In the immediate moments of their Game 7 loss on Saturday night it didn’t matter what a great season the Saanich Braves had had.
They were up 3-2 in the series with a chance to win it at home in Saanich on Friday but lost 4-0. It was even more devastating on Saturday, when it happened all over again in Campbell River, dropping the series finale 6-0.
As they watched the Campbell River Storm hoist the Brent Patterson Memorial Trophy and celebrate as the 2018 champions of the Vancouver Island Junior (B) Hockey League championship, it didn’t matter that the Braves had overcome a mediocre start of 10 wins in the first 25 games of the season, hit the reset button in December, and then finished with a run of 16-4-1-2, first place in the South division.
Or that they came back from being down three games to two in the VIJHL semifinal to upset the second-overall Nanaimo Buccaneers in the seventh game.
“For all of us on Saturday, right after the game, it was tough for us to see the accomplishments we made this year, the steps we took, but as we look back at the season we’re slowly able to see it,” said Braves coach Sam Waterfield, who finishes his rookie campaign as the VIJHL regular season Coach of the Year, and one win away from winning the league title. “Even on the bus ride home, we started talking about what happened this year and what we did as a group of guys.”
As the Braves players reconcile with the fact they’ll always remember being a win away from a league title, they’re also taking joy in the unpredictable run they had.
“It’s always going to sting a little,” said defenceman Elliott MacIsaac. “We turned some heads, we surprised ourselves too, we built up enough confidence to think we could win. In the end, Campbell River was a great team, they outplayed us, it came down to that, its just the way it was.”
Coming in at the turning point of the Braves’ season in December, MacIsaac had a unique vantage point. After winning the Maritime Junior A Hockey League championship as a third-pairing defenceman with the Truro Bearcats in Nova Scotia last year, the Reynolds secondary grad was traded to the St. Stephen County Aces in New Brunswick in November. Reluctant, he elected to play for the Braves and return to Saanich, where he had played all his minor hockey, including midget.
“When I showed up it was a little scrambled, the team hadn’t fully gelled yet,” MacIsaac recalled. “Myself and Ryan Strange arrived, and we were able to slip in and help tie everything together. We got along well with the team, and it transferred onto the ice, then everything started to click.”
Really, it was a gravy season for MacIsaac, who missed out on the grind of the Braves’ first half. MacIsaac ended with 16 points in 21 regular season games, and was used in all situations. It also turned out MacIsaac played in a Game 7 league final for the second straight season, though this time he didn’t win.
“Obviously, MacIsaac was one of our big additions,” Waterfield said. “When you get a 19-year-old with a resume that he has, it can help calm things down, and it did settle things down on D for us. He took big minutes away from the young guys, which took a lot off pressure off and allowed younger defenceman [such as Evan Abgrail and Nash Kellett] to really find their games.”
Ultimately, there was no answer for the lack of goals in Games 6 and 7 of the final. Waterfield summed up the Braves’ collapse, the end of an improbable run.
“To start Game 6 we couldn’t buy a goal,” Waterfield said. “Campbell River were able to find their game early in both games, get a couple of goals, get in their structure and settle in.”
Looking at next season, the Braves lose the strongest group of 20-year-olds its had in years. But the Braves also have the potential return of a talented, experienced core that was one win from a cup.
Moving on are goalie Riley Mathieson, the 2017-18 regular season MVP. Mathieson faced twice as many playoff shots as anyone in the playoffs with 774. Next was the Bucs goalie with 346, though Mathieson did it while posting a superb .924 save percentage. (Part of Mathieson’s strengths were the Braves forcing the opposition to shoot from non-danger areas, though Mathieson also bailed the Braves from plenty of high-danger situations.)
If the Braves had won, Mathieson would likely have been named the playoff MVP. Of course, Braves forward Michael Sproule was also in that conversation. Another graduating player, Sproule lead the Braves in playoff scoring with 14 goals, 15 assists in 19 games. Sproule scored a hat trick in Game 1 of the final, which the Braves stole, 5-4, in Campbell River.
Also graduating are Trevor Owens (19 points in playoffs), Jordan Strandlund and Mitch Moloney.
Eligible to return, among others, are 19-year-olds Dale McCabe (19 points in playoffs) and Elliott MacIsaac (16 playoff points), as well as 2000-born players Zach Guerra and Ryan Strange, who had 10 and six goals in the playoffs, respectively. Captain Jake Wilhelm is also eligible, but at 18, he may return to junior A, where he nearly played this year.
For now, the Braves are a team restored to greatness, though it’s soon to be a blank slate led by Waterfield, who is set to return for his second season.
During the playoffs Waterfield, who holds down the role of coach and general manager, worked closely with vice president and former coach/GM Brad Cook on a long list of names for the upcoming Prospect Camp, April 14, 15, 16.
“We will hold our exit meetings and hope we that lose a couple of our guys to [junior A],” Waterfield said. “Tha’t the beauty of junior B, you never know what guys in the room are thinking about for their future. There’s a lot of options, school, junior A, etc., and we’ll figure it all out.”