The team that wasn’t supposed to win anything won everything Sunday night as the Chilliwack Chiefs claimed the first national junior A championship in franchise history.
In front of a packed house at Prospera Centre, with many more watching on TV across Canada, the Chiefs proved all their doubters wrong with a 4-2 win over the Wellington Dukes.
All the people who said they couldn’t compete against the best of the best?
All the people who considered it a joke that a fourth place regular season team and a first round playoff knockout was even in the tournament?
In their locker room, the Chiefs never doubted they could get it done, and they went out on the ice and proved it, supplying the most memorable eight days in Chilliwack hockey history.
“Everyone told us we didn’t deserve it,” said veteran forward Tommy Lee. “From the start of the year until now, every team we played against, every player we played against told us we weren’t a national championship team.
“Just to prove those guys wrong means everything.”
Even in the final, there were people waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Wellington opened the scoring just 90 seconds in, Chilliwack looked awful for the first 12 minutes and you could sense trepidation in the arena.
Kaden Pickering tied the game at 1-1 5:29 into period two, and the near capacity crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief. But then Dukes forward Mitchell Martan scored shorthanded in the final minute of the middle frame and there was worry.
Has the clock struck midnight?
Are the Chiefs turning back into pumpkins?
Will ‘the Deflector’ Calverley did what he’d done five times previously in this tournament, going to the front of the net to tip a Bryan Allbee point shot wrister past Dukes goalie Jonah Capriotti.
Less than four minutes later, Corey Andonovski took a shot from the right faceoff dot, followed it in and poked the rebound between the legs of Capriotti for a 3-2 Chiefs lead.
“Honestly, I was just trying to get a puck on net,” the 19 year old said. “I got a little poke at it and I was fortunate that the puck went through his wickets.”
Andonovski, by the way, was playing with a high ankle sprain, the type of injury that’s been known to keep players sidelined for weeks.
Andonovski watched from the seats Saturday night as his team beat Ottawa 3-2 in the semi-final, and immediately went to head coach Brian Maloney and told him there was no way he was missing the gold medal match.
Not only did he play, he was maybe the best Chief on a night where there were a lot to choose from.
“I noticed it (the injury) a little bit at first when there was the odd kind of wonky step,” Andonovski said. “It was a little painful, but at the end of the day you get the adrenaline going and you can play through just about anything.
“I wasn’t going to let that keep me out of the lineup.”
Back to Lee, who has scored lots of big goals during his two years with the Chiefs, but none bigger than the one he sniped at 12:20.
A Wellington defender turned the puck over to Lee’s linemate PJ Marrocco, who fired a quick pass into the goalmouth. Lee snapped a laser past Capriotti to seal the deal.
Lee was there last year when Chilliwack lost game seven of the BCHL final to Penticton on the same ice surface, and went on to lose at the Western Canada Cup.
He’s thankful he was able to come back for one more season and leave on a much higher note.
“It was a heartbreaker last year, but to come back and win my last game in junior hockey is unbelievable,” the 20 year old said. “To do it for the crowd, to do it with guys like Will Calverley and Anthony Vincent and Powell Connor — guys who were here last year, it was unbelievable to score that goal for them.”
And how about a word for the coach, who has guided a team to a national championship before he even runs his first training camp.
Maloney took over in bizarre circumstances when Jason Tatarnic was let go by the team just days before the start of this tournament.
Thrust into the glare of a very bright spotlight, he never seemed overwhelmed. He was a calming influence for a team that needed a steady hand on the rudder.
“I’m just so proud of the guys, and for us to be able to bring this to this city is fantastic,” the coach said. “For these guys to stick with it through all the ups and downs this year, nothing could bring us more joy than this.
“This is the team that’s been here all year and it was just a matter of getting them all playing together. This doesn’t happen if they don’t buy in, but they did and this is the result.”