The Bisons’ trail in T-Bay

Grace, poise and dignity define the presence of the University of Manitoba Bisons men’s hockey team at the 2010 Cavendesh University Cup in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Day one: the little rollercoaster that could

Going into the final period behind by a score of 4-1 would be enough to make most teams stick a fork in themselves declaring, “We’re done,” but as the Bisons have proven repeatedly this season, perseverance is the name of their game.

The University of McGill Redmen scored twice in the first period off of goals by Guillaume Doucet at 2:10 and Sebastien Rioux at 13:21. The Bisons’ Kyle Howarth responded with a goal of his own 38 seconds into the second frame. Alexandre Picard-Hooper responded for the Redmen with a goal at 55 seconds into the second, and Simon Marcotte Legare snapped one in at 16:04 of the same frame.

According to forward Ian Duval, “We had a little bit more zone time [in the second period]. Mike [Sirant] was telling us in the room that we did a pretty good job in the first. We got our legs going and I think we took over in the second and it carried on into the third.”

In the second period, the Bisons’ ability to create short handed scoring chances was strong. Fourth-year Bison forward Nolan Waker came painfully close several times in this situation, but thanks to the goalpost, the puck stayed out. Even so, McGill goaltender Hubert Morin’s confidence wavered, setting the stage for a heart-stopping final frame.

The Bisons stampeded back in the third, thanks in part to the outstanding goaltending of Steve Christie.

“Steve [Christie] always gives us a chance to win, and more,” said head coach Mike Sirant.
“The award he won the other night was so deserving.”

The scoring stampede began at 3:55 of the third when Howarth potted his second of the game, and the momentum continued as left winger Mike Hellyer scored at 16:42 in the third, bringing the Bisons within one point.

Head coach Mike Sirant opted to pull Christie from the net in favour of the extra attacker, and the gamble paid off as Duval slammed in the equalizer with 4.8 seconds left in regulation.

1:51 into the extra frame, Hellyer scored his second of the night, giving the Bisons the win.

“It was just a hard working goal,” recalled Hellyer, who was named Bison player of the game, about his game winning goal.

“We won the draw, and our centreman Cal [Wild] made a great hit on the forecheck to loosen up the puck. That kind of started the whole play. He threw it over to Ian [Duval], who’s had good vision all year, and he fed me in the slot, and I just wanted to get the puck in the net as quick as I could.”

Hellyer chuckled, “I couldn’t really tell you what happened after that. For the first five seconds as I was getting mauled by 20 guys!”

“In the many years I’ve been coaching, that’s one of the most character wins I’ve had the privilege to be a part of,” said Sirant.

“That’s why we chose this particular group. Right from day one, we were looking for good people with character and heart, and would prevail in championship playoffs. Their belief is there, their confidence, and their heart. That’s what wins us hockey games.”

Another factor in the game was the “seventh player,” as several dedicated Bison fans, some coming in from as far as British Columbia, made the pilgrimage out to Thunder Bay.

Said Sirant, “The first thing I did, personally, after we scored, was look up to the crowd and see the celebration there, and we’re glad we were able to do that not only for ourselves, but also for the people who have supported us all year and who came out to support us tonight.”

The tune sung by McGill Redmen’s head coach Jim Webster, was much different.

“It’s the ultimate agony of defeat,” Webster moaned in the press conference.

“We’ve been working towards this national championship all season, and it can’t get worse than this.”

In the evening game, the University of Alberta Golden Bears won over the University of Trois Rivieres Les Patriotes by a final score of 4-2, giving both Canada West conference teams Friday off.

Day two: day off

The McGill Redmen’s hopes to go on to the final were dashed when the University of Saint Mary’s Huskies came from behind in a similar manner to the Bisons with a final score of 4-2. With the win the previous afternoon, the Bisons had the opportunity to relax. Other than some of the players attending the UQTR/Lakehead game (which saw the host team come away with the 7-2 victory), they stayed away from the business of hockey.

Day three: grace under fire

The Saint Mary’s Huskies handed the Bisons a 5-0 loss. They kept the Bisons offense at bay, with the final shots being 31 for the Huskies and 19 for the Bisons. The Huskies kept the Bisons to the outside of their zone, not allowing the Bisons’ offence any room, keeping up this style of play throughout the Bisons’ power plays and obliterating any advantage the Bisons might have had.

Post-game, Huskies’ head coach Trevor Stienberg said, “I think in a tournament like this, we are not five goals better than [the Bisons]. We rushed them and tried to take their time and space. We were committed to just dumping the puck in and not giving them any momentum.”

“You’ve got to give Saint Mary’s credit, they played a great hockey game,” said Sirant.

“Right from the start, they came up very aggressively with their forecheck, and were deserved winners tonight. Obviously, we don’t like the score. We were a little hesitant at the start of the game, and that could be from a lack of experience playing in a national championship.”

“Not one time did any of our players start getting on each other or laying out frustrations on another teammate,” Sirant proudly declared. “That is why we’ve been successful this year. We’ve had great team chemistry. We didn’t let any of our frustrations spill out negatively. We just stuck together and said, ‘We’re not quitting.’ We kept going out there each shift, trying the best that we could.”

Leading to the question about how the Bisons will use the experience to build on for the 2010-2011 season:

“We lose very few players,” said Sirant. “There is very little turnover this year. We have three five-year players, Rick Wood, Dave Brown and Kip Workman. There’s always uncertainly with some fourth year players, depending on their studies, but we’ve got an excellent core to build on for next year.”

Bison captain Calin Wild said returning Bisons will “just use it as a learning experience. We know every game is going to be tough, and every game is a must-win. Just knowing what it takes to win, getting the pucks through and trying to open up some space for yourself.”

That evening, the Saint Mary’s Huskies’ opponent for the championship final was decided, as the University of Alberta Golden Bears won over the hosting University of Lakehead Thunderwolves 5-3.

Day four: home stretch

Although many Bisons opted to head back to Winnipeg, some stayed to watch the championship game between the University of Saint Mary’s Huskies and the University of Alberta Golden Bears. It was a very defensive match, which saw few goals on the clock and both goaltenders putting on clinics at their respective ends of the ice. The final score was Huskies 3, Golden Bears 2.