup final, losing a close game to a team from Quebec.
In the fall of the same year Notre Dame stepped up a level, joining the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Tim Green was part of the Hounds team who entered the SJHL, finding almost instant success, although even the players weren't sure how the season might go. "We didn't know," he said. "We knew we had pretty well the same team that went to the Air Canada Cup, but we didn't know what the step up would be like with such a young team."
Stephane Gauvin was in Grade 9 when he moved to Notre Dame, playing two years of Bantam, then the Midget season with the finals loss, and the move up to the SJHL. "I thought it was a pretty big step. It was sure exciting to move up and play junior hockey."
Barry MacKenzie, long a fixture of the Notre Dame hockey program, coached the 1988 Hounds who took the Centennial Cup national championship in their first year as members of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
"We were young," recalled MacKenzie. "I had coached most of those kids for one or two years as midgets. I knew what they were capable of, but nobody knew what we would do."
But what kids the young Hounds turned out to be. Nineteen team members went on to earn American college scholarships. Among those were Jason Herter who would be a first-round draft selection of the Vancouver Canucks, and National Hockey League players such as Scott Pellerin, Joby Messier, Rod Brind'Amour and Curtis Joseph.
Through the season the wins piled up for the Hounds, but often only by a slim margin. Green said that helped the Hounds build the character needed to succeed when the playoffs rolled around.
Come playoff time in the SJHL the Hounds had only one major bump on the road, the Yorkton Terriers, who took Notre Dame to six games.
In the ANAVET Cup with Manitoba's top team, the Winnipeg South Blues, the Hounds again took the series in short order, sweeping it in four, setting up the series of the season with the Alberta/BC champion from Calgary.
It was another scare for the Hounds.
Calgary jumped to a 3-1 lead in the series, putting the Hounds on the brink of elimination for the first time.
"No doubt it was a tough series. We were down 3-1 and pretty well everybody had us written off," said MacKenzie.
Gauvin credits MacKenzie for the turnaround, with his talk prior to Game 5. "He said 'You guys could fold the tent and still be considered heroes. Your just a bunch of Midget players, but why would you want to stop here?'." In Game 5 "we came out just possessed," Gauvin says, winning 7-2.
However, the Canucks still seemed in control, going back to Calgary for Games 6 and 7. But Notre Dame won Game 6, allowing the Hounds to play a trump card, the support of an entire school, for Game 7.
"We loaded up the whole school and bused them to Calgary," said MacKenzie. "They had one end (of the rink) for us. It was a real boost for our kids to see all the red faces (the Hounds colour)."
Gauvin said the effect was even felt in the dressing room before the pre-game skate. "You could hear them stamping their feet. It was just like the rink was shaking. That was a real motivator, not that you need a lot of extra motivation in a Game 7."
The Hounds would lead the game 3-2 late, when Calgary was awarded a penalty shot with two seconds left on the clock.
"You can't describe the feeling of watching a penalty shot that could have tied the game," said Green, adding there was unimaginable relief when Joseph stopped Dean Larsen on the shot. "It would have been a huge turning point in the game."
Gauvin said Joseph was the hero, not only for the penalty shot save, but an acrobatic one earlier in the period. "He (Joseph) was out of position. He dove over with his stick and stopped it. I was backchecking my man. I had stopped skating, conceding the goal, so I could see the stop. It was amazing."
When the buzzer sounded to end the game "it was just mayhem. It was just wild," said Green, although the celebration was tempered for the Hounds, who knew one more challenge lay ahead, the Centennial Cup tournament as the top Junior A team in Canada.
The Hounds would advance to the national final against Halifax, dropping behind 2-1 after 40 minutes.
Gauvin said the tough series against the Terriers, and the emotional win over Calgary, steeled the team enough that a one-goal deficit with a period to go was not a concern. "At that point there was so much behind us we weren't going to concede defeat."
In the end the Hounds’ depth would win it all, with Dwayne Norris scoring the winner on a set up from Brind'Amour.
Interestingly, Norris would score the game winner in Canada's gold medal victory in the 1990 World Junior Championship as well.
The national championship was like a fantasy fulfilled.
"We had played 92 games that season," said Green. "We had fulfilled a dream, our goal. You can't put words to the feeling."
"It was just pure joy," said Gauvin.
-- Excerpt (plus additions) from Guts and Go: Great Saskatchewan Hockey Stories by Calvin Daniels, from Heritage House Publishing