Goaltender on the hot seat

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

PORTLAND -- Kurtis Mucha is glad to be in friendly territory.

At the other end of the ice, his counterpart, Vancouver Giants goalie Dustin Slade, is getting an earful from the crowd - catcalls which began before the anthems were even over.

Slade is ridiculed for pushing his hair back before he throws his mask on. He's critiqued for strutting out of his net after each save. It's a lot of hate being rained down on a 20-year-old, but it just seems to roll off him like so many of the shots he faced from the Portland Winter Hawks on this night.

"I hear it all," said Mucha, the 16-year-old Sherwood Park native manning the Hawks' net. "The fans really love to give it to him. But they love to give it to me in Vancouver."

WHL IS ABOUT ATMOSPHERE

For the rest of the night, during Game 4 of the WHL's Western Conference semifinal series, there is a pretty good buzz in the building.

More than 6,000 fans are on hand for the contest - not the largest that will see a playoff game in the league this spring, but certainly one of the liveliest.

It's the type of atmosphere junior hockey fans in Edmonton will get a taste of in 2007 when the WHL sets up shop in the city for a third time - this time around as an expansion franchise owned by the Oilers.

Mucha will most likely be drafted by an NHL team by then. The former Team Brick netminder is among the top goaltending prospects in "The Dub" which has produced many of the NHL's current stars, including Joe Sakic, Ryan Smyth, Mike Modano, Wade Redden and Dion Phaneuf.

And even in Portland, where hockey is a distance down the interest meter from NCAA sports and NBA basketball, there is a sense of history.

A handful of fans in the stands were still wearing the No. 44 jersey of Andrew Ference, who led the Hawks to the 1988 Memorial Cup title and is now a Calgary Flames defenceman.

"Every year there are new fans watching us. There are even some fans that travel with us," said Mucha, who is predicting the same sort of passion will be there in Edmonton.

"These are the players who are going to the NHL, and people will get to see them when they're young and talented and then watch them when they become superstars."

Giants captain Mark Fistric won't be around when the WHL comes back to Edmonton.

The 20-year-old was a first-round pick in 2004 and is a good bet to be stationed on the Dallas Stars' blue-line in two years. But he knows his hometown of Edmonton is getting a good thing.

"The players in the NHL are a finished product," explained Fistric. "The guys in the WHL are still young and trying to find their way and get noticed. That usually means there's a lot more fighting and bigger hits.

"The NHL game is based in systems and the players are a lot smarter. The WHL might be a bit more entertaining because it's just young kids working to get noticed. They're playing for their future."

HAY BELIEVES IN EDMONTON

Don Hay has led the luxurious life of being an NHL head coach in both Phoenix and Calgary. Now he's back riding the bus in the WHL.

During a three-year stint as head coach of the Kamloops Blazers, Hay guided the club to a pair of Memorial Cup championships.

He also commanded Team Canada to a perfect 7-0 record and the gold medal at the 1995 world junior tournament.

In 1999, Hay was named the WHL's all-time best coach so if anyone should know what's in store for Edmonton, it is him.

"Edmonton is going to be a great market for junior hockey," said Hay, who took over the Giants last season.

"A lot of great junior players have come from the Edmonton area, and Calgary and Vancouver have proven to the rest of the league that major junior hockey can find success in an NHL market. And having the Oilers own the team is just going to make an even more natural fit."

The arrival of Edmonton on the WHL scene gives the league another big-city team joining the ranks of Calgary and Vancouver on the northern side of the border and Seattle and Portland down south.

"The game has changed a lot in the last 10 years," said Hay.

"There isn't much of that small-town atmosphere anymore. There are a lot of new rinks in the league and the players are getting exposed to crowds of 10, 12, 14,000 people.

"It's a great atmosphere for them and it's great for junior hockey."

The series came to end in Game 5 when, despite a 46-save performance by Mucha, the Giants won 2-0 to take the series 4-1.

And two of the Giants who took all that verbal abuse in Game 4 got a measure of revenge. Slade needed to make only 13 saves to earn the shutout and first-round Columbus pick Gilbert Brule, who was deemed a "dessert" by the fans in Portland, scored the insurance goal.


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