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Leader-Post article (Pats' season was a success)

April 2 2012 at 7:37 AM
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N. W. Bruin  (Login NW_Bruin_GM)

Response to Calgary Herald article (Future is bright for Driedger)

Pats' season was a success

By Rob Vanstone, The Leader-Post

April 2, 2012

The Regina Pats and their fans are acutely familiar with March sadness.

This is a team that has not played a single game in April since 2007, when the Pats advanced to the second round of the WHL playoffs before succumbing to the Medicine Hat Tigers.

Regina then won 44 regular-season games, and the East Division title, before losing to the Swift Current Broncos in a 2008 first-round series. Three successive non playoff seasons ensued before the 2011-12 Pats snapped that drought.

The long-awaited return to the post-season was not especially prosperous. After winning the opener of a best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal, the Pats suffered four consecutive losses to the Moose Jaw Warriors - who clinched the series on Friday at Mosaic Place.

The customary late-March post-mortem was held the following afternoon at the Brandt Centre. There was disappointment about being bounced from the playoffs only a week after they began. Yet, there was also something to celebrate, meaning that the tenor of Saturday's season-ending interviews with the media and coaches was a dramatic departure from the sombre sessions of the previous three years.

"Everybody has to take a step back and look at what we accomplished,'' goaltender Matt Hewitt said, "but we can't be happy with how it ended.''

At the outset, though, the latest edition of the Pats was not expected to be in a position to lament post-season disappointment.

"We always talked about how fans and some hockey people expected us to be in the bottom part of the league and not make the playoffs,'' Hewitt said. "We took that as an insult and we wanted to prove that if you're a real team, you can make the playoffs.''

The buzzword, uttered throughout the season by first-year head coach Pat Conacher, was "team.'' Conacher unfailingly and energetically emphasized the interests of the collective, establishing from Day 1 that he was not merely paying lip service to the all-for-one, one-for-all approach.

Conacher was presented with an opportunity to drive home that message on Sept. 23, when the Pats opened the regular season against Swift Current.

The Pats' premier player, Jordan Weal, had just been returned to the major-junior ranks by the NHL's Los Angeles Kings. But instead of suiting up for the lidlifter versus Swift Current, Weal was among the spectators after missing a meeting. With Weal out of the lineup for one game, Regina won 5-1.

"That really made a statement for everyone that if you're not on time and ready to go, there will be consequences,'' Weal said. "That really set the table.''

Regina ended up winning its first three regularseason games, and 37 in total. Along the way, Weal amassed 116 points en route to earning first-team Eastern Conference all-star honours. Conacher shared in the accolades, being named the conference's coach of the year.

Conacher was always quick to deflect the credit to the players and his assistant coaches. Rare was the interview in which Conacher did not commend coaching cohorts Malcolm Cameron and Josh Dixon. Weal noted the contributions of all three gentlemen when asked on Saturday to explain the Pats' surprising season.

"It was the coaching staff,'' Weal said. "They had a lot to do with that. Pat came in and the big thing he had to do was change the culture.''

How, specifically, did that occur?

"It was just the will to win,'' Weal responded. "We never really had that (previously). Whenever we lost, there was video and stuff like that, but I don't think the guys hated it enough. When Pat and the guys came in, they made us hate it.''

They also began to enjoy the alternative.

"When we started to win, they started liking it,'' Conacher said. "It was an easier sell as a coach.''

Conacher's most important sell job occurred last summer, when he ascended to the top of Pats general manager Chad Lang's short list. Although Conacher was eminently qualified for the position, his attitude put his candidacy over the top. It quickly became apparent to Lang that Conacher, more than anyone, coveted the Pats' job.

Upon being hired, Conacher provided the organization with an infusion of enthusiasm. It is impossible to spend even 10 seconds in his presence without feeling energized. The players followed the lead and went on to enjoy a season that, despite its abrupt conclusion, has to be termed a success.

"The bar is going to be set higher for next year,'' Lang said. "The expectation of the organization is that we want to win. I thought we took some strides in the right direction this year.''

Even if those strides couldn't avert the slides of March.

© Copyright (c) The Regina Leader-Post

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