It wasn’t the storybook ending that everybody wanted but the Fort McMurray Oil Barons certainly gave the community something to cheer for a were a glimmer of hope in what has been a rough year for many Fort McMurrayites.
The MOB battled to the bitter end but when the final buzzer sounded Sunday night at the Scott Safety Centre, it was the Whitecourt Wolverines left standing as they defeated the Barons 6-3 in Game 6 to claim the North Division crown.
“I couldn’t be prouder to stand behind the bench of those players over the course of the year, they wore the crest on the front of the jersey with pride the entire year,” said MOB head coach Tom Keca after the game.
A whirlwind series that featured three blowouts, produced a third period for the ages with six goals scored and a rush of emotions for every person in the rink.
The MOB opened the scoring for a third straight game when JC Thivierge took a drop pass from Brandon Ralph just over the Wolverine blueline and wired a shot past Pierce Diamond, 11:05 into the game.
The Wolverines responded with two goals in two minutes when Estian Coetzee and Ryan Grant notched their first goals of the series to give the Wolverines a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.
Neither team was able to find the back of the net in the second period. The MOB spent a good chunk shorthanded as they were handed three straight penalties and for the first time in the series did not allow a powerplay goal.
The Wolverines looked to end any chance of a MOB comeback early in the third period when Morgan Messenger and Jaedon Leslie scored 26 seconds apart and opened up a 4-1 lead 1:21 into the period.
The Barons called a timeout to try to kill the momentum and settle the bench down. The Barons all season have never showed any quit and the same was evident in Game 6. The Barons rallied, scoring two goals in a 1:46 span to cut the lead back to one. Will Conley scored his team leading 8th goal of the playoffs on a rebound before Thivierge fired home his second of the game on a five on three powerplay.
“4-1 we could’ve easily been undisciplined and taken more penalties and it could’ve been 7 or 8-1 but our guys fought back and there was never a belief on the bench that we were done,” said Keca of the feeling that they could mount a comeback.
The Barons pressed for an equalizer but Justin Young put the game out of reach with a strong wrap around goal with 3:33 left to restore the Wolverines two goal advantage. Joseph Nardi potted an empty net goal to round out the scoring and send the Wolverines to their first AJHL Final in franchise history.
The Wolverines will meet the reigning AJHL champion Brooks Bandits in the Gas Drive Cup final after Brooks knocked out the Okotoks Oilers in five games in the South Division final.
The 2016-17 season will undoubtedly be a season to remember for the Fort McMurray Oil Barons. After finishing the 2015-16 season with a 10-40-10 record, the MOB revamped their roster and in just one season, turned 10 wins into a 44-13-3 record and a first place finish in the North Division. 91 points in the regular season was the franchise’s fourth best finish in team history.
“When we are able to process and look at the big picture of what we were able to accomplish, I think that every single player in that room should be proud of what we were able to do,” said Keca. “I don’t think there’s one single person at the start of the year that would have predicted a Whitecourt-Fort McMurray division final. I think Whitecourt would’ve been there but I don’t think too many people would’ve given us a chance.”
The Oil Barons have built the foundation MOB fans are accustomed to and the Barons are set up to be a competitive team for years to come. Goalie Eric Szudor was a North Division all-star and nominated for the league’s top goaltender. Defenceman Curtis Roach was also an all-star and nominated for most outstanding defenceman and head coach and general manager Tom Keca was named AJHL Coach of the Year and rewarded with a three year contract extension from the organization.
The MOB will bid farewell to their five 1996 born players. Captain Brandon Ralph will go down as one of the best captains in franchise history. The Fort McMurrayite’s commitment to the community and the team on and off the ice will be hard for any player to match. Jackson McKinstry, the longest serving member of the team finished his three year career with 60 points in 153 games with the MOB.
Toby Shattler another Fort McMurrayite brought the rough and tumble style that fans love and quickly became a fan favourite in his lone season with the club. Assistant captain, Jordan Steenbergen endured the rebuild year and helped guide the young players along as an on ice leader. And despite being a short stint, Stefan Wood embodied what it meant to be a Fort McMurray Oil Baron each time he stepped on the ice.
“This is a special group. I’ve been in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for 15 years and there’s definitely teams that stand out more than others and I definitely think that this is a team that when I’m too old to coach you’ll sit back and appreciate everything that they were able to accomplish,” said Keca.
Written by: Taylor Pope, mymcmurray.com.
Photographer: Dan Lines
Tom Keca reflects on the loss and the outstanding effort shown by the boys all season.