Cheers to juniors, amateurs

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

So that's what winning a championship feels like. Going into 2005, we'd begun to wonder, hadn't we?

After all, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers haven't sipped the bubbly since the year Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison. And our pro hockey teams haven't taken the ultimate victory lap since the WHA Jets at the close of the 1970s.

Oh, there was a Winnipeg Goldeyes title somewhere in the '90s, but I'm not sure how many people got into a lather over that.

Winnipeggers will look back on 2005, though, as the year a championship team graced our city.

What in the name of Bud Grant am I talking about, you ask?

Why, the World Junior Hockey Championship won by Team Canada down in Grand Forks, N.D., of course.

Surely you haven't forgotten how Manitobans adopted that team as their own, from the moment it settled into the new downtown arena for its selection camp.

I mean, more than 4,500 fans showed up for an intra-squad game, for crying out loud -- about 4,400 more than showed up in Vancouver at this year's intra-squad games, in case you didn't notice.

By the time local heroes Nigel Dawes, Cam Barker, Reg Beauchemin and the rest of the Canucks hosted the over-matched Finns and the beleaguered Swiss for pre-tournament games, the Rink at Eaton's was jammed to the rafters with face-painting, flag-waving loonies.

The craziness continued an hour down Interstate-29, where thousands of 'Tobans turned the luxurious Ralph Engelstad Arena into a 12,000-seat beer garden, with unlimited amounts of Canadian on tap.

It was hoser heaven at The Ralph, and without the influx of fans from River City, the WJHC would have been a colossal flop, at least at the gate.

The boys in red and white rewarded the faithful, too, with one of the most dominating performances in tournament history. The roar when the Canucks beat the Ruskies for the gold medal was heard all the way to the corner of Portage and Main.

DOWNTOWN PARADE

No, technically it wasn't a victory by the home team. But it sure felt like one. The only thing missing was a downtown parade.

So you'd think our unpaid juniors might have set the tone for the pros later in the year. You know, that maybe the Bombers, the Moose or Goldeyes would pick up the ball and run with it.

Alas, all three came up empty, yet again.

Oh, the Moose made a run for it in the spring, winning a couple of playoff series, even filling the new barn, upper decks and all, a couple of times.

But nobody remembers who finishes second, let alone who loses in the conference final.

Those who don't even make the playoffs, well, we won't let you forget that.

You thought the Liberal government had a rough '05? That was nothing, compared to the Bombers.

Thing is, the Grits may bounce back in the New Year. The Big Blue, we're not so sure.

As tends to happen when players don't live up to expectations, the head coach, in this case, Jim Daley, found himself on the unemployment line.

Was Daley the problem? The new guy, Doug Berry, will provide at least part of the answer.

Same thing happened down at the ball park, where Hal Lanier, something of a baseball icon in these parts, suddenly forgot how to build a winner in the Northern League.

It says here Lanier was simply getting more and more negative as the years went on, and players don't usually respond to that.

As the new man in Lanier's chair, Rick Forney's job will be to change the clubhouse atmosphere, as much as anything.

It was a tough year for some of our pros playing elsewhere, too.

Anola's Corey Koskie was thrilled to be signed by the Toronto Blue Jays, not so thrilled with the way he played. When he was healthy.

"Last year was probably my worst year in the big leagues," Koskie told me, after hitting a career-low .249 with 11 homers and 36 RBI (another career low) in only 97 games.

EVEN WORSE

It was an even worse year for Selkirk's Glen Hnatiuk, who lost his PGA Tour card and will have to toil in golf's version of the minors in '06.

As usual, we could take solace in the performance of some of our amateur athletes in '05.

Like the Jennifer Jones foursome that won the Canadian women's curling title with the Shot Heard 'Round the 'Peg.

Like our mid-amateur men's golf team and our under-17 football team, both of whom won national championships.

And like speed skater Cindy Klassen, who continued to stake her claim as the world's fastest woman on ice, heading into the Turin Winter Olympics.

So if you're looking to raise a glass to somebody in the sports community going into the New Year, hoist one to the amateurs and the world juniors, who reminded us why we play games in the first place.

To win, of course.


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