Vernon’s Powell Connor shook a lot of hands when he returned to Sardis Secondary School this morning as a national champion after the Victoria Day long weekend.
Connor, an 18-year-old defenceman, helped the host Chilliwack Chiefs stop the Ontario champion Wellington Dukes 4-2 in the Royal Bank Cup final Sunday night at Prospera Centre. It was Chilliwack’s first national Junior A hockey championship.
“A lot of my teachers were at the games so they gave us a lot of support,” said Connor, one of five Chiefs attending the rural school. “It feels pretty surreal. Anytime you can end a season with a win is pretty special. I’ve never won anything like this.”
The Chiefs finished 12th overall in the 17-team B.C. Hockey League and entered the five-team Canadian tournament after a nine-week break. Team ownership brought in new coaches Brian Maloney and Cam Keith a week before the RBC.
“They (coaches) told us they were proud of us after a roller-coaster season to end on a such a high,” said Connor, who has an NCAA scholarship with the Michigan State Spartans for the 2019-20 season.
Connor, who had his parents, younger brother Lincoln and grandparents in attendance, was on the ice for the go-ahead and insurance goals but doesn’t remember exactly how they went in the net.
“I was trying to move pucks up to the forwards quickly. The less the puck is on your stick in a big game like that, the better.”
Corey Andonovski, who missed the Chiefs’ 3-2 Saturday semifinal win over the Ottawa Jr. Senators with a high ankle sprain scored the winner with 11:28 left, one of three unanswered Chief goals in less than eight minutes.
Andonovski’s snipe on his own rebound was quickly followed by a monster penalty kill by the Chiefs, who allowed just a single powerplay goal in 29 opposition opportunities during the tournament. Tommy Lee added insurance at 12:20. P.J. Marrocco pocketed a turnover deep in the Wellington zone and fed Lee in front for the easy tap-in.
Lee was there last year when Chilliwack lost Game 7 of the BCHL final to the Penticton Vees on the same ice surface and went on to lose at the Western Canada Cup. He’s thankful he was able to come back for one more season and leave on a much happier note.
“It was a heartbreaker last year, but to come back and win my last game in junior hockey is unbelievable,” the 20-year-old Calgary product told Black Press. “To do it for the crowd, to do it with guys like Will Calverley and Anthony Vincent and Powell Connor — guys who were here last year, it was unbelievable to score that goal for them.”
Ted McGeen and Mitchell Martan gave Wellington a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes. The Dukes stunned previously unbeaten BCHL champion Wenatchee Wild 2-1 in Saturday semifinal play. Wenatchee outshot Wellington 51-14 with Dukes’ goalie Jonah Capriotti turning in an all-planet showing.
“During the second intermission, we were pretty quiet and focused,” said Connor, in his second year with the Chiefs. “We weren’t overly worried. We had the mindset that we had overcome so much adversity all season that we were going to come back. We were able to outskate them and win all the loose pucks in that third period.”
Calverley, the Chiefs’ captain who led the tourney with six goals, levelled the score at 4:35 of the third period.
Connor said the Chiefs’ organization, including volunteers, attended a celebratory dinner Sunday night at the Best Western. Players gathered at a billet’s home for a team party afterwards. Connor plans to split his summer between training in Chilliwack and Vernon.
The Chiefs are the second-consecutive host team and third in the last four years to win the RBC. They are the 14th BCHL team to win the national championship, but the first to do it as host.
The 2019 RBC Cup will be held May 11-19 at the Centennial Regional Arena in Brooks, Alta., with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League playing host.