Who would have thought the high point of the Whitehorse Huskies AAA hockey team’s season, it’s first season in 16 years, would be the season opener in November, beating the Powell River Regals 4-2?
Not only did the Huskies get their only win of the season that game, 770 fans were in attendance the one night, compared to the 514 fans attending the three games this past weekend at Takhini Arena.
“There was not nearly enough people supporting us this weekend, which was unfortunate,” said Huskies head coach Randy Merkel. “We were hoping for a bigger crowd, but we pretty much had to have it this weekend, with people getting time off of work and so all the players could make it.”
Playing the Regals in a best-of-five game series to get to the Allan Cup, Canada’s AAA senior men championship, the Huskies were swept in three games, losing 10-5 Thursday, 6-2 Friday and 3-1 Saturday.
As the scores indicate, with nine Outside players flying in for the series, it took a while for the Huskies to gel as a team on the ice.
“We progressively got better as the series went on, and that shows our lack of playing as a team together all year long,” said Huskies goalie Cory McEachran, a two-time Allan Cup winner with the Lloydminster Border Kings. “We were starting to figure each other out by the third game.
“It’s AAA hockey – every team needs imports,” added McEachran. “This is the best of the best that aren’t playing pro and no team across Canada does it with just local guys.”
“We’re disappointed,” said Huskies captain Derek Johnstone. “I thought we were a little closer than the score showed. They have a good team, but I think we were closer than that.
“We would have like to push it to four or five games and have a better shot than that. But I think it was good for our team and we know what we need to do now.”
Having to pay the travel and accommodation costs of the visiting Regals, the Huskies club were put in a financial hole because of the low attendance of the games, a problem that has plagued the team for most of the season. With mounting debt and a lack of major sponsorship, whether the team will have another season is far from certain.
“To be honest, we’re not really sure right now (if we will continue next season),” said Merkel. “We have to let the dust settle. There’s going to be a debt and we’re going to have to see what that debt is, from there we’ll have to work on paying it off and looking towards next year.
“In the long run it comes down to corporate sponsorship,” continued Merkel. “We’ve laid the foundation for the team, but we need that kind of thing to happen. If (we get a corporate sponsorship) we’ll be around next year, if we don’t, then we won’t be. Without proper sponsorship it just won’t happen.
“I think people can see this is good for the community and a lot of people want to see it continue.”
For Johnstone and McEachran, two of the Huskies’ top local players, if there is a team next season, they hope to be on it.
“You bet,” said McEachran, when asked if he would return. “This is my home now. Randy has put in too much work to let it flop next year – we’re not going to let it flop. This is just the starting; the Huskies are here to stay.”
“We’ll see how everything pans out this summer,” said Johnstone. “If there is a team, we have some good sponsorships and everything is looking good, then I’ll stay (on as captain). I’ll be around, that’s for sure.”
Although the final score was lopsided, Thursday’s game had two periods of close play, with the Huskies twice erasing two-goal leads by the Regals. Eventually getting a hat trick, Johnstone scored the Huskies opening goals, assisted by new recruit Kris Mattis out of Kamloops, BC.
“I thought those two belonged together,” said Merkel. “I saw Derek get inspired. Kris is a very good hockey player and very similar to Derek in style, and he could shoot, score and all the rest of it.
“I put those two together and they hit it off.”
Also scoring for the Huskies were Outside player Brandon Fleenor and Kristian Jefkins, while Lucas Fransen and Ryan Esselmont, also Outside recruits, each had two assists.
Scoring for the Huskies Friday were Mattis and local player Robbie Wells.
“I thought our local guys really rose up and joined this level of play,” said Merkel. “Derek (Johnstone) of course, Robbie Wells did really well, (Graham) Belak and (Kirk) Gale played very well.
“Cory (McEachran) had a really good game on Saturday. He struggled a little bit in the first two games, but it was really difficult because we didn’t give him much help.”
Scoreless in the first two periods on Saturday, Jefkins scored to make it 3-1 in the third, deflecting a shot through the five-hole from Gale on the power play. However, the Regals also made use of the extra-man, scoring all their goals on power plays, including in a minute and 36 seconds of a two-man advantage in the first period.
“The overall discipline factor came into play again; we took too many penalties,” said Merkel. “The power plays at this level, even if they don’t score, they have to puck for the full two minutes.
“Getting goals on the board was our trouble again; we just can’t score.”
The Huskies team, which at the time included both Merkel and assistant coach Jay Glass as players, dissolved 16 years ago after winning the Allan Cup. The team was resurrected in the fall with the help of former owner and player Clayton Thomas, who decided to leave the team and give up ownership early in the season. Also playing series against the Fort St. John Flyers, the host of this year’s Allan Cup, and the Paradise Hill Hawks out of Saskatchewan, the Huskies ended the season with a 1-10 record.
“The first year is always tough,” said Merkel. “We came a long way from where we were and made some huge strides, so we have to be happy about that part of things.
“There have been some really good players who’ve come forward and expressed interest in playing for us.
“The foundation has been laid and we’ve come a long way in one year.”
Contact Tom Patrick at email@example.com