The New Horizon Centre in Frog Lake was packed on Friday night when the T-Birds hosted the Killam Wheat Kings in game six of their series of the NEAJBHL playoffs. Killam was in a must-win situation, down 3-1 in the series and Frog Lake was looking to advance to the finals at home. An early lead, explosive offense, and level-headed discipline helped the T-Birds clinch their spot in the finals with a 7-3 win.
Coming out of the gate strong, Cody Hodgson scored twice and Jamal Daniels scored once for Frog Lake, all in the first four minutes of the game. The T-Birds dominated the entire first period, barely giving Killam room to breathe in between their offensive pressure.
But the Wheat Kings rallied together in the second and gave Frog Lake a serious scare with two goals less than a minute apart. The Killam goals brought the score to 3-2 for the T-Birds, and it would stay that way until halfway through the game.
Killam took a hooking minor, and Ryder Prue scored his seventh of the playoffs on the ensuing power play. The Wheaties answered right back, refusing to fall too far behind. But, nearing the end of the period, Hodgson sealed the deal on his hat trick with a goal assisted by Curtis Scales. Hodgson’s goal came on the power play after tensions ran high and led to a four-man scrap.
In the final minute of the second period, with Frog Lake pushing hard in the Killam zone, Tayon Metzler scored a tricky little goal off a weak shot that took a strange hop up and over Killam goalie Brandon Deck’s pads. The Metzler goal put Frog Lake up 6-3 and led to yet another fight at the close of the period, ending with misconducts for Killam’s Grant Lynes and Frog Lake’s Darian Gamble. Lynes’ misconduct was only the second of five for Killam on the night.
Killam was clearly frustrated with the flow of the of the game by the time the third period started. They were given two more misconducts and instigation penalties in yet another fight halfway through the final frame. Frog Lake, with the end of the series in sight, played a distinctly disciplined game and avoided any major penalties. Young fans at the game holding up a sign that read “Killam With Kindness” seems to typify the T-Birds’ attitude all game long.
Things came to a head with just under eight minutes left in the game. Immediately after the puck was dropped on a faceoff in the Killam zone, Wheat Kings forward Landon Eskra punched Frog Lake’s Hodgson right in the face. Hodgson went down hard but Eskra kept going at him until a pair of referees were able to pull him off. Eskra was thrown for the rest of the game and was escorted into the dressing room. Just as Hodgson was getting up off the ice, Killam’s Tyler Sparrow came up behind Hodgson and sucker-punched him in the back of the head.
The response from Frog Lake was as quick as it was expected. The crowd erupted with boos and jeers, and the team pinned Sparrow to the ice. Sparrow was also given a game misconduct and could likely face additional disciplinary action if he plays in the league next year. Sparrow’s cheap shot is easily a top candidate for dirtiest play of the year.
Due to the crack in Killam’s nerves and their lashing out, Frog Lake remained on the power play for the rest of the game, about seven-and-a-half minutes. Courage Omeasoo scored his eighth goal of the playoffs to bring the score up to 7-3, and then the T-Birds simply played keep-away for the final minutes as the home crowd praised the team that would go on to win the series and to pave their way to the finals.
“There’s no place in our game for that.”
Though obviously thrilled and relieved with the win, Frog Lake coach Harvey Smyl was pretty clear regarding how he felt about the Wheat Kings’ third-period antics.
“Look, I get it,” Smyl said. “You’ve got a bunch of young guys all playing their hearts out in a high-stakes game. I know and I understand what that pressure feels like, and I’m all for a bit of rough hockey. It’s hockey, after all! But in the third period, the fight off the draw is one thing. Fights happen. But catching [Hodgson] off-guard off the draw is exactly the kind of thing that our team doesn’t do because we strive for discipline. And then the cheap shot to the back of the head? That’s not emotion; that’s pre-meditated. I expect that a game misconduct isn’t all that [Sparrow] will receive.”
Smyl says that those kinds of dirty plays simply don’t belong in the game of hockey:
“This isn’t the age of the bruiser or the goon anymore. This isn’t the ’80s or the ’90s, and the game of hockey has evolved. We care so much more about player safety than we did back in those hard-hitting hockey days, as we should. I don’t know exactly what was said or how that fight began, but there’s no place in our game for that.”
Smyl, however, was quick to praise his team on their level of restraint, citing it as a source of success all season long.
“We had a great first period and a solid second period, too. Killam came out hard in the second, but we stayed on top of it and didn’t get carried away in the moment. Then obviously, in the third period, well, that doesn’t really need any additional explaining. But we were disciplined and we were level-headed. If you want to look for a reason why we won, then that’s as good as any.”
The discipline was easy to see on Friday night. Killam earned themselves a total of 78 penalty minutes, while Frog Lake was given a total of 35.
Defeating the Undefeated
Frog Lake will now move on to play the Wainwright Bisons in the finals. Wainwright had a staggering 34-2-0 record in the regular season and is undefeated this post-season. They are also the two-time defending league champions and have played in the finals every year since the 2012-2013 season. So what can Frog Lake do in this David and Goliath situation?
“Whether we can win it all or not remains to be seen,” Smyl said. “But no matter what, we’re gonna give Wainwright a run for their money. We will go in and treat every single game like it’s a game seven. We can’t give up anything easy or give them any freebies. If Wainwright wants to win, they’re going to have to earn it because we’re ready, and we aren’t going to roll over.”
Game one will take place in Wainwright on Tuesday, followed by Game two on Friday night. Games three and four will be back in Frog lake on Saturday, March 17 and Tuesday, March 20. All games begin at 8:00.