NOTE: This story first appeared in the May 12, 1997 edition of the Summerside Journal-Pioneer
The City of Summerside may have to alter their familiar ‘Summerside – Canada’s Tournament Town’ signs.
How about, ‘Summerside – Home of Canada’s Junior ‘A’ Hockey Champions’?
The Hemphill Pontiac Western Capitals of Summerside confounded the experts Sunday night by becoming the first Tier Two junior hockey club east of Ontario to capture the Royal Bank Cup (formerly the Centennial Cup).
The Caps rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the second period to defeat the highly-touted South Surrey (B.C.) Eagles 4-3, to claim the national championship in front of a sellput crowd (estimated at 2,700) at Cahill Stadium.
Prior to last night, no team from Atlantic Canada, nor Quebec, had ever won the Canadian junior ‘A’ hockey title in the 26-year history of the event. The Capitals, the host team for the five-team 1997 Royal Bank Cup, weren’t expected to win the national title.
Back last fall, even some mainland Maritime Junior Hockey League franchises were questioning Canadian Hockey’s wisdom in selecting Summerside as the host for the event, after the Caps stumbled to a 2-4 (won-lost) record out of the gate.
However, the Caps steadily improved as the season progressed, and at the end of the regular season they were tied in points (77) with the Dartmouth Oland Exports.
The Exports got the nod for first place overall in the MJHL (and home ice advantage in all playoff rounds) due to having one more win in their final statistics. Dartmouth was 36-15-3-2 (win-lost-tied-overtime losses), while the Capitals were 35-14-4-3.
The Caps then dispatched the Riverview River Rats in five games of their best-of-seven opening playoff round, before engaging in two of the most grueling and intense hockey series ever witnessed locally.
The Capitals prevailed over their provincial rivals, the Charlottetown Moosehead A&S Abbies, in seven punishing semifinal games, before going the seven-game limit again to erase Dartmouth.
When the smoke had cleared, the Capitals had played 13 physically and mentally demanding playoff tilts in 16 days.
After going winless at the Fred Page Cup Eastern Canadian Junior ‘A’ Hockey Championship in Brockville, Ont. (April 23 to 28), the Capitals weren’t exactly favorites to win the Royal Bank Cup, when it began, Saturday, May 3.
After shocking the Central (Northern Ontario) champions, Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats, 5-1 in game one, they lost 7-5 to the Kanata Valley (Ont.) Lasers (Eastern champions); were walloped 8-2 by the Weyburn (Sask.) Red Wings, the Western champs, and lost a confidence-boosting 3-2 decision to the South Surrey Eagles (Pacfic).
On Saturday night, the Capitals advanced to Sunday’s championship final by up-ending the Weyburn Red Wings, 4-3, in double overtime.
The Red Wings and the South Surrey Eagles were two of the highest-ranked Tier Two junior ‘A’ teams in Canada for most of the season.
The Eagles were ranked first, while Weyburn was picked second-best by most national experts.
The only team nationally ranked in the top 10 from the Maritimes was Dartmouth Oland Exports (tenth).
But the rankings didn’t include the cozy confines of Summerside’s 44-year-old Cahill Stadium, not the raucous towel-waving sign-toting, “Go Caps Go”-screaming loyal band of followers called Cap Fans.
The boisterous home crowd had both head coaches of the Weyburn Red Wings (Dwight McMillan) and South Surrey (Rick Lanz) teams more than a little uneasy as their respective clubs prepared to face the Capitals during the weekend.
As it turned out, their worst fears were realized.
With the local fans pumping shot after shot of adrenalin through the veins of the Capitals and a Stellarton, N.S., native by the name of Harlin Hayes providing clutch goaltending, the Hemphill Pontiac Western Capitals went all the way to pull off one of Canadian junior ‘A’ hockey’s most astonishing upsets.
As usual, the Caps didn’t do it the easy way Sunday.
The championship final was barely six minutes old and the South Surrey squad held a 2-0 lead.
Defenceman Dan Vandermeer scored on a nice individual effort at the 1:09 mark of the first period to give the Eagles the early lead.
Dusty Lattery won a faceoff in the Capitals’ end to the right of goaltender Hayes. The puck went back to Vandermeer on the left points, and Vandermeer stickhandled through three players across the top of the slot and, unchecked, wristed the puck over Hayes, just under the crossbar.
Czech-born defenceman Jakub Ficenec pinched in from the point to score the Eagles’ second goal at 6:05, during a scramble around the Capitals net.
However, the quick South Surrey lead failed to silence the home crowd. They continued to loudly urge on their Caps.
James Chalmers cut the Eagles lead in two when he whacked home a rebound past South Surrey goaltender Peter Wishloff at 10:41.
The Eagles went up 3-1 at 4:27 of the second period when Dan Vandermeer scored his second goal of the game – again on another fine individual effort.
Vandermeer took a pass along the boards to his left point position, and again rushed towards the net. He was knocked off balance just as he was in the act of shooting, and as he fell to the ice he slashed the puck along the ice, past Hayes and into the net on the short side.
A high-sticking infraction to South Surrey forward Clay Simmons, at the 15:46 mark of the second period, provided the turning point for the hard-pressed Capitals.
Simmons got the stick up into the face of Capitals’ forward Dan West, slicing him open around the mouth area. West was chasing a puck along the right wing boards in the Eagles’ end when the incident took place.
With West on his hands and knees spitting out a puddle of blood onto the ice, referee Norman Beck assessed Simmons a five-minute major and game misconduct.
The Capitals took full advantage of the five-minute powerplay, scoring twice to tie the score at 3-3.
Mike White, the overtime hero the previous night versus Weyburn, scored at 16:59 on a low slapshot from the right point, and Steve Dyer pounded home Mark White’s rebound at 18:48 to tie the score at 3-3.
The Capitals were back in business, and the home fans were loving it.
However, South Surrey reclaimed the momentum in the third period, carrying the play to the Capitals for the first half of the stanza. The shots-on-goal were 9-0 in favor of the Eagles before the Capitals got a weak shot on the South Surrey net at the 9:46 mark.
With goaltender Hayes blocking pucks from all angles, the Capitals – again urged on by their fans – started taking the play to the Eagles.
Wishloff stopped the Capitals’ Czech Republic representative, Jan Klimes, on a breakaway, just prior to the game-winning goal.
The forward unit of Klimes, James Chalmers and Steve Dyer, exerted intense forechecking pressure in the South Surrey end, before Chalmers cashed in the biggest goal in franchise history for the Western Capitals.
Klimes pounced on a loose puck along the end boards and passed to Chalmers at the other side of the net. Chalmers skated unmolested out front, into the hashmarks area to the left of Wishloff; waited until a defenceman sprawled, and then Wishloff went down, before wristing a hard low shot, high into the net to the opposite side.
Cahill Stadium literally exploded into noise, as the Capitals suddenly held the lead for the first time in the game. The time of the goal was 12:14.
Although the Eagles made several dangerous rushes, the Capitals were holding their own. Wishloff stopped Troy MacAusland on a clear-cut breakaway late in the third, as play went end-to-end.
Still trailing 4-3, South Surrey asked for a measurement of team captain D’Arcy Hutchinson’s stick.
It was found to have an illegal curve, and Hutchinson was penalized for two minutes at 17:28.
Shortly afterwards, Eagles’ head coach lifted his goalie in favor of an extra attacker (six on four). Hayes made a couple of good saves during the B.C. powerplay, but the Capitals’ penalty-killers did an excellent job, sending the Eagles back deep into their own end to retrieve the puck, time and time again.
With South Surrey in the Capitals’ end with less than 20 seconds left in the game, an errant pass back to the right point got by an Eagles’ player and slowly drifted down the ice, as the local fans began their countdown – “ten … nine … eight”. The B.C. team managed to get the puck back into the Capitals’ end, but a desperation shot at the buzzer sailed wide into the corner.
Game over … Capitals win the game 4-3 … and the Royal Bank Cup.
What transpired next can best be described as bedlam.
Capitals players piled out of their bench and rushed onto the ice – flinging sticks, helmets and gloves in every direction, while the home fans voiced their approval.
Meanwhile, the South Surrey Eagles’ bench stared on in stunned silence.
The Pacific representatives outshot the Capitals in all three periods – 11-9, 12-8 and 15-11 for an overall total of 38-28.
Mark White had a pair of assists for the winners, while single helpers were credited to Gary Cooper, Dteve Dyer, Stacy Smallman and Jan Klimes.
Also earning assists for South Surrey were Dusty Lattery, Shane Kuss and Rodney Bowers.
Besides the score, the Capitals also led in one other crucial statistic – faceoffs. The Capitals won 32 of 59 draws during the game, including many key draws in their own end.
Referee Norman Beck handed out a total of eleven penalties during the game – six to the Eagles.
The 1998 Royal Bank Cup will be held in Nanaimo, B.C.