The Kam River Fighting Walleye are in seventh heaven – and heading to the Centennial Cup.
The Fish spotted the Thunder Bay North Stars a 1-0 lead on Wednesday night, then scored five of the next six goals and held on to edge their Game 7 opponent 5-4 to capture the franchise’s first Superior International Junior Hockey League championship.
The win earned the team automatic entry into the national championship, alongside nine other teams across the country.
That’s a week away.
For now, the Fighting Walleye are living in the moment, celebrating the chance to hoist the Bill Salonen Cup in front of a rabid crowd of fans at the Norwest Arena, an opportunity that eluded the team last year when they fell in the final.
Defenceman Jack Cook, named the playoff most valuable player, said it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one he’ll never forget.
“It feels unreal,” said Cook, who put up 11 goals and 19 points in a dozen post-season appearances for the Fighting Walleye.
“I’ve never had a feeling like this. To battle hard for seven games and get it done at home, words can’t describe it.”
Holding the trophy over his head, skating around a rink named after the Staal brothers, was incredible, he added.
“It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s probably the best moment of my life up to now.”
Teammate Riley Borody, who will play in the Centennial Cup in his hometown of Portage, Man., was just as excited at the seven-game triumph, which saw the Stars win the first two games, lose the next three, only to force a Game 7 with a 6-2 win in Game 6.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling. We worked toward this all year and there’s no other group of guys I’d rather do this with,” said Borody, who arrived mid-season from the Dauphin Kings of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
He can’t wait to lace them up at home.
“It’s really cool. I get to go home and play in front of my parents and friends. It’ll be super cool,” he said.
Dylan Bertrand opened the scoring for the North Stars at 7:05 of the first, sliding the puck between the skates of Kam River goaltender Eric Vanska.
The lead lasted a little more than five minutes.
Borody evened the score, pouncing on a rebound that bounced off the chest of Thunder Bay netminder Keenan Marks. Less than two minutes later the Fighting Walleye took the lead for good, rookie-of-the-year Max Leduc unleashing a blistering wrist shot that found the twine.
Kobe Braham doubled the Kam River lead 8:20 into the second on a sharp-angled shot that bounced through traffic an into the North Stars net, though before the period was out, Edison Weeks made a nice dangle on the home-team D and cut the lead to 3-2 midway through the period.
Euan Morrison restored the two-goal lead 2:10 into the third and Ryan Doucetted upped the lead to three with 7:51 to play.
The Stars, like they did all series long, did not quit.
Nikolas Campbell, who led all postseason scorers with 15 goals, scored at 16:09, and then, with Kam River captain Anthony Oviedo serving a double minor, then Colby Feist found the back of the net to close the gap to one.
But with just eight seconds to go, time ran out on the SIJHL Cinderella story.
“We wanted it bad, and so did they. Bounces go both ways and that’s hockey. It was a hell of a series and all the credit to them for that,” said Weeks. “They gave us a hell of a run and we did everything we could. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
The Centennial Cup begins on May 11, running through May 21.
Scoring: 1. Thunder Bay, Bertrand 1 (Campbell, Feist) 7:05. 2. Kam River, Borody 4 (Lamoureux, Leduc) 12:28. 3. Kam River, Leduc 7 (Bell) 14:24. Penalties: Weeks TB (hooking) 17:28.
Scoring: 4. Kam River, Braham 3 (Kramps) 8:20. 5. Thunder Bay, Weeks 8 (Skillestad) 10:03. Penalties: McLeod KRW (tripping) 14:22.
Scoring: 6. Kam River, Morrison 3 (Reyelts, Borody) 2:10. 7. Kam River, Doucette 3 (Dunmore, Bell) 12:09. 8. Thunder Bay, Campbell 15 (Halushak, Weeks) 16:09. 9. Thunder Bay, Feist 8 (Campbell, Fuchs) 19:53 pp. Penalties: Oviedo KRW (high sticking double minor) 18:24.
GAME DATA — SOG — Thunder Bay 15-14-9-38, Kam River 13-11-11-35; Power plays (goals-chances) — Thunder Bay (1-2), Kam River (0-1); Goaltenders — Thunder Bay: Keenan Marks, Kam River: Eric Vanska. A: 893