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Joint Whitehorse Yellowknife squad surprises teams at Tier 1 tourney

Members of rival territorial rep hockey teams joined forces last week.

Members of rival territorial rep hockey teams joined forces last week.

Top players from the Whitehorse Mustangs and Yellowknife Wolfpack teamed up for some AAA level hockey at the Dallas Saunders Memorial Tier 1 Bantam Tournament in Abbotsford. They surprised some people, said Whitehorse’s Carl Burgess, assistant coach/manager of the team.

“We know we were scouted to come in at the bottom of the tournament,” said Burgess. “The expectation was this team was a quaint opportunity for northerners, but they really made a dent in it and turn some heads.”

“It was so successful, we’re going to look if this is a program we can expand,” he added.

The Whitehorse-Yellowknife high performance team tied for third out of 12 teams at the premier tournament that included hockey academy and U.S. teams.

They lost a tight semifinal to the eventual gold medal winning team.

“It’s a new thing. There have been very few of these joint tournament teams,” said Burgess. “You can put them together on a temporary basis and there have been very few of them. It was a little more work to put together than we had expected, but it was well worth it.

“The kids performed outstanding together.”

The North of 60 elite squad featured eight skaters and two goalies from Yellowknife and eight skaters from Whitehorse. The coaching staff was also mixed with Whitehorse’s Martin Lawrie as head coach and Yellowknife’s Brad Anstey as an assistant coach. (Burgess coached the defence and Anstey the forwards.)

All the forward lines were mixed, as were the defensive pairs.

“It was cool. They put the team together and we had two practices - one of Thursday, one on Friday - and it seemed like we clicked right away,” said centre Bryce Anderson of Whitehorse. “We knew where each other was on the ice and as the tournament went on we just got better and better.”

There were some hatchets buried leading up to the tournament. For the last three seasons the Mustangs and Wolfpack, which are both Tier 3 teams, have faced each other in numerous tournaments and exhibition series. The rivalry extends into the Arctic Winter Games and the Canada Winter Games in the form of Yukon versus N.W.T.

“When you’re on the ice (against) them you think of them as enemies, but once you get to know the guys you really start bonding with them,” said Anderson. “It’ll be a lot different game next time we play them.”

Anderson, who was playing between Yellowknife wingers Connor Flemming and Austin Daniels, had plenty of success with his new line. He logged four goals in a 6-4 win over West Vancouver’s Hollyburn Huskeys in the round robin and was a primary scorer throughout the tournament.

“I have to give some credit to my linemates, they were working hard all weekend,” said Anderson. “They got me the puck in good spots so I was able to finish on a lot of chances and do the same for them.”

The Whitehorse-Yellowknife team opened with a 5-5 tie against the Wild from Delta Hockey Academy.

Following the win over Hollyburn they downed the Coquitlam Chiefs 6-3 to place third in their pool.

The mixed team then beat Delta a 5-3 loss to reach the semifinal where they lost 5-3 to the Prince George Cougars, who sealed the deal with an empty-netter.

The joint team wouldn’t have been at the tournament if not for the Whitehorse club. Last season’s Bantam Mustangs team garnered attention beating Tier 1 teams during the season and was granted a spot at the tournament. While they didn’t make the playoffs in Abbotsford, they did prove to organizers there are some top-level players up north. (The Bantam Mustangs went on to become the first Yukon rep team ever to win gold at the B.C. Hockey Championships last March.)

“The tournament organizers said that the kids did so well - they represented Yukon and Whitehorse so well - Abbotsford gave us an open invitation,” said Burgess.

“Last year’s bantam team had a special level of depth and players that we usually don’t see. Every year in the small market of northern teams there’s always a handful of players who can play at a top-tier level, but not always a full team with the depth required for six to eight two-hour games in a weekend.”

While proving the North has hockey skills is all fine and dandy, premier tournaments like the Dallas Saunders provide an opportunity for players to showcase their skills in front of scouts. There could be as many as two-dozen scouts for leagues like the WHL and BCHL in the stands for any given game, said Burgess. Players were required to submit information packages for scouts.

“A handful of the boys got invites and notice from junior A teams,” said Burgess. “For most of the team it was their first time playing AAA hockey.”

“You know they’re there, but you don’t really want to get that into your head,” said Anderson. “You just go out there and focus on doing whatever you can for the team.”

While just under half the players were from Whitehorse, the joint team ended up donning Team Yukon jerseys on the ice. You have to wear something, said Burgess. “We were going to wear our Yukon jerseys with the big ‘Y’ - the closest we could get for standing for Yukon and Yellowknife at the same time.”

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