Well, that was fun.
It was fiery, frenetic, full-blooded, skilful, scrappy, and occasionally sloppy. There was counter-pressing and high-pressing, desperate defending, and flashes of brilliance. There were crunching tackles, body checks, pushes and shoves, and 23 seconds from the end came the moment that almost seemed inevitable … a melee behind Shaunavon’s goal, which put the game on pause while officials tried to sort out the mess.
Nobody could argue that the Maple Creek Senior Hawks and Shaunavon Badgers didn’t provide gripping entertainment in this opening encounter in the White Mud Hockey League.
It was a reminder of what fans had missed over the last 18 months. It was also proof of what can happen when two spirited opponents collide after a long layoff.
In the end it was the home crowd that went home the happiest, as the Hawks came away with a 5-3 victory, thanks to a four-goal blitz in the second period.
Sean Chapman, head coach, was pleased with the result, but less than thrilled with aspects of the Hawks’ play, even accounting for rust. In particular, he saw room for improvement defensively.
“I told the guys I didn’t expect a Rembrandt, but I also didn’t expect a finger painting either. It wasn’t a work of art out there, but we got the job done.”
Chapman was full of praise for the battling qualities shown by Shaunavon’s youthful players.
“They are gritty and I expected them to push us, and they did. They played a heck of a game.”
Up to 250 people – one or two estimates put numbers as high as 300 – filed into the Maple Creek arena on Friday evening, hungry for action after the long COVID-19-enforced hockey hiatus. As ever, the beer gardens proved very popular, with barely a gap between spectators. To gain this vantage point, proof of double vaccination was required.
Among those present was John Duncan, the Hawks president, who positioned himself at the front of the public seating in the lobby, where every time the puck ricocheted off the specially strengthened glass, a sound rang out like the report of a rifle.
To see the Senior Hawks in the heat of competition again provoked powerful emotions in Duncan, one of the driving forces in resurrecting the team. It was in the summer that efforts began to find enough players to fill a roster. The search extended to Medicine Hat, and outlying communities like Fox Valley and Consul.
“I am glad we started in July, and I am glad we now get to see the finished product,” Duncan said. “I think it was a very good game for the first game of the season.”
Duncan, someone who can recall the days of the Maple Creek Orioles, distinctive in their yellow jerseys, said he was pleased with the turnout.
“I haven’t seen any official figures, but I think there must have been close to 300 people, although it is difficult to tell when everyone is so spaced out.
“I believe spectators had a good time. Going to a hockey game is an excellent opportunity to get out of the house.”
The first period was evenly contested. It became immediately clear that Shaunavon Badgers, with a bench full of youthful talent and grit, weren’t there simply to make up numbers. They hustled for the puck, and seemed ready for a physical contest.
Nevertheless, it was the Hawks who drew first blood. At 8.41, Blake Fournier scored the opening goal, with assists by captain Lane Sanderson and Cody Florkowski.
Any thoughts that this would open the floodgates for the Hawks, however, were wiped away when Shaunavon’s Tanner Kendall pounced with 3:37 remaining on the clock. About 90 seconds later, Jordi Thomas also hit the target to ensure the Badgers ended the period 2-1 up.
In the second period, the Hawks struck twice in quick succession; first through Ty Reisdorf, assisted by David Haaf, then 20 seconds later through Dayton Reinbolt, thanks to another assist by Sanderson.
With 14:38 showing on the clock, Tyler Sandler added the Hawks’ fourth goal; this time Rob Parkinson and Florkowski provided the assists.
Florkowski, a dynamic, feisty competitor, with a penchant for riling opponents, not to mention rival fans, wrapped the game up just over nine minutes from the end of the second period with a scintillating fifth goal after a pass from Haaf.
Brock Larson’s goal at 7:26 proved no more than a consolation for the Badgers.
Come the third period, both side’s defences held firm. The Hawks kept the Badgers at bay, with Derek Behrman, their player-manager, providing an assured, steadying presence at the back.
“Derek plays the right way,” said Chapman. “He is very dependable defensively. I was happy with his game.”
The scenes near the end were the most memorable moments of the period. Unfortunately for the Hawks, Florkowski, who likes to play his hockey on the edge, could be facing a two-game suspension for his role in what unfolded.
Chapman, who admits to being a coach that is never satisfied, bemoaned the sloppiness exhibited by the Hawks during passages in the game.
“I didn’t like that at all. I know it has been 18 months, I know we were rusty, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.”
Despite the Hawks’ second-period goals, Chapman did not feel his team controlled the play.
“We jumped on opportunities and scored, but I thought we were really, really sloppy, not taking care of the puck, not doing the right thing with the puck … In the third period, we were good and held the fort.”
Chapman said the Hawks needed to improve defensively.
“I am always defence first. I have to make sure we clean up our own end – limit turnovers, limit coughing up the puck, and make good crisp passes coming out of the zone.
“We cheated a little bit when we tried to sneak out of the zone a little bit too early, we cough up the puck and they keep it in the zone.
“Once we get on the offence we are pretty good, so I don’t have too many negatives to say about that. We’ve got to do a better job with the power play, and that will take some work. When we have a man advantage, we’ve got to make it count. Other than that, we have to get back to the drawing board, get back to work.”
Chapman praised Hawks’ goaltender, Coy Tillier.
“Coy played really well and made saves when he had to,” he said. “We had some good efforts. We’ve got some young guys in the line-up who played really well. Overall, I’m happy with the win, but we can be a lot better.”
He added: “As we get going through the year and get more games under our belt, we will get better. Shaunavon, full marks to them, they came out and battled us hard. They have a short bench, but they’ve got a lot of young guys, who are gritty and know how to play the right way. We have to do better. We play them next week and we have to be a lot better.”
On the scuffles near the end, Chapman said: “After 18 months we got a little frisky out there.”
The Hawks are on the road in their next four games: Shaunavon, Friday, November 26; Frontier, Saturday, November 27; Gull Lake, Friday, December 3; and Cabri, Saturday, December 4. The next home game is against Gull Lake on Saturday, December 11.