The Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs had to settle for silver Saturday at the Arena, but silver generally sucks.
Still, the Chiefs took pride in the fact that they became the first host team in the history of the Esso Cup to reach the final of the national midget girls hockey championship.
Assistant captains Mairead Bast and Abagael Thiessen expressed their feelings following a 2-1 loss to the Sudbury Lady Wolves in front of roughly 1,100 fans and both insisted the players can hold their heads upright.
“Obviously the feeling is not too good right now, but I can really say that I’m proud of each and every one of the girls in that room,” said Bast. “We finished strong and that’s all we could have ever asked for.”
The Chiefs were 7-2 losers to the Ontario champs during round-robin play earlier in the week and entered the sudden-death final as underdogs. But the contest was extremely tight and displayed the actual parity between the two teams.
“It does feel a lot better than a 7-2 loss, but still not the best,” said Bast.
Karli Shell sniped both goals for the Lady Wolves, opening the scoring with a backhand from the low slot 2:57 into the game.
Skylar Collona pulled the Chiefs even just under eight minutes later, breaking down the right side and beating Wolves netminder Danika Ranger to the short side. But Shell answered back with less than four minutes left in the opening frame, sweeping the puck past Chiefs goaltender Sarah Murray on a wrap-around.
And that was it for the scoring, with Ranger stopping 15 shots over the final 40 minutes and 22 overall, and Murray also making 15 saves through the second and third periods to boost her total to 20. Ranger’s best stop was directly off an in-close deflection, while Murray took a goal away from Meagan McGaughey with a sizzling pad save.
The Chiefs were the better team over the final 10 minutes of the game but couldn’t find one more goal.
“We never gave up,” said Bast. “We were down by one (after two periods) and we believed in each other and played for each other. We didn’t get our feet moving at the beginning of the game but we kept going.”
But the late push wasn’t enough.
“Right now we’re still a little upset about the loss, but tomorrow and the day after that we’re still going to think about it and it’s always going to be in the back of our minds that we’re the team that made history,” said Thiessen.
“We can’t be disappointed about anything we’ve done this week or throughout the season.”
The Chiefs defenceman stressed that the absence of power forward Maddison Toppe, who was hurt in Friday’s 2-1 semifinal shootout win over the Saskatoon Stars, hurt the club in the final, while at the same time praising the players who filled the injured players’s ice time.
“We’ve used her to set the pace. We wanted her to come out strong and get the puck moving, get the feet moving,” said Thiessen. “It was a really big loss, but a lot of younger girls and girls who don’t really play that kind of role stepped up for us and they’ve been doing that since the provincials.
“We really had a full team going, in my opinion.”
Chiefs head coach Tom Bast also touched on the loss of Toppe.
“No question, it’s a long week and the energy level was getting low,” he said. “Losing Maddie was a little tough on us because she’s a big strong energy lady who could have certainly helped us, especially down the stretch . . . during the last half of the game.”
Sudbury bench boss Richard Walker admitted his girls — playing their 14th game in a stretch of about three weeks dating back to the Ontario provincials — were wearing down as the game progressed.
“We were running on a bit of adrenalin near the end,” said Walker. “We were pretty tired, we’ve played a lot of hockey the last few weeks.”
Despite her in-control, on-ice demeanour, Ranger insisted that the fact the game was televised by TSN brought out the butterflies.
“I just felt like very excited and nervous nerves because it’s the championship game and being on TV for the first time,” she said. “With so many people watching you don’t want to make a mistake.
“Red Deer just played their hearts out. It was really close, it was there for either team but we pulled through.”
For Shell, it was a golden manner in which to finish off her midget career after being part of a Lady Wolves squad that last year finished third in the 2014 Esso Cup.
“It feels incredible to be back here for the second year in a row,” said the Sudbury sniper, who next season will play at the University of Guelph. “You don’t get that many chances to go to this tournament so if you come a second time you want to make it count, and that’s what we did. It’s an unbelievable moment.”
“Overall, it was a heck of a game. You wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Walker. “Canada had a great view of an exciting game between two evenly-matched teams. It could have gone either way, we were fortunate that we got a couple of bounces. You need a little bit of puck luck to win this kind of championship.”
That being said, the Lady Wolves were the top team all week, finishing atop the round-robin standings with a 5-1 slate.
“We had a good week,” said Walker. “Between provincials and nationals we went 12-2. We peaked at the right time of year.
“We kept the girls focused on the end goal, and that was always the gold medal. We had a returning group from last year who were committed and reminded the younger girls what we were working forwards. We’re fortunate it went our way and we’re so proud of the girls.”
Ditto for the Chiefs head coach.
“There’s a lot of tears in there (dressing room) right now, so I thought I wouldn’t say too much to them right now,” said Bast. “But I will have a message once we settle down.
“There’s a lot of heartbreak, but I’m very proud of the girls. I have no regrets and I hope that our entire team doesn’t have any regrets because we left everything on the line. Our girls battled and they fought and that’s all we could ask.”