Earlier this past week I had an opportunity to listen to my broadcast partner Tyler Bennett's interview with Alex Rawnsley (Voice of PR Kings) on The Powell River Kings Weekly Radio Show. While listening, I heard Alex pose that question most of us Grizzlies fans have been struggling with all year: So just who are these Grizzlies, what is their team identity? Tyler gave a good answer, but in the end he had to admit that even he wasn't sure what to say about the team's full identity. Funny enough though, one word he didn't use in the interview was the word "brave".
Tonight that word "brave", just kept coming at me all night. Its kind of been a theme of the team all week, but more on that later. That term brave just sort of kept coming up as I watched the Grizzlies take the ice and stare down the Penticton Vees. The Grizzlies stood right up to those talent laden Penticton Vees, just days after the Vees were announced as the CJHL's top team in the country in Monday's newly released national rankings. Then I looked over at the Grizzlies, a team who score a bit less, a team who don't yet have a large number of highly coveted future NHL draft prospects, a team made up of very solid BCHL players, but few who would make you immediately take national level notice.
Brave indeed you would have to be in order to take on a team like Penticton and actually think that you stood a chance. I thought I noticed it, ever so slightly in some of my pre-game conversations with a few of the Grizzlies players. There were maybe just a few more than usual pre-game nerves I thought I noticed and who could blame them? Heck they were playing the Penticton Vees, a team which was 16-2 with a +50 goal differential going into action at The Q Centre last night. If it were me, I would be way more than nervous, I'd likely be visiting the washroom more than once or twice if I was asked to face the mighty leaders of the BCHL.
Maybe it was that song which our video man, Roy Anthonisen chose for his YouTube video of the team this week as they visited the Canadian Navy's elite divers at FDU(P). In the video each player participates in the dreaded and painful morning swim to the music "We Are The Brave". I am not sure, but for whatever reason, all night as I watched the Grizzlies withstand rush after rush by Penticton, attack after attack, hit after hit, I kept thinking of that melody in Roy's video: We are The Brave, We are the Brave.
And brave they were, right from the opening faceoff. The Grizzlies went right at the Vees from the get go. They didn't sit back, instead they attacked the Vees immediately. And the Grizzlies were soon rewarded after a fine bit of play from the Jay Mackie, Dane Gibson and Matt Kennedy line as all three were buzzing around the Vees' net. After a forced turnover, Matt Kennedy scored his 7th of the campaign on a beautiful move off the far corner boards and straight into the slot with a wrister that leaked between the pads of Vees net minder Brendan Barry. 1-0 Grizzlies!
Only moments later, the newly assembled line of P.J. Conlon, Mitch Barker and Storm Wahlrab struck. It started as big #27 took out two Vees at the point, allowing space for Barker to steal the puck off the stick of a hapless Gabe Bast, and smartly passed it to his nimble Centre, Conlon who's quick wrister found the back of the net. 2-0 Grizzlies! Storm Wahlrab didn't pick up a point on the play, but the space he made by hammering the two Vees players at the blue line delayed any Vees help in front of the Penticton net and gave Conlon all the time in the world to snap home his 4th of the year.
It was starting to look like Deja Vu all over again, with yet another big Grizzlies lead materializing early in a 1st period. It looked even more like pervious games when the Grizzlies took a late penalty in the period, Ayden MacDonald receiving a charging call and on the ensuing PP, the Vees finally striking. On the play, Vees defenseman Mike Lee sent a 100 foot breakout pass right down the centre of the ice, splitting the four Grizzlies penalty killers and found an all alone Jack Ramsay. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect would not disappoint, as he picked up the pass at the blue line and streaked in all alone, firing a long wrist shot which beat Michael Stiliadis on the blocker side. It was a PP goal, for Ramsey's and his 5th goal of the year as the two teams retired at the end of the first period with the Grizzlies holding a slim but nonetheless impressive 2-1 lead.
Just a minute into Period #2 the Vees would strike again off a strange deflection from in front of the net. Riley Alferd would somehow deflect a harmless looking Patrick Sexton shot from the point and the score was suddenly 2-2. At that point you were thinking, oh boy, here we go, here come the Vees, but Victoria would not back down. They were brave once again, they stood up and said no, not tonight, not on my watch. That takes guts.
Brett Gruber would answer at the 1:22 minute mark of the same period just moments after the Vees had equalized. A smart pinch by Shawn McBride kept the puck in the zone and after Brett Gruber was able to get the puck behind the net to Cole Pickup, the Victoria native was able to make a perfect pass across the Vees' crease to find an open Garrett Forster. Forster then tipped the puck back again to McBride who finally found the forgotten Brett Gruber alone on the side of the net and it was too easy for Gruber who quickly dispatched his team leading 8th of the year, 3-2 Grizzlies! You could almost hear the music. We are The Brave, We are The Brave!
The scary moment of the evening would happen halfway through that second period as #25, Quinn Thompson, with his head down and defenseless, would take a huge hit as he tried to rush the puck up the right boards and out of the zone. He would quickly rise to his feet and minus a glove, he would head straight to the Change Room and not return in the contest. That took guts, major guts.
But bravery won't help you if you are down a man all night and a Roughing penalty to Cody Van Lierop late in the 2nd period would create the opportunity for the Vees to draw level. But the tying goal did not come without what this sports writer thought at the times was major, although mostly unnoticed controversy. As it turned out I was wrong on the broadcast and the keep in at the point by Bast was well executed and completely devoid of any help from the bench. At the time however, it sure looked like Bast had some help from many pairs of hands on the bench. After Brett Gruber's clearance from the corner was legally batted down by Bast, the puck would be passed around the Grizzlies end by a number of Vees. Then Bast once again was in a position to be able to sneak into the slot and bury a one time shot past Stiliadis.
Sounds like a good time for some more bravery and resilience by the Grizzlies. Enter Micheal Stiliadis.
The Victoria net minder put on an absolute clinic in the 3rd period, turning back shot after shot and leaving a lot of Vees players scratching their heads. It was pay back for the Vees bench "Hand Ball" in the 2nd period. On countless occasions, Stiliadis would stretch out to block shots and flail his body in all directions, each time turning away the Vees attack. As the seconds ticked down you could see, we were going to be heading to OT. The Drama Kings, (my nickname for this year's Grizzlies) would have it no other way. So off to OT we went, secure in the fact that no matter what, the Grizzlies had just secured a vital single point against the #1 ranked junior hockey team in the country, a feat which took a lot of guts.
We won't talk too much about the OT, other than to say that once again the Grizzlies went head to head with the Vees and actually outshot the visitors in the first OT. But the game would end in the second OT period with 3 on 3 action, after a speeding Matt Serratore, an Air Force prospect, burst down the left wing after being sprung on a long stretch pass by Jack Ramsey. Serratore scored after collecting his own long rebound (a rare event on the night), firing a second time into the small opening in the net and ending the game 4-3 to Penticton.
And that was how the hockey game would end, half heart breaker, but half major encouragement for the Grizzlies. It was incredibly the Victoria Grizzlies BCHL leading fourteenth single goal differential game of the season.
Sure, it was an OT loss and those are never fun. But the Grizzlies scored three big goals vs the top team in the country, and took them to OT. Remember the Vees are a team which two weeks ago beat the Surrey Eagles in 11-0 and 10-0 respective score lines during a recent Home and Home series. Standing up to that type of offence, standing up to that kind of a team takes a lot. But one big thing it undisputedly requires is guts and bravery. And bravery is what this 2014-15 Grizzlies team has loads of and what will in the end take this team to the next level.
That's what I see as this team's identity: drama and guts.
The Grizzlies host the Powell River Kings tonight at 7pm at the Q Centre. -CC