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Swift Current Broncos: Survival of the Fittest

 

The Swift Current Broncos have taken quite a path to travel the relatively short distance back to Regina.

The first stop on that return journey included a seven-game triumph over the Regina Pats that started the Broncos road to the 100th Mastercard Memorial Cup. Gruelling series wins over the Moose Jaw Warriors, Lethbridge Hurricanes and the Everett Silvertips followed, and the Broncos now could win the national championship 29 years after Swift Current last won the Memorial Cup in 1989.

“Resiliency,”said Broncos head coach Manny Viveiros when asked to describe any special quality that is evidenced by progressing through so many tough playoff games and series. “There really isn’t any better word to describe the (quality) that has put us in this position.”

Heading into the post-season, as any WHL observer would have known, there was a sense that a handful of teams could have emerged hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup. That it was the Broncos was perhaps a mild surprise because of the difficult road to get here emerging from the WHL’s Eastern Conference East Division that had a 109-point team (Moose Jaw) and another that played close to that pace from the mid-way point on (Regina).

“We’ve battled hard and I think we’ve done that with a combination of things,”said Viveiros. “…obviously we have good goaltending, but I also think we have a (collection) of players that can play the right way whether it’s speed, or skill, or (playing) big, or being tough defensively; our kids have really been like that all year.”

Having overcome two Saskatchewan/divisional rivals, then crossing over to Alberta to defeat Lethbridge, the Broncos looked to have met their match after dropping Game 1 of the WHL Championship Series and falling behind 3-0 in Game 2, both on home ice. Instead, the Broncos flew to Washington state buoyed by a key come-from-behind 4-3 victory in Game 2 that evened the series.

Just when it appeared their long run could be faltering, suddenly the Broncos had life and lots of it.

Asked if that Game 2 victory could be a special moment, Viveiros understood the point of the question but was hesitant to cite that victory, or any other in the post-season, as a turning point. Instead, the former WHL star defenceman-turned-coach said it was his hockey club’s ability to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead or backward that was the key to their WHL title.

“As a team, we don’t like to do that, we prefer to look ahead to the game right in front of us,” said Viveiros. “We live in the now.”

Viveiros knows of what he speaks, of course. He helped the Prince Albert Raiders win the 1985 Memorial Cup. After his own playing career ended, he started coaching in Europe, highlighted by Austria’s qualification for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, where they played Team Canada in the round robin.

“I’ve did it backwards,”said Viveiros of his own personal journey. “I’ve come home again.”

Looking at the Broncos lineup, the first player to catch the eye (among many) is Stuart Skinner in goal. The veteran WHL goaltender went head-to-head with Carter Hart, one of the best at the position in recent memory and came out on top. Included in Skinner’s epic playoff performance were six shutouts and pacing his new team to a series victory over his old club, Lethbridge.

“I get more dialed in, it’s almost a good thing to be playing away… it focuses me even more,”said Skinner, of his ability to play so well in hostile environments.

In front of Skinner, the biggest talking point on the Broncos is Tyler Steenbergen. The hero in Team Canada’s gold medal win at the World Junior when he scored the winning goal with 1:40 in a 2-1 win over Sweden. The obvious subplot that will take hold when action begins will be whether Steenbergen can do something similar during the Mastercard Memorial Cup.

Speaking during the WHL Championship Series, Steenbergen said his team has an exceptional quality to claw its way back into games.

“We were down three in Game 2 (against Everett) and we didn’t have a doubt in our mind,”he said. “Earlier in the series we’ve played before (the league final) we’ve been down (too) but we haven’t been out of it…we have no doubt in our minds that we can come back and that’s the mindset you have to have.”

During the regular season, the Broncos posted 48 wins and 103 points, to sit sandwiched between the Warriors and Pats. Those totals are impressive in any case but considering how many games came against difficult divisional opponents only amplified the type of season (and post-season) the Broncos had.

Steenbergen’s 102 points (47G, 55A) put him just third on his team, behind Glenn Gawdin (56G, 69A) and Aleksi Heponiemi (28G, 90A). Those numbers speak for themselves, but the Broncos also have considerable options behind the big three in in-season acquisitions Matteo Gennaro, Beck Malenstyn and Giorgio Estephan. Kaden Elder is a reliable two-way presence up front as well.

At the back end, Colby Sissons was a point-a-game player as a defenceman and leads a unit that also includes Artyom Minulin, Shavan Khaira, who both log significant ice time. Josh Anderson is usually among the top four, with Noah King also expected to see valuable minutes.

Their presence in the Mastercard Memorial Cup means the host province accounts for two of the four competing teams, a symbolic and vital component especially considering what Saskatchewan endured with the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that has never been far from Viveiros’ or his players’ minds throughout the playoffs.

“I think the healing can begin. We have a lot of guys who lost friends,”said Viveiros.

“The Humboldt tragedy really hit home for us like it did for everyone everywhere in the hockey world. But for us in Saskatchewan and the Alberta boys on our team, it has never really left our minds…it just puts life in perspective.”

Story contributed by Peter Robinson the Managing Editor of Prospects Hockey.

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