It was an emotional night at the Dan Snyder Memorial Arena last Sunday as the defending Sutherland Cup all-Ontario Jr. B hockey champions, the Elmira Sugar Kings, lost to the visiting Stratford Cullitons in Game Six of their second round series, eliminating them from the playoffs. The Cullitons managed to erase a two-goal deficit in the third period to clinch the series with a 4-3 win over the Kings. “It was a huge game. We were down 3-1 going into the third period and any time you are playing the champs you have to knock them out,” said Cullitons head coach Phil Westman after the game. “I think Elmira is the strongest team in the league – the puck just bounced our way tonight.”
The Kings were on a high after defeating Stratford at the Allman Arena two nights before in a nail-biter that saw the Elmira squad ahead by three midway through the second period only to be forced into overtime as the Cullitons managed to claw their way back with three unanswered goals of their own in regulation time.
The Kings did not waste any time in the forced frame, as Brett Priestap sealed the deal with a clutch goal 36 seconds into the period. The win kept Elmira’s hopes alive heading back to home ice. “Brett Priestap is just a heart and soul player, and he did everything that he possibly could out on the ice and then some. I would love to have a team of Brett Priestaps,” said Dean DeSilva Kings head coach. Back home, the Kings were in complete control of Sunday’s game until the third period when emotions began to run high, overwhelming the team.
“As coaches we can talk to them all we want about controlling their emotions, but once that game starts it is up to the players to figure it out. For 45 minutes of the game they did, but Stratford needs the credit: they never gave up, they kept battling and put pucks on net and they got a few bounces here and there in their favour,” said DeSilva.
The hits started to get harder and the Cullitons began to provoke Elmira players after the whistle, leading to unnecessary penalties to forwards Michael Hasson and Brad Kraus. That led to a momentum swing that Stratford easily took command of, eventually scoring the equalizer on a power play.
“We had to come out playing with all we had in the third period. By no means did Elmira sit back and try and play defence, they tried to bring their game, but it is natural to sit back and the pressure was on them to seal it. When we scored to bring the game to 3-2 it ignited our bench and it sinks their bench. In Junior hockey there are so many momentum swings, and it just ran our way in this game,” said Westman.
With the score tied at three apiece, the Cullitons forced Kings goalie Nick Horrigan to work between the pipes, creating confusion in front of the net that allowed Steve Dol to tip the game- and series-winner past Horrigan with just under five minutes left to play.
The Kings would never recover.
“The guys feel horrible but we let our emotions control us – that is part of the sport and life and growing up and learning. That is the life skill they can take out of this game,” said DeSilva. “I couldn’t have asked more from these guys. We were hoping to come into the room afterwards and it was going to be blood, sweat and cheers but unfortunately it was blood, sweat and tears.”
As the final whistle blew the Kings took to centre ice and raised their sticks saluting more than 1,400 fans who packed the arena to see their team play. Slowly the Kings left the ice after receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.
“It is real tough for teams to repeat and real tough when you have an older team like we do because their emotions go up and down and a couple of years from now they are going to look back and think what did we do and what didn’t we do but I feel they gave everything they possibly had. I pushed them hard all year and they gave me everything they had; I could not ask anymore from them,” said DeSilva.
The Kings will lose eight players to graduation this year. A few players are off to the CIS and NCAA, including leading scorer Andrew Smith, who racked up 44 goals in the season, and netminder Horrigan, who compiled 51 wins against 23 loses and a career 0.912 save percentage.
“We will be in full rebuilding mode next year,” said DeSilva.
After the arena emptied, a visibly emotional Horrigan slipped out of the change room heading to the rink to look at the ice he called home for the last three seasons.
Standing at rink level he was greeted by four young fans who each in turn gave their hero a hug and told him he had done all he could. Horrigan spoke to the young boys for a few minutes as they told him they would all love to play as a King one day. He told them to work hard and never give up on their dreams before turning to the glass to look at the rink one last time as a King.