Monday, 11 April 2016

The Jungle Is Dead: A Cyclone Taylor Cup For The Ages

For friends of the Grizzlies/Salsa organization, when you bring up the subject of the old 1961 built Archie Browning Memorial Arena in Esquimalt BC, there are some not-so-fond memories of a tough non-playoff season which the Salsa spent there in 2003.  It was that year when their former and long time home on Blanchard Street, the venerable Memorial Arena (built in 1951) was demolished in favour of a new multi-purpose arena, built on the same site. 

Built in 1951, Memorial Arena witnessed the Salsa win the Fred Page Cup in 2001, you can still smell the onions cooking
The new building would come to be known as Save On Foods Memorial Centre and it serves to this day as Victoria's centerpiece in terms of multi-purpose arenas.  It is bigger, supposedly better and I will admit it is just great for a Shania Twain or Def Lepard concert.  It even has a $120,000 commissioned modern art piece outside the building which leaves nearly every visiting hockey fan a moment to pause and be grateful for the many tax dollars assigned to such a pretentious display of technical and artistic malfeasance. 

SOFMC complete with modern art which truly captures the "spirit" of Blanchard Street
To the sculptor's great credit however, the piece does serve as a wonderfully inspired monument for the many other Victoria natives who enjoy the contemplation and interpretation of its design while legally consuming their "medicinal supply" from one of the city's many "tree dispensaries".  But if you just want to watch a hockey game, even a WHL Royals game, the new confines in my humble view always fall short in terms of atmosphere.

Mowry Baden’s abstract sculpture Pavilion, Rock and Shell, unveiled outside Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in 2003
Meanwhile back at The Arch in Esquimalt, atmosphere has never been an issue.  By 2004 they would use the old seats from the original Memorial Arena to re-furnish the confines of the old rink on Esquimalt Rd.  Furthermore, the Township of Esquimalt in 2015 upgraded the building to give it a nice, bright and modern exterior look along with some new internal work.  All of this was completed just in time for the VIJHL Victoria Cougars to be granted the rights to host the 2016 BC Jr B Hockey Championships, aka The Cyclone Taylor Cup (CTC) from 8-11 April, 2016.  Plus it has a nice little McDonald's restaurant adjoining the rink for a quick post game snack.

The new and beautiful exterior look of the Archie Browning, host of the 2016 Cyclone Taylor Cup
I have often said that the unfair narrative of Jr B Hockey in BC is that it is too rough, poorly run, too cheap and featuring a vastly lower quality of play.  Many refer to the three Jr. B leagues in the province as "The Jungle".  I for one have never bought into that "Jungle" narrative and I can tell you that after witnessing first hand all eight games of the 2016 CTC this past weekend, that story is getting kind of old.  Frankly, it's just not true, not even close.  So while I don't usually spend a lot of time on this Grizzlies blog site writing about Junior B, today I shall.  Hopefully by the end of this piece you will understand why.  For Grizzlies fans the story I am about to tell has plenty of direct lines to their team and hopefully, it may portend a story which might one day become a dream come true at The Q Centre.  But mostly, it should underline a view I have long maintained:  The Jungle is dead.

The cozy confines of The Arch. The North Stand at left was home this weekend to +250 Wrangler fans
Look, I won't try and cover up the fact that if you asked me a week ago to tell you everything that I knew at the time about the 100 Mile House Wranglers, you would likely have left the conversation a bit underwhelmed at my knowledge of this plucky little club from the South Cariboo.  In fact, my only visits to the town comprise of little more than simply passing through its darkened streets during the Grizzlies annual trek up the Cariboo Highway to Prince George to play the Spruce Kings once per year.  Truth be told, when I was asked over a year ago to help out with the broadcast of this past weekend's CTC, I would later have to do a little scrambling to dig up what I could on the Wranglers.  As The Wranglers suddenly emerged as KIJHL Champions defeating the favored Kimberley Dynamiters 4-1 in their series in early April, I certainly was rapidly trying to learn whatever I could about "The Wrangler Nation".

I have to say that when I walked into the Archie on Thursday afternoon in anticipation of the first of four straight days of CTC play, the first thing that I saw was this entity known as "The Wrangler Nation".  I almost stopped in my tracks.  There I saw almost 250+ visiting Wrangler fans, all jammed into the seats in the North End of "The Arch".  It was a sight to behold and a reminder to everyone what small town hockey is all about and why tournaments like the CTC are more than just special, they are in fact a celebration of the game we all love.  All weekend the Wrangler Nation would rock the North End Stands of The Archie.  The town's rather large travelling throngs would in fact represent 40% of all pre-tourney ticket sales for the entire tournament, an amazing feat.

Sunday morning's 10:00 am Bronze Medal game between CR Storm and Mission City Outlaws
By now, you all would know that the Championship Game ended 5-4 in favour of the Wranglers over the much favoured and offensively dominant Victoria Cougars.  It was a wild affair and in proper fashion it went right down to the wire.  The last time I can recall that type of anticipation and energy in a Victoria hockey building was the 2001 Victoria Salsa vs the Merritt Centennials in that Fred Page Cup Classic in the old Memorial Arena on Blanchard Street.   And yes, I am mindful and have been present at most of this year's action with the WHL Victoria Royals as they are poised to maybe bring serious hockey hardware back to Vancouver Island and that is great news of course.  But once again, in my view there is just a general lack of atmosphere downtown at the antiseptic like Save On Foods.  They don't even cook the onions.

Nope, for me this was way, way better.  Here you had two teams from two different leagues fighting it out in front of a nearly packed barn in Esquimalt on a Sunday afternoon.  And the Wrangler Nation simply stole the show.  Everywhere you looked, all you could see along that North End was a sea of navy blue, yellow, silver and white along with flags, signs, placards and one hell of a lot of noise.  It was pandemonium, sheer bedlam at times. 

Forward Nick McCabe got things going early with the first goal of the game for the Wranglers and the game would continue to go the way of the underdogs in spite of some Cougars push back in Period #3.  Only seconds into the final frame, the Wranglers would strike again.  This time it was on the PP, with former Victoria Grizzlies player and 2 time February call up, Nathan Looysen in the penalty box from a late 2nd period penalty.  3-1 was the score at that point of the game and with the superb play of goaltender Zane Steeves (eventual tournament MVP) holding back the Cougars, you began to think that the Wranglers were perhaps on their way to a big upset.  But after 3 straight unanswered Cougars goals from Dom Kolbiens, Jordan Passmore (with an assist from Grizzlies AP Nico Sommerville) and John Kretzschmar, the favoured Cougars were back in front with only about 7:26 left on the clock.

Meanwhile back on the Wranglers bench the jovial and upbeat but equally pragmatic Head Coach, Dale Hladun simply looked at his team and smiled.  He looked at his beleaguered charges as they had suddenly surrendered the lead to the powerhouse Cougars and said:  "Fellas, why do you look so sad, cheer up, what else is new?  We've been making it hard on ourselves all year, why stop now?  This is how we do it.  This is how we always win, the hard way.  This is Wranglers hockey.  Now come on, let's go!"

And remember too that the Cougars were without the services of two of the most important pieces to their 2016 VIJHL title.  Gone was #1 net-minder and Peoria, Arizona native, Anthony Cuirro. He had had unfortunately broken his collar bone during a routine shot from a teammate no less, during warmup on Friday night.  Also gone was top Cougar defenseman, Austin Wilk, who was suspended for a hit to the head penalty from the Saturday night game.  Those two moments on consecutive nights for the Cougars would come to help spell disaster on Sunday afternoon.  The Cougars, who had breezed through the Round Robin without even a single loss were simply always chasing the Championship game or so it seemed.

And then suddenly it happened.  With just under 6 minutes remaining in the 3rd period and with the Cougars holding a lead in the title game for less than 2 minutes, the Cougars would surrender the puck just to the right of their new #1 goalie, Gregory Maggio.  And you could not have coughed up the puck to any Wrangler more dangerous than #19 Brett Harris who quickly roofed the puck over Maggio and the game was tied again at 4-4.  The Wrangler Nation exploded and the McDonald's customers on the other side of the adjoining wall of the north end "The Arch" complained to the 15 year old management team that the noise and vibration coming through the walls of the building was so severe it was upsetting their enjoyment of their Happy Meals.  Overtime loomed large.

Happy Meal sales dropped to near zero during the CTC anytime the Wrangler Nation were shaking the walls of The Arch
But overtime would never be needed in the end.  With a late penalty to 20 year old Jordan Passmore for head contact, the Wranglers went back on the PP.  With just 55 secs remaining in the game, Ryan Friesen would get a side board feed from former BCHL alumnus and Alberni Bulldog Tyler Povelofskie and fire home the go ahead marker. The McDonald's Happy Meals were rocking and rolling on the other side of the north end wall all over again.  Moments later, the 100 Mile House Wranglers, a club which wasn't even in existence in that town less than 4 years ago, were 2016 Cyclone Taylor Cup Champions.

The 2016 CTC Champs, 100 Mile House Wranglers. "Wrangler Nation" in background
For most in attendance, it was one of the most exiting Cyclone Taylor's in many years.  For me, the honour of interviewing family and friends of the Wranglers, tears in the eyes of many was a moment I will never forget.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that almost everyone along that North End Stand were in tears of joy.  No question about it, that old false narrative about Jr B hockey, that Jungle stuff, it just ain't true.  These kids can flat out play.  The Jungle is well and truly dead.

The moment every team dreams of: Provincial Champions!
Afterwards as I walked out to my car in the parking lot, I made sure that I did three quick things before I left rink.  First I went over to the Wranglers bus, offered my sincere congratulations and wished Coach Hladun and the whole team good luck in this weekend's upcoming Keystone Cup in Regina Sask as the much deserving representatives of the province of BC.  Next in an effort to stimulate my blog writing I stuck a yellow sticky from my briefcase on the centre of my steering wheel with the words "The Jungle is Dead".  And last but not least, just for craps and giggles, I swung into Chez Ron's along the north side of The Archie and picked up a Happy Meal for the long drive home.  Go Wranglers! -CC


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  4. Great read! Happy to see the passion of small town hockey starting to shine through!