The Elmira Sugar Kings might have lacked age and experience this season, but no one could question their determination and heart. After an up-and-down season, the Kings hit their stride in the playoffs, eliminating the Listowel Cyclones and throwing a scare into Brantford, the defending champions.
No one really knew what to expect in September when the team moved into the new Dan Snyder Memorial Arena with a squad of young and largely unproven players. In the end, it was a season that everyone could be proud of: the executive that oversaw the move to the new rink, the coaching staff that pulled the team together, and the players who rose to the challenge.
“For a young team, I think we did great to get by a round in the playoffs and to really open a lot of people’s eyes,” said general manager Keith Stewart.
Stewart noted that the team was looking to add some size this season, having got pushed around a bit last year. They iced a squad that was larger than average, but with only two 20-year-olds and three 19-year-olds on the roster. That relative inexperience led to a season best characterized as streaky; the Kings finished with a record of 20-25-4 and a .441 win percentage.
“At times we looked really, really good and at other times you went, ‘oh my goodness, what are we doing?’” said head coach Geoff Haddaway. “But it was a matter of sticking with it and as hard as you can be on the guys, you have to tell them and show them that you believe in them and we can get through this if we do this together.”
The Kings finished the season in sixth place, setting up a first-round matchup with Listowel. With the Cyclones enjoying home ice for game one, the coaching staff knew Listowel would get off to a quick start, and they did, going up 3-0 in the first half of the game.
That could have been a moment to throw in the towel and point to the team’s youth as an excuse, but the players were having none of it. The Kings were down 3-1 at the start of the third when Shane Smith – not normally a fighter – dropped the gloves and challenged Listowel’s captain, Eric Deckers. That kind of old-school hockey isn’t something the coach encourages, but it sent a jolt through the Kings’ bench.
“I think it sent a message to the rest of the team – ‘yeah, we might be down, but we are going to fight tooth and nail for this the whole way,’” Haddaway said.
The Kings battled back to tie it up, and even though Listowel went on to win the game, Haddaway had seen enough to know that his players could compete in the series.
“I’ve always believed in these guys, but I really became a believer game one in Listowel.”
After taking down the Cyclones twice more in their own barn, the Kings clinched the series on home ice in game six. That earned them a berth in the semi-finals, where they faced the top-seeded Brantford Golden Eagles. In six matchups with Brantford during the regular season, Brantford won all six.
“I don’t know how many people told me ‘you’re playing Brantford and it’s going to be four and out,’” Stewart recounted. “We never did beat them during the year – there was no reason to believe that we’d be in that series – so I think we opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Where Brantford had the league’s top scorer in Josh McQuade, who notched 64 goals in the regular season, none of the Kings passed the 25-goal mark. In the absence of any superstars, they had a group that dug in, competed hard, and played the roles they were expected to play.
The Kings came out hard in game one and caught the Golden Eagles flat-footed, scoring three times in the first 10 minutes and eventually upsetting them 5-2. After dropping the next three games – one of them in overtime – it was do or die for Elmira as they returned to Brantford for game five. This time the Kings battled back from a three-goal deficit to win 4-3 and force game six. Despite putting up a valiant fight, the team was eliminated in game six.
“We were an overtime game away from coming back to Elmira with the lead in the series,” Stewart said. “It’s a ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ type of thing, but I think it was great experience for our young guys to be in a couple of those games – we lost in overtime, another game we came from behind to win.”
That experience has the coaching staff optimistic about next year. The team loses only two players – Jeff Zippel and Michael Therrien – while their younger players will return with a year of Junior B hockey under their belts. That said, there’s no guarantee every player will return or find his spot waiting for him.
“I say that every year – just because you were here last year doesn’t mean you’ve got a spot,” Stewart said. “We’re always trying to upgrade and improve our team so that doesn’t mean that the remaining 18 players have a spot next year. They’re going to have to come to camp and earn it.”
While it’s too soon to say whether this experience will pay off next year, the coaches and executive are “incredibly proud” of what the team accomplished this year, Haddaway said.
“These guys were rewarded for some of their hard work and they got a taste of what it takes.”