WINNIPEG – Both host Manitoba squads won medals at this year’s National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.
It was a golden experience for the Manitoba girls’ club as it defeated the Ontario South entry 6-4 in its championship final.
As for the Manitoba boys’ team, it captured the bronze medal in its division. Saskatchewan defended its title in the boys’ grouping, blanking the Quebec-based team Eastern Door and the North 8-0 in its gold-medal match.
A total of 18 clubs (10 male, eight female) competed in the seven-day tournament, which concluded May 9 in Winnipeg.
Peter Symchuk, the coach of the winning Manitoba girls’ squad, was not surprised to see his side celebrating at the end of the event.
“I was optimistic; going into it I was really expecting us to be competing for a medal.”
As a pre-tournament warmup, the Manitoba girls’ team won four exhibition matches against clubs from a junior women’s hockey league in its province. It also played to a 4-4 tie with Balmoral Hall, a prestigious Winnipeg-based girls’ school that attracts some of the top teenage female hockey players from western Canada.
Symchuk’s squad was also unbeatable at the NAHC, winning all six of its matches.
Photo courtesy Carol Whitecalf Saskatchewan’s boys team won its division.
In the gold medal game, Manitoba was trailing Ontario South, it was 4-2 heading into the final period.
“I went into the dressing room and said I have a lot of confidence in you girls and I really feel that you’re going to win this game,” Symchuk said.
The positive reinforcement obviously helped as Manitoba scored four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes. A goal in the opening minute of the third propelled the comeback.
“Then, it was like the floodgates just started opening up,” Symchuk said. “We kept the puck in their zone for almost the whole period.”
His squad had just one other relatively close contest in the tournament. And that was in its opening game, when it doubled Alberta 4-2.
Manitoba defeated Ontario North 6-1 and Team Atlantic 13-0 in its other round-robin matches.
Its winning ways continued in the playoffs. For starters, Manitoba downed EDN 6-1 in a quarter-final affair. And it thumped Saskatchewan 9-2 in the semi-finals.
The Manitoba boys’ side also had a successful tournament. It posted a 3-0-1 round-robin mark. But its aspirations of winning the division came to an end with a 4-2 loss to Saskatchewan in the semi-final.
Manitoba rebounded from that setback and registered a 6-4 triumph over Ontario in the bronze medal battle.
As for the gold medal winning Saskatchewan boys’ team, it was undefeated in seven tournament games.
“We had 11 guys who were returning, so we knew we had a good team,” said Courage Bear, who served as the general manager for both the Saskatchewan boys’ and girls’ clubs.
And defending the crown won at the 2008 NAHC in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was the main objective.
“That’s what your goal is when you put the team together,” Bear said.
The Saskatchewan boys’ club posted a 3-0-1 mark in round-robin action. That was followed up by a 9-2 victory in its quarter-final contest against the Northwest Territories.
Saskatchewan earned a berth in the finals with its semi-final win against Manitoba.
Bear said his squad was not overly concerned about squaring off against the host Manitoba squad in the semis, even though the two rivals had played to a tie in its round-robin match.
“I don’t think we were worried. We had tied them and we didn’t play our best game of the tournament.”
And the Saskatchewan club didn’t panic in the semi-finals, even when it faced a one goal deficit, 2-1, heading into the third period. The club responded by scoring three unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes of action to send them into the championship match.
In the gold-medal game, Thomas Pratt, who had also backstopped Saskatchewan to the ’08 NAHC championship, had a solid outing, registering the shutout.
Bear was not anticipating a blowout against EDN.
“I just think our goalie made some saves early in the game.”
While Pratt kept EDN off the scoreboard, his teammates managed to score twice in the opening frame.
“Midway through the second it was still only a two or three-goal game,” Bear said. “It wasn’t until late in the second period that we took control.”
Saskatchewan led 5-0 heading into the final period.
Besides the fact they captured the gold medal, Bear was also proud of how the Saskatchewan boys’ team conducted themselves during lopsided games.
Saskatchewan crushed Newfoundland and Labrador 18-0 in a round-robin match. And it beat the Northwest Territories 9-2 in its quarter-final.
“It wasn’t like our guys were trying to embarrass them,” Bear said. “In fact, the coaches from both of those teams said that our guys were pretty classy on how they behaved when the games were out of reach.”