When people talk about the greatest Raider teams of all time, only two squads are in the competition. But which team snags third place on the list? WHL expert Darren Steinke takes a look back at the 1994-95 Raiders, the team many consider to be the best Raider squad to never win a championship.
The late Donn Clark’s season-ending summary of the 1994-95 Prince Albert Raiders accurately describes that all-heart club to this day.
After the Raiders fell 5-1 in Game 7 of what is now known as the WHL’s Eastern Conference Championship Series to the Wheat Kings at the rink then known as the Keystone Centre in Brandon, Clark, who was the team’s head coach, offered up these words to Darren Oleksyn, who was the beat writer that covered the squad for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Clark’s words conveyed how special that season was.
“This is the gutsiest team I’ve seen in my 12 years of coaching,” said Clark. “There isn’t a guy on this team that wouldn’t go to the wall for another.
“I have enormous respect for them. We made some great strides this year. We certainly have nothing to hang our heads about.
“It’s been a fairy tale year for the team, the organization and the city.”
The Raiders entered the 1994-95 season having missed the playoffs the previous two campaigns. They would roll to a third overall finish in the WHL with a 44-26-2 record coming up five standings points behind the Wheat Kings.
In the post-season, the Raiders swept away the Regina Pats and their archrivals the Saskatoon Blades in successive four game sweeps. Against the Wheat Kings, both clubs went into Game 7 of their WHL semifinal series knowing a berth in the Memorial Cup tournament that decides a CHL champion was on the line.
The Kamloops Blazers, who were hosting the Memorial Cup that season, had eliminated the Tri-City Americans in six games in what is now known as the WHL’s Western Conference Championship Series to advance to the WHL final. That gave the winner of the series between the Raiders and Wheat Kings an automatic berth in the Memorial Cup tournament.
The Raiders led 1-0 in Game 7 until the final four minutes of the second, when the Wheat Kings seized momentum in front of their home crowd and snowballed the Prince Albert side to pull away victory.
To add to the uniqueness of the 1994-95 campaign, one of the Raiders heroes was hometown product Denis Pederson. The textbook Raiders star power forward was the team’s captain, and he helped Canada win gold at world juniors that season.
Pederson had a stellar post-season piling up 11 goals and 14 assists appearing in all of the Raiders 15 games in the 1995 WHL post-season. He took home honours as Prince Albert’s athlete of the year in 1995.
When Clark’s quote was told to Pederson all these years later, the centre, who played three full seasons with the Raiders and part of a fourth campaign with the club, said his old bench boss nailed it. After skating through a rebuild season in 1992-93 and what Pederson dubbed was an underachieving campaign in 1993-94, he believed the Raiders were in a spot to take off in 1994-95.
“That year I think a lot of guys from what I found put away their personal success and wanted team success,” said Pederson. “When you get a team of good players, good guys, good leadership pulling for the team, great things can happen.
“Unfortunately, we were playing against a team that was almost built just like us in Brandon, and we fell one game short. I felt we earned everything that we got, and it was a special year, because we were finally able to get into the playoffs and not only get into it but make something happen too.”
Shane Hnidy was a 19-year-old defenceman on the 1994-95 Raiders and returned to Prince Albert for a 20-year-old campaign in 1995-96, when the Raiders again got to the semifinal round of the WHL Playoffs only to fall in six games to the Wheat Kings. The Wheat Kings would win the WHL title in 1996.
Following his time with the Raiders, Hnidy moved on to the professional ranks and was mostly an NHL regular from 2000 to 2011. He capped his playing career as a member of the Boston Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2010-11.
Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Hnidy has been the television analyst for the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. He basically had a front seat view in seeing what it took for the Golden Knights to skate around in front of a home crowd at T-Mobile Arena after lifted the Stanley Cup this past June 13.
Looking back at those NHL championship teams, Hnidy believed the 1994-95 Raiders had the make up to be a WHL and CHL championship team. All these years later, Hnidy sees that Game 7 loss to Brandon as a missed chance.
“Certainly the 94-95 team wasn’t as talented as the team the next year, but it had all the characteristics in the make up for a championship team,” said Hnidy. “Being around the game now for as long as I have and seeing what it takes to win, that team had so many of the pieces.
“I always think when you get a championship team you can’t have any loose ends on a team. It was a tight-knit group. It was a group of guys that loved playing for each other.
“We had a tonne of fun, but when it came time for business, we were all in. We could play any style of game at that point too. It was a group of guys that were willing to go out and battle for each other.”
When it comes to the romantic view of the Raiders, people in Prince Albert see a team that can play any style you would like to see them play. The Raiders could be run and gun, get down and dirty in the trenches or have a flat out brawl with an opponent, if an opponent chose to go in that direction.
The 1994-95 Raiders could do all of that. They were a team that had character, was full of characters and were the type of players the people of Prince Albert could take to heart.
Rugged 20-year-old defensive-defenceman Shane Zulyniak was a career member of the Raiders suiting up as a 16-year-old in 1990-91. He finished his time with the club playing a then team record 318 career regular season games. To this day, only Brett Novak (330 games) and Sean Montgomery (345 games) have appeared in more career regular season contests with the Raiders.
Neil Johnson, who was a 20-year-old centre who came to the team in a trade with the Red Deer Rebels, provided depth scoring. Winger Paul Healey, who would play 77 regular season games in the NHL, topped the Raiders in regular season scoring with 43 goals and 50 assists.
Shane Willis, who was a 17-year-old right-winger, would be named to the CHL’s all-rookie team. You could say everyone on the roster was a character with character including the likes of Shayne Toporowski, Steve Kelly, Russell Hogue, Mike McGhan, Brad Church, Jeff Lank, Ryan Bast, “Wild Thing” Mitch Shawara, Rob Hegberg, Jason Issel, Sean Robertson, Darren Wright, David Van Drunen, Kaleb Toth and Kris Fizzell.
Hnidy, Church, Willis, Hegberg and Robertson all came to the Raiders in a trade in January of 1993 that saw then star captain Dean McAmmond and defenceman Darren Perkins dealt to the Swift Current Broncos. The deal was a key part of the Raiders rebuild.
Very early in the 1994-95 campaign, then Raiders director of hockey operations Bob Robson made moves to acquire two standout netminders. He got 18-year-old puckstopper Craig Hordal from the Brandon Wheat Kings and added 20-year-old Sandy Allan, who has been with the OHL’s North Bay Centennials the previous three campaigns. Allan would go the distance for the Raiders playing spectacularly in the WHL Playoffs.
Behind the bench with Clark, the Raiders had two familiar faces adding contributions as assistant coaches in Dale McFee and local product Rod Dallman. Both were players on the Raiders 1984-85 squad that won the WHL title and the Memorial Cup as CHL champions.
“They (the coaches) were all instrumental, and they just let us do our thing,” said Zulyniak. “They knew we had a good team.
“We all played hard for each other, and they kind of let us piece it all together. It was just a good atmosphere. When you’re rolling and you are going on five or six of seven game win streaks, it is pretty fun to play.
“I remember we had a great team and good characters. We were so close. We were so close to going out west to Kamloops and the Memorial Cup there.”
The Raiders began the regular season on Sept. 28, 1994 with a 5-2 win over the Blades in the building that was then known as Saskatchewan Place in Saskatoon. On March 19, 1995, the regular season concluded with a 6-3 loss to the Blades in Saskatoon. The best memory of playing the Blades was still to come.
After the Raiders swept away the Pats, the Blades eliminated the Broncos in six games to set up what was deemed to be a heavyweight showdown in the second round. The Blades, who fell in seven games to the Blazers in the 1994 WHL final, had the same amount of standings points as the Raiders in 1994-95 at 90, but Saskatoon finished fourth overall in the league with a 41-23-8 mark.
To the delight of the faithful in “Hockey Town North,” the Raiders ensured the brooms came out again for another sweep. In the series deciding Game 4 contest played on April 7, 1995 at Saskatchewan Place, a crowd of 8,815 spectators came out to see the Raiders put away the Blades with a 3-2 victory.
A total of five busloads of fans made the trek down from Prince Albert to Saskatoon along a countless number of cars full of supporters. When the game’s final buzzer sounded, it was obvious where the huge cheer came from.
“That was like our NHL game for most of us,” said Pederson. “That game was electric.
“I think the whole team, from the drop of the puck on, we were flying. Honestly, we were not going to be denied in that game for the sweep. That was one of the best series, I think, for me with the Raiders that we had.”
Zulyniak remembered a colourful moment that seemed to set the tone for the series.
“The two teams did not like each other,” said Zulyniak. “We had some doozies of some battles.
“I remember Mitch Shawara fighting (Chris) McAllister, who was about 6-foot-7 and played for Philly (in the NHL), and Wade Belak. Mitch gave it to them both and right there we’re like, ‘we’re going to clobber these guys.’ They were like, ‘Who is this guy?’
“We were just riding a big wave. It was unbelievable. That was a pivotal point I remember early.”
Next up was the Wheat Kings for the right to go to the WHL final. The Raiders and Wheat Kings split their regular season series 4-4.
In the playoffs, neither side was able to win two straight against each other. Two contests went to overtime, and Brandon took both of those games that included a 3-2 win in Game 3 in Prince Albert and a 5-4 victory in Game 5 in Brandon.
Long lines for Raiders playoff tickets returned that series resulting in sellout crowds in the old smarty box seat configuration of 3,567 spectators at the Art Hauser Centre, which was then known as the Comuniplex. TSN dropped into Prince Albert to televise Game 6 of the series nationally, which was a huge deal at that time.
With the Raiders facing elimination down 3-2 in the series, they took Game 6 by a 5-4 score thanks to Pederson collecting a pair of goals and an assist. Having forced a series deciding Game 7, TSN elected to stay with the series and broadcast that winner take all contest nationally.
In Game 7 on April 25, 1995 played before 5,723 spectators in Brandon, Church gave the Raiders a 1-0 lead at the 16:54 mark of the first period. Holding that 1-0 advantage in the second, Wheat Kings left-winger Darren Van Oene hit Wright from behind into the boards. Wright was down on the ice for 15 minutes before being taken off on a stretcher.
Van Oene was given a double minor on the play. The Raiders failed to score on the power play and were 0-for-8 with the man advantage in Game 7.
Darren Ritchie scored the equalizer for Brandon with 3:50 remaining in the second, and Marty Murray potted the series winner short-handed with 2:13 left in the second. The host side had the momentum for the rest of the night afterwards.
“That was a tough one for me to get over,” said Hnidy. “It is easier to look back now as many years as it has been now and being through some great runs in different leagues and understanding what it takes to win.
“You feel it was a missed opportunity. I remember that summer it was tough to get over, because we knew we were going to lose a lot of players. I didn’t know if I was going to come back to junior at the time.
“It is tough to move on, because those were great years. Denis Pederson was going to move on and Shayne Toporowski (and) our 20-year-olds at the time in Sandy Allan, (Shane) Zulyniak and Neil Johnson. You kind of feel that was the last kick at the can with that group.”
Had the Raiders won that series, it is debatable about what their chances would have been when it came to winning the WHL title and the Memorial Cup. The Blazers were on their way to capping their dynasty era winning WHL and Memorial Cup titles three times in four years coming in 1992, 1994 and 1995. Guided by head coach Don Hay, the Blazers, who had the WHL’s best record at 52-14-6 in 1994-95, were rolling with Jarome Iginla, Darcy Tucker, Hnat Domenichelli, Shane Doan and Brad Lukowich in their fold.
It can be argued that the 1994-95 Raiders were the best Raiders team that didn’t win league or national titles. While other editions of Raiders teams could hold that distinction, the 1994-95 Raiders were one win away from getting back to the Memorial Cup. It took the 2018-19 Raiders to pull off the feat of getting back and winning the WHL final and making the Memorial Cup tournament.
On March 2, 2019, Clark passed away after a long battle with cancer. After being diagnosed, he lived for a lengthy time past when doctors said he would before passing away.
McFee remembers that Clark, who was up for the WHL’s coach of the year award in 1994-95, ensured that Raiders club worked hard, and in return, those Raiders players made the coaches eternally proud.
“Clarky, God bless his soul, obviously this is his team,” said McFee. “When you get quality people, you try imparting them just to make them a little bit better human beings than when you found them.
“I think seeing people go on and seeing them succeed whether they make the NHL or whether they go on to have a career or whether they go on to have a family, (it is important to) just to able to have that moment or that smile to share some special times. That is something not everybody has, and it is special. It is always something that you hang on to.
“It is really what you put in it is what you get out. Those are the rewarding things whether you are a player or a coach.”