For the Southwest Cougars, the host team in the Telus Cup Western Regionals, the third time was definitely the charm.
With the tournament cancelled in both 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19, and postponed by about a month this year, the team finally got their chance to play host to the top AAA Under 18 hockey teams from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Northwestern Ontario last weekend. They were a force to be reckoned with as play progressed over the four-day event at Virden's Tundra Oil & Gas Place.
In the last round-robin contest on Saturday afternoon, April 30, the Cougars pulled off a pivotal 3 - 0 win and eliminated the Winnipeg Wild from further contention. In so doing, they clinched a spot in the Championship Final the following day where they would face the Notre Dame Hounds, who went undefeated through the round-robin.
While the Hounds enjoyed a lead, also 3 - 0, through the opening frame of the championship, a goal by Cougars forward Luke MacKenzie with a mere 3:17 to go in the third resulted in a tied game. Soon after, Hounds forward Andrew Altwasser found a loose puck at the side of the net and shot it in with 17.2 seconds on the clock. That made the score 4 - 3 in favour of the Hounds, who tossed aside sticks and helmets and spilled out on to the ice in jubilation. The Cougars, meanwhile, were dejected and frustrated that their hard-fought quest for victory had slipped away.
For his efforts, Altwasser was named Player of the Game, as was Brett Laing of the Cougars, who scored a single goal.
“The kids did it. It's all about the kids,” said Notre Dame head coach Del Pedrick of the game that had many in the crowd settling in for the round of overtime that never came.
“You never want it tight. You want to be up by three or four and breathe easy. That's what coaching kids is all about. It's about fighting through the tough times...a little bit of adversity and learning from it. We're a team that isn't overly flashy. I don't think we're overly skilled. I think we work very well together, and I think depth is a key for us. Usually, we're as good in the sixtieth minute as we are in the second, third or fourth minute. I give full credit to Troy (Leslie) and Southwest. They hung around as they did all tournament. A three-goal lead is the kiss of death for every team in this tournament.”
Pedrick hopes for a strong showing at the national tournament in Okotoks, Alberta, which runs from May 16 to 22. He knows it will not be a cakewalk.
“With seven games in seven days to win, you have to use your whole bench,” he said. “You've got to get some depth players in, maintain a positive attitude and forget mistakes quickly. You can't dwell on them. The biggest challenge for all these teams is that it's been a long year. September was eight months ago...lots of games, lots of practices so it wears and tears on the kids. They key right now is to get a little bit of rest, keep sharp over the next ten days and we'll take off west and see how we make out.”
Cougars look ahead
With his teary-eyed players milling around the ice surface, Cougars head coach Troy Leslie reflected on the loss and praised the tenacity of his squad.
“We had a pretty flat first period and I was concerned going into the second because we had the long change,” he said. “In the first game against Notre Dame, they had a really good second period against us, but I thought our guys weathered the storm. Obviously that late goal in the second period gave us a bit of a boost and that carried us into the third. We had some good energy and were able to get back into it. It hurts to lose it that way, because our guys fought so hard to get back to tied and you know it would have been really nice to get it into overtime.”
Leslie shares a positive outlook as he looks ahead to a “new normal” 2022-2023 season.
“You get to this time of year and you're not really planning for your season to end, so my plan was to be going to Okotoks on May 16,” he said. “As a coach, you always plan that way. We'll take a few weeks here and sit down with management and just assess where we're headed from here. The future really looks bright for this club. We've got a lot of good young players in the system. Obviously this tournament is really going to benefit them in terms of their maturity and sharing their experience with any new players that are going to come into our program. It's been a really valuable weekend and we're just looking forward to next year.”
The Cougars will bid adieu to forward Ty Lone and defenceman Garrett MacDonald, who will age out of the program. Meanwhile, local hockey fans will get used to seeing goalie Owen Laroque of Wawanesa and defenceman Ty Plaisier of Virden, as both have signed letters of intent to suit up with the Virden Oil Capitals next season.
The Notre Dame Hounds have won the Telus Cup Western Regional Tournament five times, most recently in 2018.
The Telus Cup Western Regionals were first hosted in Virden in 2012, the year after Tundra Oil & Gas Place officially opened. At that time, the Cougars were defeated 5 - 1 in the final by the Saskatoon Contacts. In the year 2000, the Cougars also lost to the Contacts in the same tournament in Souris.
Southwest Cougars remember and honour “Moff”
During the opening ceremonies of the Telus Cup Western Regionals in Virden, the Southwest Cougars honoured the late Grant Moffatt with a ceremonial puck drop at centre ice. They also remembered his legacy by wearing a black and white jersey emblazoned with a special “Moff” logo during their round-robin contest against the Notre Dame Hounds on April 29, as well as in the final game on May 1.
Current Assistant Coach Tanner Lewis acknowledged Moffatt as an integral part of the Cougars organization who devoted countless hours to the program's operation up until his passing in 2020.
“Moff was with the team ever since it came to Souris,” he said. “He's a special, special man. Seeing that jersey every time we wear black, it almost brings a tear to my eye. Every game, everything we do is for Moff, and “For Moff” has been our slogan for the past two years. He meant a lot to everyone. You ask any Cougar Alumni about Grant Moffatt, and they'll tell you the same things that you're hearing from me. Without Grant there is no Cougars, and we're not the respected organization that we are without him.”
Lewis said that Moffatt's dedication is remembered fondly by coaching staff and players to this day with his photo in the Cougars' dressing room.