By Kenn Oliver
HARBOUR GRACE — There was a point in this just-completed Newfoundland Senior Hockey League season when the future of the Conception Bay North Eastlink CeeBee Stars was in doubt. A losing record, dwindling attendance, and the resulting financial woes threatened to put an end to the storied franchise mid-season.
But the CeeBees rallied around one another, narrowly earned a post-season berth and in front of a packed house at S.W. Moores Memorial Stadium in Harbour Grace Saturday night, completed a sweep of the defending champion Clarenville Caribous with a 4-2 victory in Game 4 of The Telegram Herder Memorial Trophy Championship Series.
“To come from where we were earlier this year to now, I don’t think anyone could have predicted this,” said Harbour Grace native Daniel Sparkes, who won his first Herder in four trips to the best-of-seven provincial final. “I’d like to see the Pro-Line odds on it.”
The CeeBees, despite having knocked off the top-seeded Grand Falls-Windsor Catracts in the semifinal round, were billed as the underdogs to the high-scoring Caribous in the provincial final. Clarenville was the second-seeded team which advanced by defeating the Western Royals in five games.
“If anyone had to say at the beginning of January that we were going to win the Herder, I think people would have laughed,” says Upper Island Cove’s Steve Greeley, also celebrating his first Herder.
Even coach Ian Moores, who took over bench boss duties from Corey Crocker after the team fired him in January, felt C.B.N. was a longshot.
“Having said that, I believed in this team,” Moores insisted. “Corey, who was instrumental in helping us put this team together, always said, ‘We’ve got a team to win.’ Unfortunately for Corey, we never had a full team at times and we lost a lot of one-goal games, but this team never got blown out.”
Ryan Delaney, who took home the Cliff Gorman Memorial Award as playoff MVP, says the CeeBees probably posted the worst regular-season record (7-15-1) of any Herder-winning team in history, and the win will go down as one of the biggest upsets in provincial senior hockey history.
Although not everyone is completely surprised.
“I knew from day one that with the team we had, once we got going, we would keep rolling,” said Delaney, enjoying his fourth Herder championship.
Oddly enough, for a team that struggled to dress a full compliment of defenceman throughout the season, it was the CeeBees’ effort behind the blueline and in front of a rock solid Mark Yetman that was at the heart of the organization’s eighth Herder crown. The Caribous didn’t hold a lead since the second period of Game 1 and just three of the team’s paltry eight goals came at even strength.
“We put together three defensive pairings and I would put those six guys up against any D-corps in the province this season,” said Moores, referring to former pro Doug O’Brien, Donnie Gosse, Fred Earle, Nich Theriault, Mike Dyke and Grant Kenny.
“Before each game, I put a challenge to our D, a game within a game, to compete against each other to have the fewest goals against as possible,” said Moores, who was a mainstay on the CeeBees’ blueline in the team’s three Herder wins from 2006 to ’08. “They’re all very determined guys. They were unbelievable I’m very proud of them.
“And hats off to Mark Yetman. He was the difference in this series and our playoff run. Every time we needed a key save, he was there. He was a huge part of this.”
A big part of Saturday night’s title-clinching win was Sparkes, who found himself with considerably more icetime with Colin Feehan missing the game due to a shoulder injury suffered in Game 3. Sparkes made good use of his chance, turning in a three-point second period, drawing assists on both of Delaney’s goals and tipping in one of his own.
“It’s hard when you’re not playing all game to come out and step up, but he’s the one who battled hard, got the puck loose from their D and I just put it in an empty net, pretty much. I give him all the credit,” said Delaney.
Ray Dalton had the other CeeBees marker, while Dale Sullivan and Ryan Desrosier scored for the Herd.
The post-morten for the Caribous’ season, however, isn’t as grim as some will be inclined make it out, according to coach Ivan Hapgood.
“If I could say we didn’t give an honest effort, and the guys didn’t show up to play, I would be more upset than what I am right now,” he said. “When you’re banging pucks off the side of the net, Yetman is making big saves and Sparkes goes out and has one go in off his backside, you kind of know the bounces are not going your way.
“Sometimes when two good teams go out there, it can be a close series, but not necessarily a long series.
“In the long run,” a conciliatory Hapgood suggested, “for the good of hockey, the same team can’t win all the time.”
In the short term, however, the Caribous still have another challenge ahead of them. In a month’s time, the team will find itself in Bentley, Alta., seeking their second Allan Cup national senior A championship in three years. Hapgood doesn’t expect the sting of a Herder loss to be demoralizing for his players. In fact, he said it could work in their favour.
“The last time we went away and won the Allan Cup, we had lost to Deer Lake in the semifinals. We had a more reason to win.
“We’ll be ready when that comes around.”