There’s a certain energy that flows around a good team.
The players … they have swagger, charisma.
Eleven years ago, I got to know a team like that. Very well, in fact. And 11 years ago tonight, I watched as they cried, their young hearts broken because they failed in their only quest.
It was a strange moment indeed when I stood at the Saddledome tonight, watching the Calgary Hitmen skate to a 4-1 victory over the Tri-City Americans. It was Game 5 of the WHL Championship.
And it dawned on me: I’ve watched, in person, the Hitmen win two WHL championships.
Once 11 years ago.
I followed the Kamloops Blazers on every step during that magical season in 1998-99. They went on a 26-game undefeated streak. They had a kid named Gainey, a captain of Indian descent, a goalie nobody had heard of before and, by the end of the season, seven first-round NHL draft picks on one roster.
They laughed together, they won together, they lost together … after the trade-deadline deals, there were rumours of a couple supposed newcomers creating chinks in the armour.
The gossip was never confirmed.
And they ran into a wall … a big brick one called the Calgary Hitmen. They had a kid named Moran, some stud named Pavel Brendl, a goalie from Russia named Fomitchev and swagger.
The Blazers stole one in Calgary and headed home with a split. It was May. I remember driving through blinding snow over the Pass to get home.
The Hitmen took the first one in Kamloops. Game 4 went to triple overtime and the Hitmen took a commanding lead in the best-of-seven series. Shoulders were sagging but no one had given up just yet.
Then another drive back to Calgary, riding shotgun for my buddy from the other newspaper in town.
These teams were as evenly matched as one could imagine … lots of firepower, mighty defence, solid enough goaltending.
But the power play was weak. It scored once in 27 attempts … and that one goal may have been on the last man advantage but memory escapes me.
And the Hitmen had just a tiny bit more confidence in this Game 5, wanting to win their first WHL championship on home ice.
So they did. And as they were collecting their hardware, I was in the bowels of the Saddledome with my Blazers. The 20-year-olds wept openly, their dreams of playing in a Memorial Cup came to a crashing halt.
Especially Ajay Baines, a five-year Blazer, a Kamloops boy and a leader among leaders.
He shook. His eyes were as bright as the orange on his away jersey. He sagged into my arms when I couldn’t help but hug him.
It had been a long four years of getting to know this kid-turned-man, sharing his victories and his losses, laughing with him and now tears streaming down my face alongside him.
In that time, he’s become a man. So have others on the team … Robyn Regehr, lauded around the NHL as one of the league’s steadiest blueliners … they’ve gone on to minor pros, Euro leagues, graduated from university, become fathers, husbands and more.
And so I looked skyward tonight towards the press box where I sat those 11 years ago, watching the Hitmen win again, crushing the dreams of young men on the Tri-City Americans roster.
Wondering what dreams will come from Calgary’s next trip to the Memorial Cup, wondering if some young journalist upstairs has plans to cover the NHL, wondering … just wondering.
It’s different now. I’m surrounded by the fans … I am a fan.
So I shook myself out of my reverie and clapped for the Hitmen, cheering them to the Memorial Cup as the seconds ticked off the Jumbotron and the strains of We Are the Champions wafted through the blasts of fireworks.
Sorry, Kamloops. I still love you, though.