Before making the trip, Brad Anstey said the Yellowknife Wolfpack peewees may not win a game at the Coca-Cola Classic in Vernon, B.C., but they would make the other teams work for their wins.
After all, this is a AAA tournament. Best of the best, as they say.
The Wolfpack must not have read Anstey’s script because they very nearly pulled off the impossible.
They not only won a game, they got all the way to the final of the tournament this past Sunday, losing to the home team by a score of 8-5 in a game Anstey said was a tough pill to swallow.
“It was tough in the dressing room afterward,” he said. “I told them in the locker room after the game that failure doesn’t come from losing but from not trying.”
It was an eight-team tournament that was heavily over-subscribed right from the start with more than 40 teams signed up to play, said Anstey, and the Wolfpack got in because the organizers felt it was time to have a team from the North.
“They told me they had never had a team from this part of the world before,” he said. “The big reason we got in is because we were honest about how we would do: we’d never win a game but we’d work hard.”
The Wolfpack began in the round-robin against South Delta from the Vancouver area, which ended in a 6-5 overtime triumph for the Wolfpack. With the first landmine successfully navigated, it was off to play the Calgary Warriors. With the nerves seemingly gone, the Wolfpack took it to the Warriors and won going away, 10-1.
But it wasn’t your standard 10-1 win, said Anstey.
“The score didn’t show how good of a team Calgary was,” he said. “We were lucky to get out of the first period with a 2-0 lead because about 75 per cent of the game was played in our end.”
The catalyst for the Wolfpack came in the second period as they scored three goals in 1:10 to blow things wide open and goaltender Jamie Cluff did the rest.
“She was so strong for us in net and held us in,” said Anstey. “Once we had that burst, we owned them after that.”
Next up was Sherwood Park, Alta., and it was another blowout, 9-1 the final score this time.
Anstey said the key to victory this time was breaking down their defensive system.
“We attacked their box and just moved the puck really well, plenty of tic-tac-toe passes,” he said. “It was an easier game for us because we were able to use our speed and it was just phenomenal to watch. As a coach, you’re all business but there’s those times where you sit back and just be a fan and that game was one of those times.”
With a perfect record after the round-robin, it was off to the semifinal, where the Wolfpack played Coquitlam, B.C. They came out of the gate strong, building up a quick 3-0 lead but Coquitlam pegged them back to knot the game at 3-3 in the second period. Both teams traded goals to get it to 5-5 but the third period saw the Wolfpack drop the hammer as they scored three unanswered goals to win it, 8-5.
“Matthew Gillard and Alex Cordero drove the bus for us that game,” said Anstey. “Jamie came up huge again like she did all tournament.”
In the final, the Wolfpack would have to take on not only the home team but also the atmosphere of the situation.
“Vernon is a true hockey town,” said Anstey. “When people found out Vernon was in the final, they just packed the arena. I had never seen so many people come out to watch. The closest type of atmosphere would be the Arctic Winter Games but I just told the kids to enjoy it. Vernon’s a strong team but it was all about keeping the emotions in check and just compete.”
The atmosphere may have gotten to the Wolfpack a bit in the early going as they got down, 3-0, before clawing back a pair of goals to get it back to 3-2. Vernon scored to regain their two-goal lead but the Wolfpack once again got back in the game.
“We would get one and they would get one back,” said Anstey. “It was back and forth.”
It was a tight game in the third period as the Wolfpack trailed, 6-5, and were buzzing around the Vernon net. But two quick goals from Vernon 24 seconds apart was the nail in the coffin for the Wolfpack as the home team won, 8-5.
“They never gave up at all,” said Anstey. “They learned a new system for the tournament and never gave up when they were down.”
There is the possibility of a return appearance, as Anstey noted the organizers said the Wolfpack would be a the top of the list if they wanted to come back.
“We put the city on the map down there,” he said. “They only want the best teams for this tournament and we beat some really good AAA clubs.”