Hitmen full of winners

RANDY SPORTAK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

Reporters aren't supposed to cheer for the team they cover, especially the cynics.

It was impossible not to with the Calgary Hitmen in the spring of 1999, when they marched to the WHL title and the Memorial Cup tournament.

Not after seeing them go through those early, dark, disappointing days.

Not after watching them go through all the insults in their first two seasons.

Not while watching them climb to the top.

The losing the Hitmen went through their first two seasons was no shock. That's life for expansion teams, especially when it's filled with youngsters right out of their first year of midget and players you generously call depth guys on their former teams.

Then, there was all the other awfulness with the Graham James spectre.

Think of all the trash-talk you could come up with if you were facing that team. Now multiply it. That's what those kids, who didn't deserve one second of it, had to play through while losing night after night after night.

So when they became winners and the best team in the league, you couldn't help but feel happy for them for having the spirit and the fortitude to pull through.

It took some outstanding individuals to do it.

Thankfully, a city excited for playoff hockey -- and a winning team -- became captivated by the young men. And there remains a flood of memories when you look back.

You think of head coach Dean Clark, who climbed down from the power lines to become a coach and guided the team out of the dark days.

You think of the leaders, the players who were there all those seasons, such as Brad Moran, Jerred Smithson, Kenton Smith, Curtis Rich and Ryan Shannon.

"We've been through the bad times, and it makes it that much more satisfying knowing you went through the tough times, as well," Moran said right after the WHL championship clincher.

Moran became the WHL's version of Joe Sakic, a man of few words off the ice, although a prankster, and doing everything on it.

Rich and Shannon were the defensive defencemen who played tough.

Smithson, the fourth-line centre who has played more NHL games than Moran, Kris Beech and Chris Nielsen combined, and carved out a great career with the Nashville Predators.

Mainly, you can't help but think of Smith, who had to race home before Game 1 of the Memorial Cup due to the death of his mother.

His sweater was hanging in the room while he was gone, and he returned with a heavy heart in time for the final and scored late in regulation to put his team ahead.

It was almost the ultimate story to cap the season.

There was Brad Stuart, the piece of the puzzle who put them over the top in the WHL final and whose concussion at the tournament, from a disgraceful elbow to the head courtesy of Ottawa 67's plug Lance Galbraith, likely cost them the shot at glory.

You can't forget Matt Kinch, who never seemed to leave the ice in Ottawa with Smith and Stuart not playing, and was thankful for TV timeouts.

There was goalie Alexandre Fomitchev, The Iron Curtain, whose exploits in the WHL final made the difference.

How about Pavel Brendl, who scored 21 goals and 46 points in 20 playoff games but was never able to succeed in the NHL.

And there was Jordan Krestanovich's winner in the third overtime of Game 4 against the Kamloops Blazers, which gave the Hitmen a 3-1 lead in the series and all but sealed the deal.

"You dream of goals like that," the young forward said.

That team may not have won the Memorial Cup, but they were winners.

"I don't remember the low points. I try not to, anyway," Smithson said at the time. "They're always going to be there, but there's been a lot of great times the last two years, and I'm having the time of my life."

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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