By Gord Montgomery
Spruce Grove Examiner
DRUMHELLER — There are any number of ways to be a Dragon Slayer in the electronic world but the Spruce Grove Saints preferred to earn that title in the real world, on the ice, in the championship round of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
The Saints, the North Division champs this year, entered the final round of post-season play for the fifth time in six years, missing the party only once in 2011-12. Prior to that, and since then, they’ve owned the crown in the North. Now, they’ve been coronated yet again as the kings of the AJHL for the third time in six years following their straight games sweep over the Drumheller Dragons.
The reason for the final round domination was due perhaps to the fact the Saints were tired of playing elimination games — they faced the proverbial do-or-die scenario seven times in the first two rounds but escaped each and every one to earn their spot in the league final, where they took care of the final chapter with a wildly entertaining, yet nerve-racking 2-1 overtime win over the Dragons in Drumheller on Tuesday night.
In a game where the Saints opened the scoring, and then ended it, both teams appeared at times tight, maybe even nervous, with what was at stake. In the end, though, the Saints got one of their biggest goals of the year from Jake Mykitiuk a scant 19 seconds into the extra frame, sending his team pouring off the bench to celebrate the victory.
As players milled about on the ice after the formal championship trophy presentation, and the awarding of the MVP for the series to Saints captain Corey Chorneyko, head coach Jason McKee said this group never quit believing in themselves.
In what had to be the most physical four-game set the Saints have seen all year, where bodies were flying every which way in every game, he said his club, as they did all year found a way to win.
“I think we saw their best effort tonight,” he said of the Dragons. “Their backs were against the wall. We weren’t great for the first 30 minutes but we found a way. We stuck with it. We bent but we didn’t break and as a coach, I pushed them pretty hard tonight and they stayed the course. We knew if we could just look for our chances they’d come, and they did.”
Chorneyko, who began as a league champion as a rookie four years ago and now leaves the AJHL as a league champion and team captain, said this was a gruelling series but his teammates were up to the task. The Dragons, who ran roughshod over the defending league and national champion Brooks Bandits in five games in the South Division final found the same style of play didn’t intimidate the Saints who were more than they could handle in the league final.
“I think it started right from Day 1 of prep. Jay (McKee) and Ringer (assistant Michael Ringrose) did a great job of preparing us right from our breakouts to the offensive zone. Without them, this could not have been done.
“As far as the team, we followed the framework, followed the process and we trusted everything Jay laid out and it worked.”
As for the physical play in the series, and how his club handled it, Chorneyko again emphasized one element the Saints have had all year — wanting to win.
“The character in the room this year was unbelievable. The will to win is a huge thing. We couldn’t have done it without every guy in that room.”
As for one young man who is beginning his AJHL career as a champion, Austin Hunter said this year has been unbelievably exciting, capped by the title.
“When I was deciding where to play this year, Spruce Grove was always in the back of my mind,” he explained. “This is what they do every year. We were able to pull it off with a great group of guys and great coaching this year.”
Asked if this title was everything he, and his teammates thought it would be if they got this far, Hunter honestly replied, “It’s really hard to put it into words. It’s just great … it’s awesome!”
In closing, McKee noted that the only holdover on this team from the last championship team in 2010-11, Chorneyko, is everything a coach could want in a player and a leader.
“He might be one of the greatest Saints to every put on a jersey since I’ve been in Spruce Grove,” the bench boss claimed. “He’s an unbelievable defenceman, plays the game the right way, does things you can’t teach and he’s just an outstanding person. He’s one of those guys you’ll never replace.”
With the win the Saints now take a couple of days to relax and reflect on this championship season before gearing up for the next challenge, the Crescent Point Energy Western Canada Cup in Dauphin, Man. from April 26 to May 4. The top two teams from that event head to the national championship, the Royal Bank Cup in Vernon, B.C. from May 10 to 18.
And you can bet the Saints will be front and centre in the first, if not both, tournaments.