The end of an era

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald The Beardy's Blackhawks give one last salute to their fans following their final Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League game on Saturday.

Beardy’s Blackhawks play their final game in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League

As players from the last 25 years of Beardy’s Blackhawks Midget AAA hockey were introduced at the Willow Cree Memorial Sport Centre, a fan yelled out to no one in particular “Blackhawks for life.”

A quarter-century run in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League concluded for the program on Saturday afternoon, as they took to the ice one last time against the Notre Dame Argos.

“Everybody seems to love the Beardy’s Blackhawks,” team manager Mel Parenteau said. “Wherever we go and play there’s always different people who come to support us or want to enjoy our company.

“It’s a sad day today as we have to leave this league, but it was so nice to see a bunch of the alumni come back and join us for the celebration. Many of them have gone to become dentists, teachers, engineers or electricians after they played with us, and they are all good people.”

Long-time Blackhawks head coach Dale Grayston was visibly emotional following the game as he reflected on the impact the program has made since it entered the SMAAAHL in the 1995-96 campaign.

“You want to teach good values and help to shape the person’s character,” Grayston said. “We’ve wanted to do that with the guys that have come through here before they move on, in addition to their parents helping them out the whole time.

“It was huge to have so many alumni here today. Every face brings back a memory and it’s hard not to get emotional when you think about everyone that has come through here.”

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald
Former Beardy’s Blackhawks blueliner Billy Trarback, left, flashes a smile as alumni from the team’s 25-year history in the SMAAAHL are introduced Saturday.

The list of alumni that have played for the Blackhawks, the Willow Cree Thunder or St. Michael’s College over the last 25 years features a who’s who of players that made an impact at different levels.

They include SJHL stalwarts Adam Bartko, Levi Kleiboer, Logan Schatz, Nick Shumlanski and Dylan Smith, WHL talents Brennan Bosch, Joel Broda, Todd Fiddler, Alex Forsberg and Ryan Pilon, Olympic bronze medalist Linden Vey and two-time Stanley Cup champion Dwight King.

“This team meant a lot to all of us,” said Shae Kiryk, who was a forward for the Blackhawks from 2014 to 2016. “There were a lot of kids that came here that weren’t given much of a chance in the bigger cities, but playing here opened up a lot of opportunities for us.”

“It was a very emotional day,” added Kody Kushniruk, who was in goal for the team from 2014 to 2016. “There were a lot of familiar faces here and the community came together to show how much the team meant to everyone.”

Arguably the most memorable moment for the Blackhawks program came in 2001 as they won their only SMAAAHL title and would then go on to the Air Canada Cup national midget AAA championship in Prince George, B.C.

“It was so exciting for us and I was fresh into it at that point,” Parenteau joked. “I had come in to help Dale around that time and I just did whatever he wanted to get done.

“A lot of that came from working with the parents and they have all meant so much to our program. The families have been really good to us over the years.”

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald
Beardy’s Blackhawks forward Holden Doell is surrounded by his teammates after he scored in the third period of play at the Willow Cree Memorial Sport Centre.

It was announced in November that the Blackhawks and the Argos would no longer be in the Midget AAA ranks at the end of the 2019-20 campaign and would be replaced by programs in Estevan and Warman as a result of restructuring by the Saskatchewan Hockey Association.

Although the program has tried to go about things with a business as usual approach, the Blackhawks have been the centre of attention on a few occasions throughout the last few months, which included a combined team photo following their last game against the Prince Albert Mintos at the Art Hauser Centre and a final trip to the Mac’s Midget Tournament in Calgary over Christmas.

“It was difficult at times to prepare for this last game, but there was also some excitement as we all wanted to play hard one last time for the crest that so many have worn here,” Blackhawks captain Robert Pizzey said.

“They (the Blackhawks) gave me a shot in Midget AAA as an affiliated player in my first year and then as a full-time player last year. It meant a lot to wear that ‘C’ and I wanted to finish things off in style for everyone who wore it before me.”

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald
Beardy’s Blackhawks forwards Nolan Doell and Cole Duperreault are stymied by Notre Dame Argos netminder Nikita Evstratov during the late stage of Saturday’s game.

Saturday’s game nearly ended in a storybook finish for the Blackhawks as they rallied from a 4-1 deficit with a late third period flurry to get within a goal.

Holden Doell had a chance to tie things up on a penalty shot with 14 seconds to go, but was turned aside on his attempt by Argos netminder Nikita Evstratov.

“We had the puck in their end for the last five minutes, but we just couldn’t bury it,” Pizzey said. “We’ve always had to claw our way back this year and we’ve usually been able to pull off the comeback, but it just wasn’t meant to be today.”

“I think we kind of did things backward as Beardy’s won our last ever game in Wilcox and we won the last game in their home rink,” Argos head coach Mike Merriam added. “There’s 25 years of history here with Beardy’s. Mel and Dale have done a great job with the program and the kids themselves have done a lot to make the Blackhawks what they are.”

Doell, who will win the SMAAAHL scoring title with 77 points in 42 games, had two goals and an assist to lead the way for the Blackhawks.

Cole Duperreault had a goal and an assist each in the loss, which saw Teagan Koehler dish out a pair of helpers.

Matthew Hennessey made 27 saves for the hosts, who finished up the season in 10th place in the standings with a 14-29-0-1 record.

The 4-38-1-0 Argos, who will wrap up their tenure in the SMAAAHL on Sunday afternoon against the Saskatoon Blazers, received a dazzling 55-save showing from Evstratov on their way to the victory.

Kevin Gould potted a pair of goals in the triumph, which saw Avery Kirkup dish out three assists.

Jaryd Sych dished out a pair of helpers for the visitors, while Ben Edwards and Kaden Laverdiere also lit the lamp.

While both teams will no longer be in the SMAAAHL, each program plans to be around in some capacity for the 2020-21 campaign.

“We have a few options available to us at Notre Dame, such as the CSSHL (Canadian Sport School Hockey League), and we’re going to be making an announcement here soon about what’s next for the Argos,” Merriam said.

“We’re going to be taking a little bit of a different avenue here with the Blackhawks going forward,” Parenteau said. “We’ll let everyone know about that really soon, so that’s something that people can keep an eye out for.”