There are plenty of bones to pick with the BCHL’s zany third round playoff format, but the most important one may be the one no one mentions.
Last Thursday night, you would have found Chilliwack Chiefs players hunkered down somewhere, dialing up the radio broadcast or hitting the refresh button on bchl.ca a zillion times.
The Penticton Vees and Nanaimo Clippers were facing off in Nanaimo, holding Chilliwack’s playoff fate in their hands.
The Vees (who have a pretty BIG bone they could pick with the league) traveled 497.3 kilometres to the Frank Crane Arena to play a game that didn’t matter.
To them, at least.
Having already beaten Chilliwack twice in the double round-robin format, they were through to the BCHL final regardless.
Nanaimo had plenty to play for.
A win would get them into the final and save them a 364.2 km round trip to Chilliwack.
One team desperate.
One that didn’t care, and Vees head coach Fred Harbinson admitted as much in his post-game comments after his team fell 2-0.
“We never went into this game with any other intention other than to win the hockey game and that’s how we approach every game, but … you can’t manufacture desperation,” he said. “You’re either in a desperate situation or you’re not.”
Here’s the thing though.
Chilliwack needed Penticton’s best to stay alive, and the situation guaranteed they weren’t going to get it.
In most playoff scenarios, a team gets to look their foes in the eyes before they are eliminated.
If they’re going down, they at least do it on the ice, scratching and clawing to the final whistle.
The Chiefs didn’t get that either.
Their season ended on the out-of-town scoreboard, with all of them helpless to do anything about it.
Worse yet, they didn’t get those sombre moments after the final game, when a team sits silent in the locker room, sad and reflective, coming to grips with their hockey mortality.
They didn’t get closure.
After losing 5-2 in Penticton last Tuesday night the Chiefs would have known that they faced an extremely steep uphill climb to the final.
Because they lost 7-3 to Nanaimo in the third round opener, they would have needed to beat the Clips twice in a row, including once on the road.
They knew that.
But they couldn’t say it, acknowledging that their season was on life support after that game in Penticton.
Saying that would have been admitting defeat when defeat wasn’t certain, and hockey players don’t do that.
So they would have sat in that locker room in Penticton.
Someone, probably captain Eric Roberts, would have been the first to say, “We’re not done yet boys!”
“There’s still hope!” another would have added, trying to rally the troops.
Maybe they even believed it, because hockey players are stubborn that way.
Regardless, closure was postponed indefinitely.
And maybe, on the surface, that doesn’t seem so bad.
If you’ve never been around a locker room after an elimination game, count yourself lucky because it sucks. Tears flow and voices crack as comrades in arms sit together for one last time.
But in the same way we grieve over a lost loved one, these young men need this moment. Because 20 years from now, it’s not the games they remember. It’s the friendships and time spent together, hours on buses and in locker rooms.
They need to say goodbye.
This time next fall many of these Chiefs will be flung around the continent.
David Jacobson in Arizona.
Roberts and Luke McColgan in Alaska.
Jake Hand in Michigan.
Tipper Higgins in New York.
Scott Davidson in Connecticut and Craig Puffer in Vermont.
Twenty year olds Brandon Tkachuk and Jake Larson graduated from junior A.
Nine guys for certain who won’t be back and maybe more when the dust settles.
Sure, they probably found a way to get together one more time before they dispersed. And yes, tears probably flowed and voices probably cracked.
But it’s not the same.
It can’t be.
No team is ever closer than they are in those final moments.
Only then, after an elimination game do they truly get that sense of finality.
Only then does raw emotion hammer home the truth.
It’s time to say goodbye.