When you come right down to it, the Spruce Grove Saints didn’t need anyone’s help in clinching their fourth Dave Duchak Trophy in the past six years as the top team in AJHL in the regular season. They did that all on their own merit with wins in their final two games even though the Lloydminster Bobcats did them a favour by beating the Fort McMurray Oil Barons in the final game of the year for both of those teams.
No, this was all about the Saints doing it themselves and that was accomplished with a 3-2 win over the Sherwood Park Crusaders and then a 4-3 win over the Bonnyville Pontiacs two days later, to end the year with 97 points, three clear of the second-place Oil Barons.
Speaking after the last win, Saints captain Corey Chorneyko, who was one of seven regulars not dressed for the game, said that losing is not acceptable for this team. He has been with the Saints for four years and in each of those years they have won, at minimum, the North Division title.
“I think it’s just a winning tradition; right from my first year that’s been the culture around here right from the coaching staff to the players and that’s been passed down every year. Nothing else here is acceptable but winning,” he said of the amazing run of success this team has enjoyed for the past several seasons.
That success was again highlighted in the year-end record for the Saints. They led the league in wins, 47; points, 97; goals-for, 235; goal differential, +100; and a winning percentage of .800.
The regular season championship was the third in the past five years for the Saints, who have also been the North Division champion in each of the past five years, an amazing accomplishment for a team that continues to send players on to post-secondary institutions before their junior careers are completed. In fact, four of the team’s players will leave after this year even though they could return for next year.
That is part of the process, said Chorneyko, who agreed that after a sluggish start to this year things maybe didn’t look all that bright. The vets and coaching staff, though, refused to accept anything but an all-out effort from everyone in the dressing room, game in and game out.
“After our start, I think we were 4-4 and Sherwood Park was like 11-0 to start and Fort McMurray was something like 17-0, obviously we thought it was going to be tough for the young team we have. I give a lot of credit to our older guys, our coaches, for sticking to it and showing the younger guys what it takes to win in this league.”
As for the coaching staff, they are delighted with how the young players and the vets melded to form yet another winner, said bench boss Jason McKee.
“I think it’s just a culture, an expectation that when you come here winning is the only option — losing is unacceptable. For us it’s a competitive environment and we try to do things right as much as possible. We have great kids come through our program and with quality individuals you give yourself a chance to win. I can’t say enough about the kids that have come through here in the last however many years… When you look at it, it’s really the kids, the quality of the kids, that allows us to win games.”
Chorneyko pointed out there is a mural on the team’s dressing room wall that motivates the team to make it to the RBC national championship. While the Saints have come close to reaching that goal in the past they’ve never made it all the way so this marks the start of yet another final push.
“In our room we’ve got a (mural of a) little mountain to climb for the playoffs. Ever since I’ve been here there’s a piece of tape on the wall saying ‘First round bye.’ It’s starting to get yellow and rotten and it’s good to see we’re not taking it down here. It’s really good, it’s a team effort and I’m proud of the team and how far we’ve come since the beginning of the year.”
That winning legacy, the captain said, is important to all those who walk through the team’s dressing room doors.
“Guys realize that the Saints’ history is a winning history. I know from a personal standpoint I’ve wanted to keep that going and it’s fun, especially the winning part, when you and your teammates are doing really well. Like I said, this is a great program and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Since McKee took over as the head coach from his predecessor, Steve Hamilton, and the successful years he put together with McKee as an assistant, there has been a statement that the present head coach and his staff have live by: The playoffs run through Spruce Grove. Again the Saints have proven that to be true. They also receive a first-round bye for winning the North Division title for the fifth straight year.
“That was our goal from the start of the year, it always is and now we’ve achieved our first goal and if we want to earn anything else we’ve got to get back to work here,” McKee ended. “Full credit to the guys for achieving our first-round goal.”
The Saints will wait until the completion of the first-round to see who they play in their first round, which will be the lowest seed left in the North Division after that best-of-five opening series. What that means is that they could meet up with Drayton Valley if they upset Fort McMurray; Whitecourt if they can topple Lloydminster; or more than likely the winner of the Sherwood Park Crusaders/Bonnyville Pontiacs series.
No matter what, the first playoff date for the Saints will be Friday, March 14 at 7 p.m. at the Grant Fuhr Arena.