Hitmen season not defined by exit
By Kristen Odland, Calgary Herald
March 31, 2012
The Calgary Hitmen players certainly weren't in the mood to see the silver lining Thursday night.
Especially not after the long bus trip from Winnipeg.
But the accomplishments of this year's group of 16-to 21-year-old junior hockey players over the course of the 2011-12 Western Hockey League season were remarkable and should not be overlooked. Even after suffering a first-round post-season exit at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings.
After last year's forgettable 2010-11 campaign, one of the worst in franchise history that saw them finish dead-last in the WHL and miss playoffs for the first time since their second season in the WHL (1996-97), they kept their heads held high, added a few pieces and started with a clean slate.
Rattling off a 44-25-2-1 regular-season record thanks to a solid second-half push, this year's group finished third in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm proud of the way they worked in the second half (of the season) to come together and win as many games as we did," noted head coach Mike Williamson. "It was a fun regular season and to get back to where we belong and to get playoff hockey back.
"We had the players to do it. We had a good mix of players at all positions. That depth really came through once they gelled, it was just a very disappointing way to end so early in the playoffs."
A few injuries to key players, and the fact the Hitmen simply could not expose Brandon's weaknesses played a role in the bestofseven series.
Thursday's 3-2 Game 5 overtime loss at Winnipeg's MTS Centre just happened to be the final dagger. "Brandon deserved to win the series," Williamson added. "We probably deserved a better fate (Thursday), but overall in the first parts of the series they were able to play to their strengths a little more than I would have liked. I don't think we were able to expose the weaker parts of their team the way we wanted, so it was disappointing in that sense. Hopefully, the guys coming back can take something from that."
As is the case every year in junior hockey, some move on and some return.
Seven players are eligible next year as overagers (1992 birthdays). Among them are captain Cody Sylvester, who was injured in the final weekend of regular-season action and missed the first four games of the playoffs, forwards Trevor Cheek, Danny Gayle, Detroit Red Wings pick Brooks Macek, Russian import Alex Gogolev, defenceman Spencer Humphries and goalie Brandon Glover, who was a star in the post-season.
Meanwhile, the club's leading scorer, and most scholastic player, Jimmy Bubnick along with defencemen Collin Bowman and Brock Sutherland turn a page on their junior careers after playing a big role as overagers (1991 birthdays) in the rebound season.
"They really helped turn things around this year," Williamson said. "They can be proud of that.
"We're obviously going to miss (them) and what they brought . . . but we've got guys coming up. That's what junior hockey is about."
Tons of players turned heads including 17-year-old goalie Chris Driedger and defenceman Jaynen Rissling, who both are ranked heading into this summer's NHL 2012 entry draft. Skilled Swede, and Carolina Hurricanes prospect Victor Rask was missed dearly after also going down in the final weekend of the regular season with an injury that kept him out of all five playoff contests.
Alex Roach, an 18-year-old Los Angeles Kings prospect, was bumped up from defenceman to forward during the playoffs and made a case to move onto the wing permanently.
Brady Brassart - an 18-year-old pickup from the Spokane Chiefs in the off-season - fell into an agitator role and was a consistent contributor, racking up a career-high 59 points.
Second-year Chase Clayton, 17-year-old Calder Brooks and rookie Greg Chase gained confidence, while 15-year-old Jake Virtanen, the first overall bantam draft pick from 2011, saw some time with the club and could be a star going forward.
"We feel really good about the progression of a lot of those guys who were here," Williamson said. "We had Greg Chase, Chase Clayton, Calder Brooks who played a lot of key minutes in key situations and played very well.
(Defenceman Kenton) Helgesen came in and got better and better and better . . . Chris Drieger, so we've got guy at every position.
"(General manager Kelly Kisio) is one of the best as far as building teams, and pointing teams in the right direction, so we feel confident in the depth we have."
The Calgarians scored and played team defence by committee, worked by committee, and even led by committee.
"I think Kelly did an incredible job of bringing in the pieces that we needed," Williamson said. "Guys like Sylvester, Bubnick, returning players like Macek and Humphries. Guys that were here last year and went through that did a really good job of being hungry and setting the bar high.
"It was great to get back to where we did, but playoff time is where the bread and butter is and, unfortunately, we're done."
However, it is impossible to ignore that his players clearly poured their heart and soul into making this season better than last - in every respect.
And they succeeded.
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