Vees take Mills in four – Effort and pride mend tired spirits

Yes there were a few tears.

Understandable, considering they had just been eliminated from the BCHL playoffs and the 20-year-old players would not be returning.

But the sombre mood in the Quesnel Millionaires dressing room Tuesday night eventually turned to one of celebration.

They celebrated making it through a tough season, celebrated the game the previous night that saw the Mills come within 11.8 seconds of beating the Penticton Vees, but more importantly they celebrated camaraderie.

Shawn Mueller

Shawn Mueller

Yes there were a few tears.

Understandable, considering they had just been eliminated from the BCHL playoffs and the 20-year-old players would not be returning. 

But the sombre mood in the Quesnel Millionaires dressing room Tuesday night eventually turned to one of celebration.

They celebrated making it through a tough season, celebrated the game the previous night that saw the Mills come within 11.8 seconds of beating the Penticton Vees, but more importantly they celebrated camaraderie.

The loss Tuesday night seemed inevitable given the heartbreaking game three overtime loss on Monday night.

 The Mills had a hard time regrouping Tuesday to challenge the Vees in game four.

“Last night [game three Monday] killed us,” Mills head coach Doug Hedley said.

“To be that close to getting a W.

“We could tell in the pre-game skate today [Tuesday] there was something different, there was something missing.”

“It was tough to rebound from that [overtime loss],” Mills rookie Daryl DeVries admitted.

Nonetheless the Mills did give it their all.

They skated, they dished out some hits and eventually they scored. 

But something was missing and in the end the Vees, who outshot the Mills 45-22, took game four and the interior conference quarter final series by a score of 6-3.

Going into the third period of game four Tuesday night, the Mills were down 5-0 and hope was slipping away as the Vees kicked their defensive game into high gear.

But a hooking penalty to Vees Tyler Hlookoff turned the game around and in the end, the fans that did show up, were treated to one last gutsy effort by a Mills team depleted by injuries.

Anderson White broke the goose egg for the Mills with a shot from the right point that beat Vees netminder Joey Rumpel stickside.

“It seemed to give us some energy,” Hedley said of White’s goal.

“You could feel it on the bench.”

Just two minutes later, Michael Spring shovelled home a rebound from in close to pull the Mills within three and the fans back into the game.

In a do-or-die move, Hedley pulled netminder Kris Kingdon, who started the third period in place of starter Adam Harris, with a bit more than five minutes to play.

The move apparently caught the Vees off guard and paid dividends as Rigby Burgart, playing in his last BCHL game, jammed a loose puck under Rumpel to pull the Mills within two goals, with four minutes to play in the third period.

Unfortunately, Garrett Milan stymied the Mills comeback with an empty-net goal at 18:39 of the final frame.

Exhausted, the Mills gave it everything they had until the bitter end and in the end their fans thanked them with a standing ovation as they raised their sticks in thanks and headed to the dressing room with melancholic memories of what could have been the night before still lingering in their minds.

“Looking forward to tonight it [game three overtime loss] was too much of a heartbreaker for us to handle,” Mills captain Skyler Smutek said.

“It was probably the most heartbreaking game I’ve ever been a part of.

“It’s going to sit in me all summer.”

Indeed, game three of the quarter final series between the Mills and the Vees could be classified as a see-saw battle.

Several times during the game the Vees looked frustrated and even unsure of themselves as the Mills and the Vees traded goals.

The Mills, thanks to goals by Chris Kerr, Shawn Mueller and Spencer Graboski battled to hold on to a 3-2 lead late into the third period.

With the fans cheering, anxiously watching the clock tick down, the Mills came within 12 seconds of winning game three.

However, under pressure, the Mills iced the puck forcing a face-off at the right face-off circle.

A bad bounce later saw the puck find the stick of Logan Johnston who cashed in a rebound with 11.8 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 3-3.

You could hear the air, the energy rush out of the Vault.

The Vees scored the overtime winner 5:32 into the first overtime period.

Joey Holka, with two Mills players taking him down, took a shot from his knees and it found its way between the pads of Adam Harris.

“He gave us a chance to be in the game,” rookie Malcolm Gould said to deflect any blame from Harris.

“He really stepped up for us.”

It was a hard loss, a metaphor for a season that began with such promise following last year’s playoff run.

But game three was also a testament to what the Mills had become, a team in the truest sense of the word, all for one and one for all, brothers in arms.

Despite the outcome of the series, Hedley looked back at game three with pride in his players.

“Outstanding game, even though we had three lines and four defenceman,” Hedley said referring to his injury plagued bench.

“We left it out on the ice, there’s nothing more we could ask for.

“The energy level was there, we outplayed them at times and we outchanced them,” Hedley said with a shake of his head.

Losing the quarter final series in four straight games was not how the players had envisioned the series against the Vees playing out.

But, like Hedley, the players pointed to game three with a sense of pride, a sense of accomplishment and the promise of what can be.

For Smutek, the end of the series represents the end of his BCHL career and despite the loss he only had fond memories of his time in Quesnel.

“It’s been the best two years of my life living in Quesnel,” Smutek said with a bit of a quiver in his voice.

“I love this town and the Mills organization.

“I know I’m going to wake up tomorrow and realize it’s the end and know it’s going to feel pretty bad because this has been such a great place to live and play.”

Burgart, another 20-year-old whose BCHL career came to an end Tuesday night, said he was thankful for the opportunity to play in Quesnel, an opportunity he said helped him improve his game.

Like Smutek, Burgart said he too would leave Quesnel with fond memories.

“This is where it all started for me,” he said of his first junior

hockey season with the Millionaires in 2007.

“It’s going to be tough to leave.”

As with any team, it is often the camaraderie that teammates share that form the fondest memories and Burgart is no exception, pointing to a tight-knit group of teammates that made his last season a fun season.

“Probably the best team I’ve seen like that,” he said of the camaraderie in the Mills dressing room.

The feeling of camaraderie extended right through the dressing room, even the rookies pointed to the friendships established as a positive memory from a difficult year.

“The road trips, being with all the guys,” Malcolm Gould said.

“It’s a great group of guys.”

“This is probably the best group of guys I’ve ever played with.”

DeVries, who finished his rookie season with eight goals and 11 assists also looked forward to next year.

“Great group of guys, a lot of fun this year.”

The friendship and the potential for success born from their experience this season also had the rookies looking forward.

“I want to be here until they can’t stand me anymore,” Gould said.

“I’m really looking forward to coming back, especially with all the guys that are returning,” DeVries said.

That camaraderie has not escaped Hedley and he knows it will play an important part in building a successful future for the Millionaires.

 

“There’s something special in that room,” he said pointing to the Mills dressing room coming alive with music and the banter of comrades.

 

“I know it’s going to be an exciting year next year.”