NWT midgets stand tall in Nova Scotia tourney
Goalie Brad Holmes watched helplessly from the bench as his teammates tried to score two goals to tie the game.
With only 1:27 left to play, Holmes says he thought the game was over. The Yellowknife-based goalie had let in four goals. His rival at the other end of the ice only two.
“It’s the worst feeling you can have as a goalie,” Holmes says, who watched an iced puck nearly cross into his empty net icing the game.
Being down two goals meant the gritty, makeshift team from the Northwest Territories would likely finish second in the largest hockey tournament in the province of Nova Scotia.
Not bad for an unheralded team that had never played together before. Tournament organizers had even politely suggested that the NWT’s Midget AA team might fare better playing in the less competitive A division.
But after going undefeated through their first five games, the NWT team wanted to bring back the gold in the final.
When Danny Hunter flipped in a loose puck in a goal mouth scramble to pull within one goal with less than a minute left to play, there was a faint hope.
When Dwayne Twerdin netted the equalizer with 42 seconds left to play, the NWT players exploded with joy. They had a chance.
“Their defence coughed it up and I just spun around and shot it,” Twerdin said, admitting that he thought the team was going to lose when they were down by two goals.
With 13 seconds left, team captain Jimmy Twerdin rung a shot off the goalpost, but the puck didn’t cross the line and they went to overtime.
The tournament’s overtime rules make the teams play three players against three. After 10 minutes, and several close calls, the teams were still knotted at 4-4.
In the second overtime period, the teams had to pit two exhausted players against another two exhausted players.
With three minutes left to play in the double overtime, Yellowknife’s Danny Hunter took a pass from teammate Trevor Schlepper at the blueline, broke in alone, deked the goaltender and with a nifty backhander, put the puck behind the sprawling Nova Scotia goalie.
It was over.
“Oh my God I can’t explain it,” Hunter said at the Iqaluit airport after the team returned Monday. “Just seeing that goal cross the line was one of the biggest thrills of my life….It was unreal. It was awesome.”
The 17 NWT players, from Iqaluit, Pangnirtung, Hay River and Yellowknife and their three coaches poured on the ice.
The tears flowed from the dejected faces of their Nova Scotia rivals.
Proud father looked on
One proud face beaming from the stands was Danny Hunter’s father who had flown in from Guelph, Ontario to watch his son play.
“I haven’t seen my Dad in about two years,” he said. “I have to say that one was for him. He was so proud of me, it was amazing. I was glad he was there.”
A lively crowd greeted the players at the Iqaluit airport Monday afternoon, with banners, cheers, music and applause.
With their gold medals around their necks, dressed in new coats they were given for winning the tournament, players accepted hugs and congratulations from their many fans.
They also showed off the oversized hockey jersey banner that declares them Midget AA champions of the South East District Minor Hockey Association tournament.
Putting NWT on the map
“No one knew where Iqaluit, Northwest Territories was when we got there,” says coach Brian Twerdin. “They sure know who we are now.”
Twerdin says it’s the most amazing comeback he’s seen in his 20 years of hockey.
“I’ve played a lot of hockey, I’ve coached a lot of hockey, I’ve never seen a comeback like this. Never,” he says.
Down by two goals, it was coach Ross Bennett who made the decision to pull their goalie.
“That was our only shot,” Bennett said. “We put the six guys on the ice that we figured could give us a chance.”
Twerdin admits he had his doubts, but he also had a lot of faith in his players.
“It didn’t look good. But these guys played five previous games and there was no quit in them. I don’t say you knew they’d pull it off, but they just didn’t quit,” Twerdin said.
The Royal Canadian Legion helped sponsor the team’s trip, and the players, aged 16-17, helped out with bingos throughout the year to help raise money.
The team also got some help on airfares from First Air and Canadian Airlines.
Bennett says if he had to pick a most valuable player, it would be captain Jimmy Twerdin who played solid defence through the tourney.
The nine players from Iqaluit are Norman Gaiyan, Stephen Gendron, Marty Gendron, Reggie Kenneally, Isaccie “Ice” Kootoo, Richard Monger, Tivi Qiatsaq, Dwayne Twerdin, Jimmy Twerdin, and coaches Ross Bennett, Reg “Boomer” Wynes and Brian Twerdin.
The six Yellowknife players are Kevin Cymbalisty, Brad Holmes, Cory Holtzer, Danny Hunter, Trevor Schlepper and Cory Stead.
Pangnirtung’s Wayne Kilabuk and Hay River’s Rodney Beck round out the championship team.
Will they go back next year to defend their title?
“We’ll see,” says a tired-looking Bennett who says he’s too hockeyed out right now to think past the Toonik Tyme tournament this weekend in Iqaluit.