This was the year; hopes were high that it would win it all.
It would have been sweet, the Whitehorse Mustangs winning the AA midget BC provincial championships in front of a hometown crowd.
Eight of the best AA midget teams from BC won their way to these championships, which were last held in Whitehorse in 1990.
The Yukon’s team always gets a bye, but this year, many believe it earned its spot and had a good chance of winning.
With a gold-medal win at the Arctic Winter Games last week, the Mustangs had plenty of momentum coming into the tournament.
But a few bad bounces and some undisciplined players dashed those hopes.
Wednesday night, the home team lost 7-3 to Winfield Bruins.
Three straight losses to Aldergrove, Quesnel and Winfield put the Mustangs chances of making the semi-finals at zero.
Tuesday morning’s opening game against Aldergrove was a tough 5-3 loss, with the Mustangs giving up an empty-netter in the last minute.
“Typically, the first game is our worst in a tournament, and we claw our way back into it,” said Mustangs’ coach Joe Martin.
No such luck that evening, against Quesnel, as the Mustangs squandered a 4-1 lead, eventually losing 6-5 amid some questionable calls.
Martin estimated that his team took 34 minutes of penalties in the last seven minutes of play.
Frustration with the officials boiled over, and Mustangs’ Shane McHugh and starting goalie Ian Perrier were both given three-game suspensions for verbally abusing the referees.
“They lost control … they regret it, but it happened and we lost them,” said coach Mike Young.
The Mustangs’ roster of skaters is quite deep; with several healthy scratches every game. But with Perrier gone, all net minding duties fell on Mitch Heynen.
His first period between the pipes on Wednesday was shaky; he allowed three goals in the first 10 minutes. “It’s tough on a guy like Mitch,” said Young. “He hasn’t played much. Those nerves can get in the way.”
Heynen settled down, and Whitehorse started to take control of the puck. Aaron Pettitt scored, which seemed to bolster the team. The first period ended on a sour note though, as Winfield scored again in the last minute.
“We knew we were in a hole,” Young said about his team’s mood heading into the second. “We weren’t really paying attention to the scoreboard at that point; we just wanted to go out there and outwork them.”
There were chances, but the Mustangs couldn’t buy a goal. A hit crossbar and a late-whistle no-goal added to the frustration.
Whitehorse dominated the puck, but Winfield caught a lucky bounce and increased its lead to 5-1.
The Mustangs’ kept most of the third. Chris Gleason and Lowell Johnston scored, but it wasn’t enough to get back into the game. Two Winfield goals put the game away for good.
“We’re definitely frustrated, and a little disheartened,” said Young after the game. “Sometimes it’s about bounces … they got a couple lucky goals, and their goalie made some big saves.”
Whitehorse hockey fans came out to support the team, and made plenty of noise, even when they were down. Young said his team appreciates the hometown support, “It’s too bad we couldn’t give them a better show.”
After Wednesday’s loss, Martin and defenceman Josh Craven sat on the player’s bench in the empty arena, the rest of the team already off to the locker room.
They weren’t commiserating, but reflecting on a memorable season.
“It’s been a great year,” said Martin. “This team is really together, how much they respect each other, how much they love to play together.”
For some Mustang players, this will be the last chance to play with this team, and maybe the end of their competitive hockey careers.
Craven, Chris Gleason and JJ Stuckey are just a few players that are moving on. “Provincials is always a goal for us, but our main goal is to develop these players, ” said Martin.
Talented players make sacrifices by staying in Whitehorse to play, most notably missing out on exposure to scouts and competing in tougher southern leagues.
Looking ahead to next year, Martin is optimistic.
“We have the capability to be a strong team every year,” he said. “I’ve noticed some good players in bantam, peewee and atom coming up.”
There won’t be much rest for these players, as next season’s Canada Games team will be composed of first-year midgets and some bantams, and the trials are scheduled for April, with their first tournament in June.
“The season never ends at this level,” laughed Martin.