When the Kimberley Dynamiters advanced to the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League championship in 2015, it likely came as surprise to many fans and pundits around the league.
Finishing second in the Eddie Mountain Division, the Nitros played the role of underdog through nearly the entire run, before defeating the Kamloops Storm in the six-game championship series to become the first Kimberley-based KIJHL team to win it all since the Kimberley Knights defeated the Trail Smokeaters in 1980 — a whopping 35 years back in time.
After winning the league crown last season, expectations for the Dynamiters 2015-16 campaign quickly shot as high as the 9,336-foot summit of Fisher Peak.
Having seen what a motivated, speedy and skilled Dynamiters squad was capable of in 2015, there have been few surprises in 2016.
Finishing the regular season atop the KIJHL with a record of 41-7-0-4, the Kimberley Dynamiters claimed the regular season title before skating past the Fernie Ghostriders, Creston Valley Thunder Cats and Beaver Valley Nitehawks to claim the Kootenay Conference belt and advance to the 2016 KIJHL championship, earning the opportunity to defend their 2015 title.
Now, Kimberley’s beloved junior hockey heroes will aim to do something that hasn’t been achieved in 12 years — string together back-to-back KIJHL championships.
“This is the true test of not too high, not too low,” said Dynamiters goaltender Tyson Brouwer.
“It’s been our motto all playoffs. Have that burning desire inside that you want to lift that trophy again and go to Victoria [for the Cyclone Taylor Cup].”
The last team to score consecutive league titles was the Nitehawks in 2003 and 2004.
Achieving the repeat feat won’t come easy as the rough-and-tumble 100 Mile House Wranglers — making their first ever appearance on the KIJHL championship stage — provide the opposition after finishing 33-12-3-4 to win the Doug Birks Division before running over the Revelstoke Grizzlies, Chase Heat and Summerland Steam to win the Okanagan/Shuswap Conference banner.
Games 1 and 2 fire up Saturday and Sunday, respectively, at the Kimberley Civic Centre. Puck drop is for 7 p.m. both nights before the series shifts to the South Cariboo Rec Centre.
“It’s going to take a heck of an effort from everybody,” said Jerry Bancks, head coach of the Kimberley Dynamiters. “That’s the one thing people ask me about this year’s team versus last year’s team — we’ve already had 17 or 18 guys score goals in this playoff run, whereas last year I think we had 11 in total when it was all said and done.
“It’s going to take a little more of a team effort.”
The two cross-conference clubs met twice over the course of the 2015-16 KIJHL regular season, splitting the season series.
Travelling to 100 Mile House Sept. 18, the Dynamiters were shutout 2-0 by the Wranglers who were backstopped by a 22-save effort from goaltender Zane Steeves.
“When we played them in 100 Mile House they were very, very physical and got away with it,” Bancks said. “I’m hoping the games are well officiated and it’s hockey. I want it to be a hockey series.”
Oct. 24, the Kimberley Civic Centre was host for the regular-season grudge match and once again it was the home team skating away triumphant as the Dynamiters claimed a 5-2 victory.
“They’re big, they hit a lot — we played them at the start of the year,” Brouwer said. “I’m not sure if we weren’t ready or it was because we were a new group. But they came out hitting in their own rink.”
Keenan Haase provided a hat-trick performance to spark the Dynamiters on home ice.
Despite splitting the regular-season series, all that happened in those two games can be thrown out the window. Too much has happened — for both clubs — since those early contests.
“It’s going to take everyone — everyone’s going to have to go all in,” said Dynamiters captain Jason Richter. “Everyone needs the will to win and the heart to win. We’re going to do everything in our power to get the win.
“They’re a hard-working team. They’ve got kids who want to win and they like to bang the body quite a bit.”
While it’s easy to focus on the difference-makers that may exist within each team’s lineup, there’s something to be said for the game-changing presence of the crowd. Both the Dynamiters and Wranglers are renowned league-wide for having rabid, passionate fans and that added energy could factor in to the best-of-seven championship more than one might imagine.
“A lot of fans made the trip down to Summerland and no word of a lie, we had more fans than [the Steam] had,” Wranglers head coach and general manager Dale Hladun said to Pat Matthews of MyCaribooNow.com. “The owner, when we were in the lobby, had fans calling him to make sure they could get tickets to get in. So when we won [at the Summerland Arena], we saluted the fans as if it were a home game.”
Should any of those passionate Wranglers fans make the 800-plus kilometre trek to the East Kootenay, they might have a bit more difficulty out-roaring the Kimberley crowd.
For a Monday night Game 5 against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks a total of 1,155 fierce fans packed their way into the hallowed halls of the Kimberley Civic Centre.
“It’s so amazing, I can’t thank Kimberley enough for coming out on a Monday night and being that loud,” Brouwer said. “It was incredible. It’s like having another player out on the ice, basically. They’re definitely the best fans in the KI.
“I know myself and a lot of the guys, we want to win [the championship] for Kimberley. That’s why we go out and play — because of the fans.”
After the first two games in Kimberley, the teams head to 100 Mile House for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. If necessary, Game 5 will also go at the South Cariboo Rec Centre on Thursday, March 31.
“It’s going to be a heck of a series,” Bancks said. “They have had a great year — I really tip my hat to the 100 Mile House organization last year and this year. It’s first-class when you go there. Their fans are all there for warmup. It’s exciting. It’s a great atmosphere. Next to us, it might be the best thing going in the KI. It’s kind of neat we’re both playing in the finals.”
DynamitersThe work ethic of captain Jason Richter (5-10-15) is unparalleled. Swayer Hunt (5-8-13) continues to have a breakout playoff, while Tanner Wit (5-4-9) turned it up in the Kootenay Conference final.
WranglersJustin Bond (9-8-17), Ryan Friesen (7-9-16), Brett Harris (3-11-14), Nick McCabe (8-5-13) and Cole Zimmerman (5-5-10) power a Wranglers offense that has scored 51 goals to this point in the post-season. Only the Summerland Steam (55 goals) registered more.
DynamitersAfter missing Game 4 of the Kootenay Conference final with an undisclosed injury, Jordan Busch (1-8-9) returned and looked like his regularly mobile, puck-moving self. Justin Meier (1-9-10) and George Bertoia (1-2-3) continue to log big minutes, while Tyler Van Steinburg (3-4-7) looks more confident than ever.
WranglersTavis Roch (2-7-9) helps kick-start the Wranglers offense from the backend. Rookie Todd Bredo stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in at 200 pounds, while Jaydon Gilding and Kolton Carpenter both provide 6-foot-1 towering presence.
DynamitersTyson Brouwer (12-2, 1.59 GAA, .945 SP, 2 SO) hasn’t missed a beat since being named Eddie Mountain Division Goaltender of the Year alongside being recognized as the Dynamiters regular season MVP.
WranglersZane Steeves (9-3, 2.18 GAA, .931 SP) continues to carry the ball for the Wranglers and has done so admirably. Backup Adam Derochie (3-0, 1.83 GAA, .950 SP) has provided solid relief when needed.