First run captured city

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

Seven years later, the image is burned in Brad Mehalko's mind.

The last moments of his junior hockey career.

"Good memories," Mehalko recalls.

It was back in the spring of 1998, Mehalko and the rest of the Calgary Hitmen took the city on its first Saddledome playoff run in nearly a decade.

They were young and downtrodden from winning only 15 games the season before under the spectre of Graham James but full of vinegar.

And they captured the hearts of the Stampede City's hockey fans. The last time Calgary met the Brandon Wheat Kings in WHL playoff action -- the only year as the Hitmen -- it ended with plenty of noise.

The Hitmen went down in five games to the Wheaties in the Eastern Conference final but it was before a crowd of 16,916, which shattered the league's record for attendance at a playoff game.

When the final buzzer sounded, it was almost drowned out because of the ovation that went on for nearly five minutes.

"I wanted to take it all in so I stayed out there as long as I could," said Mehalko, an overage forward at the time from Enchant, Alta., who now plays for the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors.

It put a beleaguered expansion team on the city's sporting map.

A year earlier, after a disappointing second season, the Hitmen were sold to the Calgary Flames.

The squad started slowly but, under coach Dean Clark and with the leadership from the likes of Mehalko, they climbed the Central Division ladder all the way to the top.

After taking out the Saskatoon Blades in the first round, the Hitmen upset a talented Swift Current Broncos squad in seven games to reach the third round.

Mehalko scored three game-winning goals in three nights in Games 5, 6 and 7 to finish the series.

When they won Game 7 of the Broncos series in a thrilling 1-0 tilt, it was before a crowed of 12,726 -- which set a new WHL standard.

But that couldn't prepare the charges for what was to come.

"Being the junior team in a city that has an NHL team, you didn't know how the reaction from fans was going to be," said Mehalko, whose career has included stops in the AHL, IHL, WCHL, ECHL and the defunct Canadian national team

"I really did feel that playoff run was exactly like it would be for a NHL team. It was unreal."

For good reason. Led offensively by the franchise's all-time leading scorer Brad Moran and Boris Protsenko, the Hitmen roster also included many others that became household names like Chris Nielsen, Kris Beech, fan favourite Brent Dodginghorse and the Iron Curtain Alexandre Fomitchev.

They just couldn't overtake the Wheat Kings. Calgary lost the opener in OT despite taking a 2-0 first-period lead. They dropped Game 2 by a 5-4 count.

Now 28, Mehalko still keeps close tabs with his former teammates.

He roomed with Matt Kinch when both were in Hartford, he went to Moran's wedding and stays in close touch with former assistant coach Jeff Maher.

"It was the kind of team you never forget," said Mehalko.


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