Saints roll to fifth AJHL title over Oilers
By Gord Montgomery
For Josh Harris and Jarrod Gourley their first AJHL titles were great. Their second one though, which came in Okotoks last weekend, had a totally different flavour and in the end, may just be the sweetest of the pair.
The two members of the Spruce Grove Saints each earned their second league championship, after winning their first in their respective rookie seasons, as they wrapped up their illustrious AJHL hockey careers. While Harris, this year’s captain, captured his first with the Saints, Gourley won his first while a member of the Brooks Bandits.
Asked the difference between the first win and the second, both men said this one is likely the best. For Harris, this year’s club is perhaps the closest he’s had the pleasure of skating with in the Grove.
“This year, we were 12-and-1,” in their run to the championship he pointed out. “We had a few comebacks against Okotoks. We played a bit stronger in our first two series. I do think that this year was a little different (from the first time). This group was much tighter as a team. We all love each other and you can definitely feel it in the room. It’s a great place to be and I was very happy to spend four years here.”
Gourley said the makeup of this team is so much different than the title team he skated with in Brooks. One of the biggest factors in his choosing the 2017-18 title over the other was that the Bandits were expected to win. Here, the Saints were the underdogs in the championship series against Okotoks.
“It’s pretty cool to win both in the North and South,” he began. “For me, I played a bigger role in winning this championship which is awesome. Here, we relied a lot more on our skill and team play while there (Brooks) we had a lot more guys, heavier guys. Two different (types of) teams.
Both players agreed, along with their head coach Bram Stephen, that emotion played a huge role in the run to the title.
“To win with all the stuff we’ve been through this year, it was a bigger win (than in Brooks). It was awesome to win!” said Gourley.
“Right from the start of the year, things with my sister (who suffers from cancer) and everybody was behind me with that,” Harris said a few days after savouring the taste of league success for the second time. “Off the ice, we’ve battled through a lot of adversity. I think those things have made us closer (as a team). Things have been tough off the ice but when we’re on the ice, we’re all together. We have a kind of deep bond on this team. That’s something I’ve noticed.”
For Stephen, the Humboldt tragedy and the Harris clan dealing with their health issues have been team bonding elements.
“It was a concern if the series had gone deep, to be honest,” he said of the mental strain put on his young players with what has happened in the recent past. “Our group was very resilient and really, the heart took over and they just weren’t willing to quit.”
“This was sweet because of the adversity this group has faced and the type of challenges they’ve faced, both on and off the ice. From being a team that was third (in the North) for a lot of the year in our division and not being really on the same level as Okotoks in the middle of the season,” to ending up first in the North, capturing the North title and finally wrapping up the team’s fifth AJHL title against Okotoks
As for the hockey itself, where the Saints won three one-goal games, two in overtime and the other by two goals, on-ice looks were deceiving, said the coach. While many fans were concerned with the amount of time the puck was in the Saints defensive zone, there was a reason for that.
“A huge, huge strength for Okotoks was they had a lot of very fast north-south skaters,” explained Stephen. “They pressured the puck very well and because of that their forecheck was excellent. They created a lot of sequences where we weren’t able to get the puck out and had to play defence … going into the series we had a plan of attack of what we were able to give, not able to give and our guys did a pretty good job of that. We spent less time in their zone but we got better opportunities,” which they took full advantage of in four of the five games.
For Gourley, one of the shot-blocking brigade for the Saints, it was all about sticking with the game plan throughout the series.
“Since early in the year we’ve been working on taking away opponents’ shot lanes and protecting the middle of our defensive zone. It went to show how practice and little habits are paying off. We are all willing to sacrifice to win and obviously it’s paying off so far.”
In closing, Harris, who was named the playoff MVP, noted how much the award, plus adding the series-winning goal meant to him.
“Personally, it’ a huge confidence boost. It definitely hits home. It feels great after everything that’s happened this year. It definitely feels great to me. A very special moment.”
As for being theAJHL champions for 2017-18, Harris suggested that’s only the beginning for this close-knit group.
“I told the guys all year I wanted them to have the chance to experience that (winning) feeling. It’s a great group and I don’t think we’re done yet at all.”
The Saints begin play for the Doyle Cup in Wenatchee, Washington, on Friday, April 27. If the first two games go to one team, the clubs return to the Grove for the remainder of the best-of-seven series, regardless of how long it takes. If the teams split the first two games, the third will be played in Wenatchee before they return to the Grove for the remainder. Check the Saints website for exact game days.