It wasn’t quite the storybook ending that the Red Deer Vipers had in mind.
The top four Junior B hockey teams in Alberta converged on the Red Deer Arena one last time as the Vipers hosted the 2016 Hockey Alberta ATB Provincial Championships at the old barn over the weekend.
“It was good. We didn’t get exactly what we wanted out of it but we battled hard,” said Vipers’ Head Coach JD Morrical.
The Vipers were denied a fairy tale ending to their 17-year tenure at the Arena after dropping a tough 3-1 decision to the Wainwright Bisons in Saturday’s semi final before a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to the Wetaskiwin Icemen in the Bronze medal game on Sunday afternoon.
“We were super close. One bounce either way and we would have been in the finals, so we did good.
“You know, the bronze medal game’s tough to get up for. It’s not really why we came and I think Wetaskiwin kind of felt the same way, but I was happy with it. It didn’t go exactly the way we wanted it to but it was pretty good,” Morrical said.
The Vipers came into the Keystone Cup tournament, which featured the champions of each of Alberta’s Junior B leagues, as a dark horse team.
On one hand, they hadn’t played a game since being eliminated from the Heritage Junior Hockey League playoffs by the Airdrie Thunder back in late February.
On the other, the Vipers were one of the hottest teams in junior hockey at the end of the regular season, posting a 9-1-0-0 record in January.
“The message that I definitely sent to the boys was that in January, I strongly believe we were the best team in the province. We didn’t lose a game, we won 15 in a row and we were pretty much unbeatable for about a month and a half there,” Morrical said, also noting when the team played Airdrie in playoffs, they just didn’t have the desperation they needed to win the series.
“They just kind of wanted it a little more than we did, so I mean, we practiced for a month, so we were a little nervous coming in but I knew the guys were ready. I knew we had a good team all year.”
It’s difficult to return to game form after a month away, though, and the inevitable rust was evident in the first period of their first game against the North Peace Navigators, who eventually went on to win it all.
“The first game we were really just kind of shaking the rust off. I knew it was going to be like that in the first period and I knew that as long as we survived that we’d be fine,” said Morrical, adding his team only gave up one good scoring chance in the first and were solid the rest of the game.
“We gave up one really good chance and they scored, and then they scored on a five on three in the first period. The second and third period, we really out-chanced them the whole game. If we had a little better puck luck we probably would have won the first game as well.”
The Vipers bounced back, though, and managed to win their next two games in a row, including a 4-2 victory over the North Edmonton Red Wings and a crucial 3-2 win in a must-win game over the Killam Wheat Kings to make the semi-final.
Unfortunately, that would be where the ride would end, as the Vipers fell 3-1 to the Wainwright Bisons in the semis, relegating them to the bronze final.
“Even that game against Wainwright, they scored a short handed goal and the third period we were just pushing the whole time and we probably had five grade-A scoring chances and our goalie played excellent. We just couldn’t finish,” Morrical said.
That came to a head when, with a minute and a half remaining and the Vipers’ net empty, a shot from a Vipers’ defenseman hit the post.
“It went post to post and out and they scored an empty netter. So it was a good game and, same thing, with a little better luck we probably would have won that game as well.”
While the fourth place finish was disappointing for the team, Morrical said the tournament was a good way to bid farewell to the Red Deer Arena, which is slated to come down at the end of the season.
“We wanted to win, you know? It was kind of the boys’ goal to win and have the last championship ever at the Arena. But it was good.”
Still, it was an emotional farewell to the old building, which has stood in that spot for 63 years and the Vipers have called the building home for 17.
“A lot of our players’ dads grew up playing here too. The whole season that was our goal was to win this thing. It’s tough being the host. You can be as good as you want but we’re under different pressure than every other team that comes here, as well.”
The gold medal game between the North Peace Navigators and the Wainwright Bisons was the final one played in those hallowed halls, with North Peace coming out on top of a close 3-2 game.
There will be special farewell celebrations held at the Arena this Friday evening, which will feature stories and final tours through the old facilities as well as the unveiling of plans for a new building to replace it. Festivities kick off at 5 p.m.