Playoff run ends for Fraser Valley Thunderbirds

A loss to Lethbridge in a best-of-three series knocked the T-Birds out of Telus Cup contention.

A game of significant importance took a back seat to tragedy Saturday night as the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds and Lethbridge Hurricanes played with heavy hearts at Prospera Centre in Chilliwack.

Less than 24 hours after a horrific bus accident in Saskatchewan claimed the lives of several members of the junior A Humboldt Broncos, The T-Birds and Lethbridge players came together in a show of unity, forming a circle at center ice.

“At the end of the day, a game of that significance meant nothing, because lives were lost and families were mourning, and it was very challenging to get up for it,” admitted Fraser Valley bench boss Peter Hay.

Minutes later they’d be foes in game two of a best-of-three Pacific Regional series, The T-Birds trying to avoid elimination and Lethbridge fighting for a berth in the Telus Cup national championship tournament.

But for a few moments they were members of one grieving hockey community, struggling to make sense of the senseless.

Linden Plett delivered heartfelt thoughts over the PA system, followed by a moment of silence.

“Linden is a pastor and Abbotsford and he’s been our character/team building coach this year,” Hay said. “He’s there to help build the team up and be there in case something happens and one of our players needs someone to be there for them. He is a very important part of our program and he delivered an outstanding message.”

“And I thought it was great to have the opportunity to interlock with the team you’re about to face, just to show that there are things that are way more important than any one game. No matter how important that game was, it was meaningless compared to what happened in Saskatchewan.”

“I’ve loved how the hockey community has come together through all of this and it’s been good to be a part of it.”

For the players, the game itself may have been a welcome distraction, a chance to lose themselves in the moment, doing something they love.

But for the B.C. Major Midget Hockey League champions, the 6-1 season-ending result only added to a bad day.

The Hurricanes were the better team from start to finish.

Lethbridge had the run of play in period one and scored the only goal off the stick of Chandler Aleman. Dylan Nevil drew the assist, swooping behind the Thunderbird net and saucering a centering pass into the slot where Aleman was able to one-time the puck past Fraser Valley netminder Alex Rolfe at 16:05.

Shots on goal through 20 minutes favoured Lethbridge 12-8.

The Hurricanes continued to pour on the pressure in period two, and led 2-0 through 40 minutes after a power play goal by Ridly Greig.

With Zack Stringer creating chaos in the crease, point man Ronan Seeley slid a pass to Greig, who hammered a one-timer from the right-wing wall that snuck through Rolfe.

The Thunderbirds had their chances to get on the scoreboard, but Lethbridge goalie Byron Fancy was unbeatable.

“I’ve coached a lot of years and I’ve never come across a better coach in my life than (Lethbridge coach) Michael Dyck,” Hay said. “He has his kids buying into a system. Every little thing a coach expects out of their kids, he has got them doing it, and they’re buying in.

“The finest little details were executed to a T, and they did it as a group of five. I just learned a whole new level of coaching from him this weekend and I’m so excited to steal a lot of that stuff he did against us. They looked better than a lot of pro teams do playing systems.

“It was pretty powerful to watch and I’m so excited for next year already.”

Gage Goncalves had the best opportunity on a breakaway from the blueline in. The Mission native tried to go low to the blocker side, but Fancy dropped into the butterfly and made the stop with his right leg. Seconds later, Chilliwack’s Zack Feaver was left uncovered about 12 feet in front of the Lethbridge net. Feaver collected a centering pass and, for a moment, had the entire right side of the cage to shoot at. But his attempt whistled a couple inches wide of the goal post.

The Hurricanes applied the dagger just 50 seconds into period three on a controversial goal by Reece Becker.

Michael Horon started the play, dashing down the right wing with Fraser Valley D-man Emmett Garrett in pursuit. Horton settled for a shot that hit Rolfe up high and caromed into the slot. The puck hit the skate of Becker, who looked as though he may have directed it across the line for the third Lethbridge goal.

Seconds later Stringer fed a centering pass into the goal-mouth for Greig, who snapped a top-shelf shot over Rolfe’s blocker.

The Thunderbirds lost their composure at that point. Abbotsford’s Jake Mulder took a 10-minute misconduct and then, from the penalty box, took another, getting himself tossed from the game.

Chilliwack’s Travis Halliday drew a 10-minute misconduct on the next shift as the unravelling continued.

Horan and Nicholas Draffin scored late goals to wrap up the Lethbridge scoring and Fraser Valley’s Dylan Devers (Chilliwack) snuck a shot through Fancy with 45 seconds remaining in the game for the lone T-Bird goal.

The Thunderbirds went into the game missing two key players, both Chilliwack natives. Hay feels both Jason Bowen (suspended) and Ethan Bowen (injured) would have made a difference had they been available.

“100 per cent, they would have helped with the team speed and the depth we needed to compete at that level,” Hay said. “They’re two of our faster players and Jason adds a lot of grit and grind. Ethan is an offensive threat and missing those two was huge for us.”

The final result still stung Monday morning, but in time Hay feels his players will look back on 2017-18 as a successful season, and perhaps a landmark in Thunderbird history.

“Us winning the league was sort of beyond expectations in many ways,” he said. “We wanted to be competitive, and we set that as a goal every year, but I don’t think anyone totally believed in it until we played in the MAC’s Tournament in Calgary right after Christmas (Dec. 26 to Jan. 1).

“We saw at that tournament that we could step up another level, and we did it consistently once our playoffs started.

“No excuses at the end because Lethbridge was the better team, but at the end of the day our team accomplished great things and they leave a legacy for this program.

“They are champions.”

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