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'It's a heartbreaker' — hometown Kamloops Blazers jettisoned from Memorial Cup

Fraser Minten: "It’s heartbreaking. You support each other. You love each other. That’s pretty much all you can do.”
Logan Stankoven waits to enter the media room to talk to reporters after his Kamloops Blazers were eliminated from the Memorial Cup on Thursday at Sandman Centre, the defeat marking the end of his WHL career.

Logan Stankoven hung his head, fiddled with a water bottle and stared at the floor, still in full gear while waiting to enter a room full of reporters.

Sunk into a foldout chair, the dejected River City hero lamented capsized Memorial Cup dreams.

The Cinderella Peterborough Petes — who finished 10th overall in Ontario Hockey League regular season standings, but caught fire in the playoffs and won the league title — produced a roaring comeback on Thursday, June 1, scoring four straight goals to vanquish the tournament host Kamloops Blazers 5-4 in overtime in the national major junior hockey championship tiebreaker tilt.

“It just feels weird. I’ve spent the last five years here in my hometown,” said Stankoven, who was weeping while leaving Sandman Centre ice for the final time in blue and orange. The Kamloops captain is expected to begin his professional hockey career next season.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet that, yeah, this is probably my last game here,” he said.

The Western Hockey League champion Seattle Thunderbirds will square off against the Petes in semifinal action on Friday at Sandman Centre, a 7 p.m. start, with the winner advancing to play the Quebec Remparts on Sunday in the Memorial Cup final, a 4 p.m. start.

“It’s heartbreaking. Terrible. You spend more time with the guys than your family,” Blazers’ forward Fraser Minten said. “They become your brothers, your best friends. Pretty much everybody, at least lots of guys, will be gone [next season]. It’s the last run with them. It’s heartbreaking. You support each other. You love each other. That’s pretty much all you can do.”

Passengers were non-existent in the first period, the Blazers completely engaged, with star players shining and the inexperienced portion of the blue line stepping up, most notably rookie Harrison Brunicke, who turned 17 last month.

The Petes scored against the run of play at 7:52, a Connor Lockhart goal that resulted from a precision Jax Dubois pass, a feed that came from behind the Blazers’ net and invited an unstoppable one-timer.

Kamloops continued to forecheck, log offensive zone time and pepper shots on goal, efforts that bore fruit at 11:19, when Connor Levis’ blocked shot caromed to the reigning Canadian Hockey League player of the year, Stankoven, whose game-tying goal spurred the hosts and their raucous crowd.

“The guys fought hard today, really fought hard,” said Blazers’ head coach Shaun Clouston, who became emotional during the post-game press conference.

“It’s a heartbreaker. There are players like Logan next to me that have put their heart and soul into it for four years. We’ve accomplished a ton — four division championships. We had a good run last year and couldn’t quite get there, a good run this year and couldn’t quite get there. It’s a heartbreaker. I feel for the guys. They put a lot into it.”

The Blazers, who had failed on an earlier power play attempt, converted on their second man advantage, with human hurricane Olen Zellweger, who was all over the ice in the first period, waltzing in off the point before shooting through a screen to solve Petes’ goaltender Michael Simpson.

“I felt like our team deserved that one,” Zellweger said. “We had a strong effort. To lose like that in overtime, it really stinks for us. You’re really only with that exact group once in your career. It’s really hard to realize it came to an end. They took me and [Ryan] Hofer in. I’m proud to say I’m a Blazer now. It was unbelievable playing here.”

Zellweger and Hofer came to Kamloops from Everett in January via trade.

Brennan Othmann of the Petes knocked Blazers’ defenceman Kyle Masters out of the tournament with a bodycheck on Sunday, when Kamloops eviscerated Peterborough 10-2 in round-robin action.

Blazers’ associate coach Don Hay, who runs the club’s defence, told KTW three rookies — Brunicke, Aapo Sarell and Ryan Michael — had to be the best version of themselves in Masters’ absence.

Brunicke showed the best of himself — and a great deal of patience — to fake, hold and release a top-shelf shot that pushed Kamloops into a 3-1 lead.

“There are lots of them [emotions] right now,” said Blazers’ forward Daylan Kuefler, who has aged out of junior hockey, along with teammates Hofer and Ethan Brandwood. “And there’s going to be more, too. I’m pretty heartbroken right now. It’s sad. I spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this building. I couldn’t be more proud to be a Blazer. I didn’t want to get off the ice.”

Chase Stillman changed the energy of the game one minute and 45 seconds into the second period, levelling Matthew Seminoff with a bodycheck before landing two heavy blows in a fight with Caedan Bankier, dropping the Minnesota Wild prospect to the ice.

“I think Stiller’s big hit, guys on the bench started saying to each other, ‘Hey, we’re not dead. This isn’t over. Let’s go,’” Petes’ head coach Rob Wilson said. “That rejuvenated them a bit. We said stick to the process, get one and we’ll see what happens from there.”

Officials reversed the initial charging penalty assessed to Stillman on the Seminoff hit and handed Bankier an instigator penalty, a fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct, stiff discipline to go along with a damaged face.

“I’m not sure if it was directly off the hit, but definitely in the second, they started pushing and we didn’t stop it,” said Minten, whose Blazers outshot the Petes 47-30. “Other than that, we played a really good game.”

Blazers’ defenceman Logan Bairos then gave his club a three-goal cushion, his seeing-eye point shot fooling Simpson.

Peterborough was unfazed.

Added Wilson: “When it went 4-1, I said to them, ‘If you don’t allow another goal, we can win this. If we give up another goal, then we are going to be in big trouble.’”

Tournament Capital heel Othmann stripped Bairos of the puck and went upstairs to beat Blazers’ goalie Dylan Ernst at 7:50 of the second period, Samuel Mayer tallied on the power play at 17:37 and Brian Zanetti tipped one through Ernst at 18:50, the Blazers unable to hold the urgent Petes.

“It usually takes me a day or two to really get to the emotions. That question did it,” said Clouston, who was asked about his level of attachment to this batch of Blazers.

“I think there are five guys in there, we spent four years together. They’ll probably say I’m hard sometimes and push them, but I really respect Logan and the whole group. In the back of my mind, I was really looking forward to one more shot at Seattle. It hurts a ton right now. A lot of times, that’s when you can learn and grow the most.”

Nothing was decided in a tense third period, which preceded the 5-on-5 overtime session, a frame the Blazers controlled until Peterborough struck on the counter-attack.

Zellweger embarked on a foray up ice, split the Petes’ defence and got a shot off that Simpson turned aside, the rebound careening to Peterborough forward Owen Beck, who burned through the neutral zone and into Kamloops territory.

Beck fought off a check and slipped a backhand feed to J.R. Avon, who had time to cradle the puck and watch a felled Brunicke slide into Ernst.

Avon fired the puck into the open net, the shot shattering dreams of a Memorial Cup parade on Victoria Street.

“I need to score there. I need to end the game. I know I can,” Zellweger said. “It kind of puts a forward in a tough position playing defence. If I’m going to go and make those moves, I need to be able to finish it off. That’s kind of how you feel, that there was some way you could have done more. I think everyone is dealing with that right now.”

There will be no revenge on the Thunderbirds. There will be no storybook ending, no repeat of the halcyon days in 1995.

A child was shown crying on the big screen.

Most of the Mark Recchi Way mob stayed put to salute their team, a tearful bunch, despondent Blazers who aimed for the pinnacle and suffered hometown heartbreak.

“That was pretty special,” Brandwood said. “They could have been up and out of there right away. For them to stick around and give us the ovation they did, we all let that sink in and we’re really proud to be Blazers right now. I really hope we did them proud.”