It was an inauspicious start for the Hazelton Wolverines in the team’s comeback season in the Central Interior Hockey League (CIHL).
The team, playing for the first time since the 2011-2012 season was crushed in its opening game at the brand new Upper Skeena Recreation Centre (USRC) 12-3 by the Terrace River Kings on Sept. 28.
The Wolverines then went on to drop their next three games in lop-sided affairs at home against Smithers (5-0) on Oct. 5, in Prince Rupert Oct. 19 (6-1) and in Smithers Nov. 2 (9-2).
They also lost their fifth game when Terrace came to Hazelton Nov. 9, although the boys in red and black started to show a bit more offence scoring four goals to the River Kings’ eight.
It was shaping up to be reminiscent of their last season eight years ago when the Wolverines went 1-16-1 for three points and last place in the then-10 team league.
“It was a tough start for sure,” said head coach Al Tolmie. “A lot of guys hadn’t played in a few years with not having a rink and it was pretty tough just to get back into it.
Hazelton came roaring back, however, with a three-game winning streak beating Kitimat 6-4 at home Nov, 23, the Stampeders 4-3 in Williams Lake Nov. 30 and the Kangaroos 8-1 in Quesnel Dec. 1.
Tolmie said the turnaround was a combination of recruiting and the team shaking the rust off and starting to gel.
“We made a few additions to our team… and it really helped our guys,” he said. “We picked up a couple of really good defencemen there [Drew Rose and Gary Gladue]. They’re really good leaders and the guys all listened to them and… chemistry, they started clicking and playing really well together.”
Rose ended up leading the team in scoring despite only playing 10 of 16 games. He racked up 20 points with five goals and 15 assists to finish tied for eighth among the league’s scoring leaders.
After three wins, the Wolverines experienced a brief setback starting Dec. 13 in Kitimat when they were bested by the Ice Demons 5-2 before battling Prince Rupert to a 4-4 tie in Hazelton to kick off 2020 on Jan. 4.
After the tie, the Wolverines did not look back. They went on a five-game winning streak for an 8-6-1-0 record that clinched third place in the league three points clear of Quesnel going into the final games of the regular season this past weekend.
On Saturday night, the Wolverines were in Prince Rupert. It was a back and forth affair with the Rampage opening up the scoring early in the first period on a goal from Kory Movold. Berfore the first frame was over, however, Justa Sam and Kevin McNab responded for the visitors giving Hazelton a 2-1 edge going into the second period.
The second frame saw two more lead changes. Rupert struck first to tie it at 6:30 on a goal by Kolton Chasse. Teal Burns followed that up two minutes later bulging the twine to put the Rampage up 3-2.
The Wolverines had an answer to those two notches, though, marking two of their own by Wilfrid Duncan at 9:18 and McNab’s second of the night at 15:51.
Down 4-5 going into the third period, the home team quickly evened things up again as Burns sniped another unassisted at 4:19. It was a short-lived tie, however, as Duncan scored his second of the game just 26 seconds later.
It would stay like that for almost the rest of the game. With just 25 seconds left, Hazelton looked poised to secure their sixth win in a row and ninth on the season. Movold, though, had his eye on overtime and snuck in the tying goal at 19:35 making it 5-5 at the end of regulation time.
In the second overtime frame it was Burns again who would find the back of the net completing the hat trick and securing the win for Prince Rupert. Hazelton goaltender Keanu Wilson stopped 47 shots in the losing effort.
“It was a good game,” Tolmie said. “To be honest, I thought it was a game we should have won.”
The overtime loss puts the Wolverines’ season record at 8-6-1-1 for 18 points.
Overall, Tolmie said the season was a great run.
“I didn’t think we’d honestly be third in the league for our first year back, but the guys are doing great,” he said. “I’m super proud of them.”
Tolmie also credited goaltending.
“He made some big saves, that’s for sure,” he said. “He’s another key to our success, Keanu’s played really well like always.”
Finally, he said, the new building and the fans made a difference as well.
“We love [the building], it’s beautiful,” he said, noting playing on the bigger ice surface helps them when they’re away from home too because they’re used to the open spaces.
“And the fans, the fan support is great,” he said. “You can’t ask for better fans. They’ve been great every game, filling that arena up. It’s a loud atmosphere and the guys just feed off it.”
Hazelton will be up against the Rampage again in the first round of the playoffs this weekend and Tolmie is feeling confident going in.
“We’re pretty excited,” he said. “We feel that we match up pretty well against Prince Rupert… and with our short bench and what we did in Prince Rupert last night, and the other three or four guys that are going to be in the lineup next weekend, it will make a huge difference.”
CIHL playoffs begin Feb 7 with a wildcard game between the Smithers Steelheads and Kitimat Ice Demons in Kitimat to decide fourth spot in the West Division.
On Feb. 8 second-place Prince Rupert will be in Hazelton for the first of a three game series to be completed in Rupert on Feb. 15 and 16 (if necessary). Terrace will be in either Smithers or Kitimat for the first place-fourth place series start Feb. 8 to be decided in Terrace Feb. 15 and 16 (if required). The winners of those two series will play Feb. 21, 22 and 23 (if required) starting in the second place-third place winner’s barn.
Quesnel and Williams Lake also start a best-of-three series to decide the East Division Feb. 8 in Williams Lake. Game two will be played Feb. 15 in Quesnel with the deciding match Feb. 16, also in Quesnel, if needed.
The CIHL championship will start on Feb. 29, also as a best of three series, with the second game on March 7 and a third March 8, if needed.