DAUPHIN — It wasn’t supposed to end this way in the City of Sunshine.
The Dauphin Kings had been building for this day for nearly two years. They were meeting the Vernon Vipers in the final of the RBC Cup they were hosting.
The Kings cruised through the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s regular season with a franchise-record 50 wins. They suffered only three post-season losses en route to getting to Canada’s junior A hockey championship through the front door — and not as the host team. They were 5-0 at the RBC Cup going into Sunday’s final.
The event, meanwhile, was already a huge success. The crowds were big, and the Parkland region had really embraced the tournament. A sold-out crowd of 2,260 spectators had settled into sparkling Credit Union Place and was ready to celebrate.
You could therefore understand the combined look of disgust, pain, sadness and heartbreak on Dauphin head coach Marlin Murray’s face as he stood on the ice and faced the media as the Vipers celebrated their 8-1 thumping of the Kings in Sunday’s national junior A hockey final on national TV.
“It was a storybook year for us,” Murray said. “It didn’t finish the way we would want it to, and it hurts right now for sure. But when we reflect on this in a couple days we’ll be proud.”
The powerhouse Vipers, whose roster features players from across North America, became just the third team — and first since 1991 — to repeat as national champs. Vernon, coincidentally, was that franchise. Prince Albert did it 1981-82.
The Vipers also extended their own record with their sixth title in the tournament’s 40-year history.
The loss also extended the MJHL’s drought in the tournament to 36 years, as the last squad to win a Canadian crown was the Selkirk Steelers in 1974. The Kings were the first MJHL team to make it to the national final since the OCN Blizzard in 2002.
“It just wasn’t our day,” Murray said. “We just didn’t play our best at all. The game got away from us in about a four-minute span there, and it was evident that we played a good hockey team today.”
The Kings, who suffered just the fourth home loss of their season in 47 games, overcame a pair of two-goal deficits to beat the Vipers 6-5 in overtime during their round-robin meeting on May 1. The hole they faced on Sunday, however, was simply too deep.
The Vipers delivered their venom with three goals during a 48-second span in the second period, taking a 4-0 lead and essentially ending the contest right then and there. Neutral-zone turnovers were the culprit.
“Our structure wasn’t very good at all,” said Murray, who about an hour after the loss sat on his team’s empty bench and stared off into space. “We lived and died by our structure, and for the most part our structure has been real good for our hockey club.
“But this game today, we made some bad reads in the neutral zone and our D-men don’t usually get caught up ice. There or four of the goals were because of just bad reads on our behalf.”
The Kings were also quite sluggish. Murray was asked if he regretted his choice to play in Saturday’s 7 p.m. semifinal instead of the 2 p.m. game, giving his team less time to rest for the final.
“Absolutely not,” he said, not hiding his anger. “If you guys want to blame the coaching staff, go ahead and blame us and make a story about it, but absolutely not.”
Kellen Jones scored twice for Vernon, with Cory Kane, Dylan Walchuk, Cole Ikkala, Patrick McGillis, Sahir Gill and Garrett Noonan adding singles.
“Our fourth line got a couple big goals, and that really helped us out,” Jones said as his teammates celebrated on the ice around him. “I can’t explain it. It’s a great feeling to win it again.
“Our goalie (Graeme Gordon) played great today. It was the best I’ve seen him play all year.”
Bryce Lamb had the lone tally for the Kings, who got 28 saves from Joe Caligiuri while firing 24 shots at Gordon.