The hockey gods giveth, the hockey gods taketh away.
The White Rock Whalers’ Pacific Junior Hockey League season ended last week (March 30) after their opponents, the Langley Trappers, scored the league-championship clinching goal with just 35 seconds left in what was to that point a tie game.
A day earlier, it was White Rock that was on the receiving end of some puck luck, winning Game 4 – and avoiding a four-game sweep – after a would-be Trappers goal, that would have tied the contest, was waived off with just 16 seconds left in the third period due to a penalty being called on the play.
“(Langley) did a good job. They found a way to score late… and we’ve been on the other ends of that during the playoffs, too,” said Whalers head coach Jason Rogers.
“They’re very structured, very similar to use in a lot of ways. It was a good series. We would have liked for it to have gone a little bit longer, but that’s the way it goes.”
Rogers noted that though his squad played well, their inability to score more than twice per game was ultimately their undoing.
“That was the struggle for us, getting over that hump (offensively)… three goals seemed to be enough to win a game.”
In Game 5, Chris Fortems opened the scoring for White Rock 7:22 into the first period to give the visitors an early lead, but in the second period, the Trappers – who also won the PJHL regular-season title, with just nine regulation-time losses in 44 games – tied the score on a goal from Nicholas Cormack, who scored on a rebound.
White Rock still led after 40 minutes, however, thanks to a goal from Cole Svendson – who also assisted on Fortems’ tally – but in the third, Langley was the only team to score. First, Ryan Tong tied the game 4:08 into the period, and then Anthony Bosnjak scored the series winner with 35 seconds left to secure the win and the Stonehouse Cup.
The Whalers played their two home games in the series at South Surrey Arena, rather than their usual home at White Rock’s Centennial Arena, due to the ice being taken out of the latter rink. The team went 1-1 in their unfamiliar new home, and Rogers said it wasn’t an issue, despite the fact that South Surrey’s ice sheet is Olympic sized, compared to the smaller sheet at Centennial.
“At Centennial, we were 6-0 there in the playoffs, and I think a lot of that was familiarity, and finally getting to play there (consistently, after being bounced around different cities the previous season due to the pandemic), but I thought we were able to adjust in South Surrey,” he said.
“Was it an adjustment? Yeah, but I thought we played well in both our games there, so I don’t think the ice made a difference.”
The Trappers now advance to the Cyclone Taylor Cup – junior ‘B’ provincials – where they’ll face the playoff champs from B.C.’s other junior ‘B’ leagues, as well as the host Delta Ice Hawks.
The Ice Hawks’ PJHL playoffs came to a halt in early March, after losing to the Whalers.
And though they ultimately fell a few games short of their goal to win a PJHL title – which would have been a first for the young franchise – the now-completed season is by far the Whalers’ most successful since joining the league in time for the 2018 season.
Before White Rock and Langley squared off, Whalers owner Ronnie Paterson heaped most of the praise for the team’s rapid success on head coach Jason Rogers and his staff.
“We knew that we could ramp it up fairly quickly. We didn’t really give ourselves a timeline but we know how passionate and dedicated our coaches are, so I was always confident we could raise our standards relatively quickly,” he told Peace Arch News.
In speaking with his players after last week’s final game, Rogers said he was sure to note how far the team had come in such a short period of time.
“It’s hard emotionally, because you just lost a heart-breaker in a final series… and it might sting a bit more for the 20 year olds who won’t be back next season, but these guys who’ve been around a long time – Butch (La Roue) and (Matthew) Burry – I think it’s important for them to be proud of what they accomplished,” Rogers said.
“Because we’re proud of what we’ve done. It’s hard to get better and better every year, but that’s the goal and we’ve managed to do that so far. And the guys who helped build that culture and that environment should be proud of that… even if it’s hard for them to hear it right now.”
Though the team will lose a number of graduating players, there is potential for the team to return a core group of as many as a dozen players for the 2022-‘23 season, Rogers said.
But though the players may return, one thing has changed, he noted.
“Now, expectations go up, because we’ve been there before.”