Bisons continue winning Heritage

Hockey: Okotoks wins fourth straight league title in nailbiter

By: Remy Greer

  |  Posted: Sunday, Mar 30, 2014 07:53 pm

The Okotoks Bisons celebrate their fourth consecutive Heritage Junior Hockey League championship after getting by the Blackfalds Wranglers 7-4, Sunday at Murray Arena.
The Okotoks Bisons celebrate their fourth consecutive Heritage Junior Hockey League championship after getting by the Blackfalds Wranglers 7-4, Sunday at Murray Arena.
Jordan Verlage/OWW

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The Okotoks Bisons ventured into uncharted waters this season and came away with a record fourth straight Heritage Junior Hockey League title.

Okotoks escaped the reins of the Blackfalds Wranglers and won two straight to lock up the franchise’s eleventh league banner in the winner-take-all Game 5 by a 7-4 count, Sunday at Murray Arena.

“Through the four years, every time we’ve had a new group of guys and the only thing that has stayed consistent is our coaching,” said Bisons captain Michael Savage. “I think that’s a big deal, we have a lot of respect for Hanny (head coach Mike Hannigan) and what he does every year.

“At the beginning of this year we didn’t think we had much of a team and turned it around pretty well.”

The course of the league finals followed much the same path.

The Bisons found themselves down 2-1 in the best-of-five series and needing to win on back-to-back nights to claim gold. Okotoks went into Blackfalds on Saturday for a seesaw Game 4 and escaped by the narrowest of margins on a Phil Dillon game-winning tally to earn the 5-4 victory and extend the series.

Back on home-ice, Okotoks had early control of Game 5 as it built a 5-1 lead late in the second period before penalty troubles opened the door for a Wrangler comeback.

After scoring in the dying seconds of the middle stanza, Blackfalds narrowed the gap to just one with more than half of the final frame to play. The Bisons weathered the storm and finally put the game out of reach with empty net tallies from Luke Loomer and Dillon, who had a hat-trick in his final game in Okotoks. Brandon Lijdsman, Bryce Honish and Savage also scored for the hosts.

“This was the first time in a long time we’ve actually had to earn it, go through adversity and do all the things we haven’t had to the last couple years,” Hannigan said. “They deserve it.”

The Bisons, champions in 11 of their 19 seasons in the HJHL, have now victimized the Wranglers for three of their last four league banners. The fourth-year Bisons — Savage, Dillon and Matt Howatt — capped their Junior careers by going four-for-four in championships.

Not a bad batting average.

“Our first year we came in as rookies and we all gelled real well, not only were we good on the ice together, but in the dressing room,” Savage said. “Every guy that comes through this room is a friend and that helps when it comes to winning a championship.

“Once you win, it’s pretty hard not to think about doing it again. It’s pretty addicting, the most addicting thing I’ve ever had to deal with is winning. I’m glad I never had the feeling of losing here. I’ve been pretty fortunate with the group of guys playing beside me.”

For Dillon, the league record fourth straight championship can be explained by the team’s constant trust in the systems put in place by the coaching staff.

“Never losing a series, that’s pretty cool and pretty special to do especially with the group of guys we have now,” Dillon said. “Coming into this year no one expected us to do any good, I think even the coaching staff expected us to not go this far.

“We lost seven of our top nine forwards last year so it’s pretty sweet to do this with this group, with a bunch of rookies.”

It comes down to desire, pure and simple.

“We all really want it, every year it’s the same thing, let’s do it again this year because it’s such a great feeling,” said Howatt. “And I think the guys around us feel that too and think ‘I want that too’, they’ve seen pictures, heard the stories and they want the same thing.”

Okotokian Harrison Smith, one of eight freshman regulars in the line-up, echoed the sentiment towards the veteran core of the team.

“I almost wanted it more for them than myself,” said Smith. “They put everything on the line and put in the ultimate sacrifice for us.”

Many a sacrifice was needed during a testing few weeks of playoff hockey for the Bisons. Okotoks fought off series deficits twice and were 2-0 in elimination games in the post-season, stats boding well for its provincial journey later this week.

“I feel the only way you can win is if you lose first and learn a lesson,” Smith added. “And we’ve definitely learned a lot of lessons, more than you usually do in the playoffs, and I think that’s going to help us with the run at provincials and hopefully westerns.”

Okotoks begins its repeat bid for a gold medal at the Junior B provincials, starting April 3 in Grande Prairie.

For full schedule information go to hockeyalberta.ca/provincials


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