Standing along the ice last Saturday night moments before the annual Tips Awards Ceremony, and gazing at the electrified crowd of nearly 8,000 souls completely going crazy for a U.S. Division title, I couldn’t help but manufacture one appropriate word to summarize this incredible ride:
How magical, you say?
Let’s start with local prognostications, everywhere including the words “favorites to repeat, with or without Barzal,” in description of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who in 2015-16 raced ahead of the Silvertips in the final three weeks of the regular season to take the U.S. Division title and then reach the WHL Finals.
The Silvertips? They came into this season as one of the youngest teams in the league. They lost four of their top six scorers from last season. By end of this season, they were still young – though the addition of Dominic Zwerger and Aaron Irving took them out of the “age basement.”
Yet consider the evidence:
- They were the among the bottom four youngest teams in the Western Conference (by end of the season: 14 players on the roster were 98-born or younger). Two of those bottom four, Spokane and Vancouver, missed the playoffs.
- By weight, they were one of the lightest teams in the Western Conference (heaviest? Seattle).
- By height, they were one of the smallest teams in the Western Conference (biggest? Prince George).
- They lost nearly 180 man games due to injury or World Junior Championships.
So how does this division title happen, outside the obvious element of warrior mentality?
- GOALTENDING! Carter Hart – NHL property of the Philadelphia Flyers – was 32-11-6-2 with 9 bagels and tied the league’s best with a .927 save percentage.
- SPECIAL TEAMS! The Tips penalty kill was best in the WHL this season. Their power play finished at 20.7 percent (very good efficiency numbers) – third best in Tips history – and torched their way through the final week, 8-of-24 at one point.
- DEPTH! There were four guys who hit the 20-goal plateau (Bajkov, Zwerger, Fonteyne, Sutter) this season. Aaron Irving and Eetu Tuulola had 18. And … (*drumroll*) 18 guys were +1 or better.
- COACHING! Kevin Constantine surpassed 300 wins – all with the Silvertips. Among winning percentage of coaches with four years or more in the WHL, he has the sixth best win percentage in league history (the only ones higher: Ryan Huska, Ken Hitchcock, Mike Johnston, Dunc McCallum, and Dave Lowry). Mitch Love’s defensemen teamed with the forward corps to allow only 2.3 goals per game, fewest in the WHL. We covered his penalty kill already. Brennan Sonne’s power play ranked in the league’s top ten nearly all year.
Starting in the summer of 2012 with general manager Garry Davidson overseeing the selection of the ’97 born draft class (think: Juulsen, Davis, Bajkov, Fonteyne), and culminating at the developing talent in the Silvertips dressing room under Constantine’s watch, the Tips have molded division titles in two of the last three seasons under a spectacularly coordinated array of moving parts. Or in other words, to quote the ancient Chinese proverb, “one finger cannot lift pebble.”
Banners are won throughout a 72-game process of blood, sweat, tears, analysis, and even some bounces along the way. It’s a division title that didn’t happen by accident. It happened, as once again, everything coming together.
Now it’s onto the playoffs: where anything can happen. I completely remember assistant coach Mitch Love’s heavy words of how “tight” the dressing room was this year. It was pretty evident that something special had been brewing.
We can’t predict how the playoffs will go. The point gap between the first and eighth place team in the Western Conference finished just 20 points apart, the smallest deficit since the Tips began play 14 seasons ago. This would be like trying to play darts with limp spaghetti.
One thing we can do: sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride. Friday night is almost here.
Award winning broadcaster Mike Benton is in his second season as radio play-by-play voice of the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, and 12th in the game. Tweet at him here.