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Looking back on Caps’ run to 1997 Canadian championship


It was 15 years ago on May 3, 1997, that the Hemphill Pontiac Western Capitals were set to open the Royal Bank Cup Canadian junior A hockey championship tournament as the host team.

That 1996-97 season was one to remember for the Caps and their loyal fans.

It was the first coaching position for Gerard (Turk) Gallant, and he, along with assistants Jeff Squires and Ivan Baglole, had the tough job of molding the Caps into a contender. As it turned out, these three gentlemen did a fantastic job.

Looking back at that memorable season, one has to be impressed with the Caps’ playoff run. They won the Maritime Junior A Hockey League playoff championship with a memorable seven-game series win over Dartmouth, which came on the heels of a seven-game series win over the Charlottetown Abbies. Those two series’ had the Caps play 13 games in 16 days to capture the league title and a berth in the Fred Page Cup.

Although the Caps were already in the Royal Bank Cup – now known as the RBC Cup – they went to the Fred Page Cup because they earned it. The Caps ended up going winless at the Eastern Canadian junior A championship, which had many questioning how they would do in the Royal Bank Cup.

The Caps had played 88 games to that point that season. When you looked at the records of the Royal Bank Cup teams, most people thought the Caps had four round-robin games to play, and that would be it. Not many gave them a realistic chance of beating the four teams as the combined regular-season records of those teams were 170 wins and only 25 losses.

Combine that with a playoff record of 60 wins and five losses for the four teams, and they were expected to be a real handful for the Caps.

Winning start

On May 3, the Caps opened up with a surprising 5-1 win over the Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats from Sudbury, Ont. That win gave fans some optimism.

The Caps’ next three games were all losses – 7-5 to Kanata Valley from just outside Ottawa; 8-2 to the Weyburn Red Wings from Saskatchewan, and 3-2 in overtime to British Columbia’s South Surrey Eagles.

The 1-3 record was good enough to get the Caps a fourth-place finish and a semifinal date with the powerful Weyburn team. Not many gave the Caps much of a chance in that game, and things looked bleak as the Red Wings broke out to a 2-0 lead.

That game was proof that anything can happen in a hockey game, especially if you have great goaltending. The Caps rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits as Caps goalie Harlin Hayes was simply sensational. The Caps were outshot 57-38, and Hayes turned in one of the greatest goaltending displays ever in Cahill Stadium. He was the reason the Caps were even in the game.

The Caps, meanwhile, found a way to tie the game on a late third-period goal by Stacy Smallman to force overtime.

Overtime winner

Those at Cahill Stadium that night remember the second overtime period, when Mark White won a clean faceoff right to the stick of brother Mike, whose quick shot found the net and sent the capacity crowd into a frenzy.

Who would have ever thought the Caps would beat Weyburn, and be in the Royal Bank Cup final?

That set the stage for the championship game against Scott Gomez and the South Surrey Eagles. One more game for all the marbles, and all the Caps had to do was win game No. 94 of the season.

They did just that, winning 4-3 on a James Chalmers goal at 12:14 of the third period. For the 2,700 fans at Cahill Stadium that night, it seemed unbelievable that little Summerside was now Canadian champions.

Storybook season

It was a storybook season, and one that will be very hard to duplicate. What was real special was the fact that 15 players on the Caps were local P.E.I. boys.

Some professional teams do not play 94 games in a season, which made the feat even more impressive.

The Caps became the first team east of Ontario to win the Royal Bank Cup, which was previously known as the Centennial Cup.

The Caps also joined some elite company on P.E.I. as national champions. The Charlottetown Islanders’ senior team won the Hardy Cup in 1981, and again in 1984. The Islanders also won the Allan Cup in 1991.

To the best of my knowledge, the Caps and Islanders are the only P.E.I. hockey teams to win a national championship. It was a season to remember for the Caps and their fans.

In my opinion, winning the Royal Bank Cup was the greatest and proudest moment in Summerside sports history.

Atlantic Canadian talent

Two of the most successful teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in terms of attendance are the Halifax Mooseheads and Saint John Sea Dogs.

They have both enjoyed success on the ice as well. Halifax was just eliminated in overtime of Game 6 of the league’s semifinal on Sunday, and Saint John opened the championship series against Rimouski on Friday night.

Is it by coincidence, or by design, that the majority of Halifax and Saint John rosters are Atlantic Canadian-born players?  

Of the 25 players listed on the Halifax roster, 14 were born in Atlantic Canada, including six from Nova Scotia, three Newfoundlanders, three from P.E.I., and two from New Brunswick. Of the 23 players listed on Saint John’s roster, 12 are Maritime-born, including seven from New Brunswick, three from Nova Scotia and two from P.E.I.

These two organizations always seem to get it right, and that is why they are two of the most successful organizations in the Quebec league.      

World hockey championship

The world hockey championship is underway in Helsinki, Finland. Canada has a young and talented team looking for its 25th world title, and first since 2007.

Since 1920, the top hockey nations in the world gather to contest the world title, which is usually played in Europe. The world championship was not contested from 1940-1946 because of the Second World War.

In 1980, 1984 and 1988, the Olympic champions were also crowned as world hockey champions.

In the 77 years that it has been played, Russia/Soviet Union has won the championship 25 times to lead all nations while Canada is second with 24.

 This year's championship will be one of the best ever, with a lot of NHL stars taking part. It wraps up with the gold-medal game two weeks from tomorrow on Sunday May 20.

Have a great week!

Joe MacIntyre is a Summerside resident. His column appears every Saturday. Comments and suggestions can be sent to j-mac@eastlink.ca.

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