Prior to Monday night, I can’t recall the last time I was truly nervous or stressed watching a sporting event. I’ve covered championship games, and had the pleasure of calling a few, but when you’re calling the game you are working and focused on the task.
Being in the stands, engrossed in the game is much different, and to be honest, it is more fun. More stressful, but more enjoyable.
This past Sunday and Monday I was at the Art Hauser Centre in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, for games six and seven of the WHL Championship. The place was electric both nights, but the nervous anticipation and stress was double on Monday for game seven.
My nephew, Noah Gregor, plays for the Prince Albert Raiders. I’ve watched him play hockey since he was seven. I’ve watched him and his brother, and my sister’s three boys play hockey for the past 15 years. It was always fun to just sit back and enjoy the moments. From Initiation to Novice to Atom into Peewee then Bantam, Midget and junior for two of them. I never got caught up in the outcome of a game in Novice, or Bantam. It was simply about having fun.
The atmosphere in the old barn in Prince Albert was incredible even an hour before puck drop. When the doors opened, fans rushed in to claim their position in the standing-room-only area.
I saw people carrying in milk crates, a few saw horses, and I even saw a guy with a six-foot ladder. Standing room was three rows deep, and if you are short you couldn’t see. These fans were veterans. They knew where they wanted to stand and came prepared.
The Raiders last won a WHL title in 1985. That was their only appearance in the WHL final until this season. That is a long run of frustration for a community-owned team. They still play in the same arena, but it has had a few upgrades over the past 34 years. Now there is a 400-person lounge on the second floor, and it was jammed an hour before the game and throughout. It remained open in the third period and into overtime. What a concept: let fans buy a beer before overtime.
I drove to Prince Albert on Sunday with my five-year-old son Beckett and my 13-year-old nephew, Owen. The plan was to watch the Raiders win game six, celebrate, and we’d drive home early Monday so I’d be back in time to host my radio show. The Vancouver Giants had other plans. They won game six. I decided to extend my stay at the hotel, extend my car rental and arrange for Jason Strudwick to fill in as host.
Struds won two WHL titles and two Memorial Cups with the Kamloops Blazers in 1994 and 1995. He was glad to fill in so I could stay for game seven.
We spent Monday playing at the skate park, watching videos and then playing at another park. I wasn’t nervous during the day, but when I walked into the rink the excitement started to build.
Fans were amped up. I immediately sensed a palpable level of nervousness. This was our second trip to PA during these playoffs, and my son liked to watch the Raiders warm up. He stood right by the glass in the Raiders’ end. Noah skated by one time, and pointed his stick at him. Beckett was thrilled.
We then made our way to our seats. My brother likes to be in the attacking zone (for two periods) and we had great seats in section 3. (There are 20 sections in the rink, numbered 1-20.)
When the Raiders emerged from the dressing room the cheering amplified. Everyone belted out the National anthem. “Go Raiders Go” echoed through the building for the first three minutes of play. My sister-in-law bought Beckett a horn when we came in round three v. the Oil Kings. He loved his mini-pirate horn, and thankfully the fans around us didn’t mind him blowing it for ten minutes straight to start the game.
Both teams were tentative in the first period. Each had nine shots, but no dangerous scoring chances and it was 0-0 after 20 minutes. Many of the kids played mini-sticks at various locations of the rink during intermission. WHL playoffs are great, but for young kids mini-sticks are equally important.
Watching those kids slide all over the floor brought a big smile to my face. “Dad, I forgot my mini-stick,” said my son dejectedly.
The crowd took their cheering to a new level. When Ian Scott made a save chants of “Scottie, Scottie,” echoed through the building. With each passing second the anxiety heightened. Every shot had you on the edge of your seat.
Milos Roman opened the scoring 4:45 into the second period finishing off a great pass from Bowen Byram. Byram is a marvel to watch. He is so damn good. He is the best WHL defender I’ve seen since Scott Niedermayer. He skates like Niedermayer, holds onto the puck like Sergei Zubov in the offensive zone, and has the aggressive side of Drew Doughty. He is still 17. He turns 18 on June 13th. There is a lot of hype around Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, and rightfully so, but Byram should receive the same hype. In the future I won’t be surprised at all if people look at him as the best player in the draft. He will be a legit #1 defender and he will play 25+ minutes/night. He has so much confidence and moxie to his game and he is only 17. Unreal.
At the ensuing faceoff Raiders fans chanted “Let’s go Raiders.” Trying everything to urge their team on. Beckett blew his horn in unison with the words.
The pace picked up and the teams exchanged chances, and ten minutes later the place erupted.
I haven’t jumped out of my seat in a long time, but I did here. The AHC went nuts. My brother and I high-fived. His face was a complete joy. Beckett was yelling and screaming. I think what he loved best about being at these games was he could yell and scream, blow his horn endlessly and never get in trouble.
The period ended tied at one. I needed the intermission to relax. Beckett wanted to go sit in the red car in the lobby. And have fries and ketchup. He was calm. My brother went and had a beer. I should have had one. I needed it.
Everyone was back in their seats with four minutes left in intermission. No one wanted to miss a moment. The stress was building. Twenty minutes, or maybe more, to decide the WHL champion. Players work all year for this, and now the dreams come down to 20 minutes. I’m still hating my decision not to have a beer.
Period starts and once again the crowd ratchets up their cheering. Louder and longer. The announcer encourages them to keep cheering, but they didn’t need it. Many had been waiting 34 years, and they weren’t going away quietly.
Their loyalty got rewarded 4:25 into the third period.
Pandemonium again. My brother almost broke my hand when he high-fived me. Fans remained standing for two minutes. After we sat down Beckett looked at me, “Dad, who scored that goal?” He was cheering like a wild kid, but didn’t know who scored. He didn’t care. When I told him Noah scored he smiled, then quickly went back to blowing his horn.
Two and a half minutes later the Raiders take a penalty. “That’s a %$&#ing weak call,” I muttered to myself. I was a true fan again, questioning the officials. After the initial reaction, I tried to rationalize and think, yeah it probably was a trip. But I didn’t like it.
Bowen came on and this kid can cause a heart attack for opposing fans. He is so poised with the puck. The Giants didn’t score with him on the ice, but with 19 seconds remaining they tied the game. Roman again.
For the first time all night the rink is quiet, except for the Giants fans and parents.
There was 11:30 to play and the game is tied at two. My stomach was in knots. I took a few deep breaths. Beckett sat down for one of the few times in the game. It was like a punch to the gut, but the fans recovered and at the ensuing faceoff they voiced their support with another “Let’s Go Raiders,” chant.
The teams exchanged chances, and the Raiders rugged defender Zack Hayes found himself all alone in the slot with less than two minutes remaining, but just missed the net. He was going far side. I thought he was going to win the game right there. How unreal would that have been, I thought. The defensive stalwart all season gets the winner. I love those kinds of stories.
The buzzer went. Overtime. Just writing this I can feel that anxiousness again. All fans have felt it. It is equally great, equally awful. You almost feel like you will throw up. Sports are so awesome. There are very few things in life that evoke emotion like this, and I could see the anguish and excitement on the face of every fan.
I decided not to have a beer. I didn’t have one the previous intermission and the Raiders scored first. I’m not even a superstitious guy, yet here I was telling myself my not-drinking a beer will somehow impact the game. It is preposterous to think this way, but I did. I laugh about it now.
I was emotionally drained and the period hadn’t started. I hadn’t felt like this in such a long time. I loved it.
The period started and the crowd was urging on their Raiders.
The cheers grew louder.
The drama builds.
The teams exchanged chances, and at the 14:27 mark of the extra period draft eligible forward Brett Leason took a penalty. The puck rolled up on edge just before he was about to shoot it out of the zone and it flew into the mesh. Delay of game Raiders.
The refs huddled to discuss if it went off a stick. It didn’t.
“Come on PK,” I say quietly. This is not the way a championship game should end. The next two minutes were excruciating. The Raiders managed to kill it off. I spoke to Leason on the ice after the game. “Longest two minutes of my life,” he said.
I leaned back in my seat. Took a deep breath and re-charged. I could’ve used a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I hear they calm your nerves.
We entered into the final two minutes of OT and I planned to change my strategy and get a beer this intermission. Screw the superstition. I need a beer.
I never got that beer.
Dante Hannoun scored the winner with 1:35 remaining in OT. Noah found him wide open in front. The Raiders bench piled onto the ice. The place exploded. I pick up Beckett so he can see as I jumped up and down with him on my arm/shoulder. He high-fived fans all around us. He was screaming. I was hollering. My brother was grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Unreal.
The drought is over for Raiders fans. I can only imagine how Edmonton Oilers fans will react when their current 29-year drought ends. Or possibly St. Louis Blues or San Jose Sharks fans this season.
There was no knot in my stomach. I suddenly was not tired. Instantly all that nervousness was gone. I put Beckett down and we watched the ceremony. A few minutes later I looked over at him and he was crying. What’s wrong I ask? “I’m going to miss the Raiders. This was the best night ever.” I picked him up and consoled him. He is only five so his tears only last a few seconds, but it reminded me why I love sports. They create emotions. They make us feel, and when we feel we are alive.
I watched the boys mob each other. I saw some fans with tears of joy in their eyes. In a section over a gentleman in his 60s was sitting in his seat. Just taking it all in.
After we watched Noah skate around with the Cup we made our way down to the Raiders bench. I’m not great at capturing moments in pictures or on video, just ask my wife, but when we were on the bench I pulled out my phone and caught a video of Colin and Noah.
I saw so many players with their parents, or their billets, who are like second parents. Sharing success with those who helped you reach your goals makes it even better.
A few minutes later, I was standing by the bench, Beckett was running all over the ice. He thinks it is awesome he gets to go out there. Hulking defender for the Raiders Jeremy Masella skates over. I introduced myself and congratulated him. Masella is a classic, rugged, stay-at-home, third pairing defender. Selfless player. Due to an injury to Max Martin, Masella was promoted to the second pairing in this series. He played way more and he was excellent. I told him so, and he said thanks.
I’d never met him before and we spoke for a bit. I learned he is from Arizona. Chasing his dream in small town Saskatchewan. He couldn’t be in a better spot. His parents were in Vancouver for games 3-5, but weren’t here tonight. They hoped the Raiders would win so they could go to the Memorial Cup. Not every parent can be at these games. They have other kids, or jobs, and in that moment you realize the families that were there are really lucky.
The celebration continued on the ice. We took some photos and then I had to get Beckett to bed. It was 11:15. He usually is in bed at 7:30.
As we walked to the car he says to me, “Dad, I want to be a hockey player. Maybe one day I will win a trophy and score two goals.”
I hope he does, but mainly I hope he remembers the feeling of Monday night.
A very select few are good enough to play in the WHL, NCAA, USports or pro hockey, but we can all be fans.
And being a fan is awesome. I don’t get to be one very often, and that is okay, I love my job, but Monday was incredible.
Thank you to the Giants and Raiders for making the game so intense.
And to Noah, your performance made it a bit more special. Good luck at the Memorial Cup.
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