'It was just that close'

WES GILBERTSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

Matt Kinch remembers the heroes, the big hits, even the muggy weather.

And the overtime marker that broke the hearts of the Calgary Hitmen at the 1999 Memorial Cup?

Yeah, that too.

"There's probably not a week that goes by that you don't think about it, because it was just that close," said Kinch, recalling the details of that emotional overtime loss to the host Ottawa 67's in the winner-take-all final game.

"I was on the ice for (the goal) and kind of got a close-up view of the puck going in, but I don't think it really set in right at the moment. Now, you think back and think, 'Geez, it was that close.' Just one shot, and the story would've been a lot different."

Fresh off their first Western Hockey League championship, the Hitmen were being billed as favourites as they arrived at the 1999 Memorial Cup in Ottawa.

For good reason, too.

Pavel Brendl, Brad Moran and a strong supporting cast of forwards were scoring in bunches.

The addition of Brad Stuart bolstered an already-reliable blueline brigade.

Russian Alexander Fomitchev had been solid between the pipes.

In just their fourth season of existence, the Hitmen compiled a 51-13-8 record in the regular season, then lost just five times in 21 Western Hockey League playoff tilts.

They won two of three round- robin contests at the Ottawa Civic Centre, earning a date with the 67's in the Memorial Cup final.

They needed just one more victory to cap their magical season with a Canadian Hockey League crown, but the hosts had other ideas. Just two minutes into the overtime session, winger Matt Zultek scored to lift the 67's to a 7-6 triumph and send the Hitmen home empty-handed.

"Our theme was to believe," recalled Hitmen winger Brent Dodginghorse. "But at the same time, we had a pretty darn good hockey team, too. We were well-rounded. I thought we had every aspect to win the Cup.

"Sometimes, in the game of hockey, the bounces just don't go your way, and we lost in overtime. I thought we deserved a better fate than that."

For many players, that season was supposed to be a springboard to bigger and better things.

Thirteen members of Dean Clark's talent-laden squad heard their names called in the NHL Entry Draft, but just two -- Stuart and undrafted forward Jerred Smithson -- still skate in the show.

Moran, Brendl, Kris Beech, Jordan Krestanovich and Chris Nielsen also enjoyed a taste of hockey's highest level and are now earning their paycheques elsewhere. Others, like Kinch, Sean McAslan, Rod Sarich and Kenton Smith have carved out lengthy pro careers overseas.

"Even if guys never played another game or played another year of junior and that was it, (going to the Memorial Cup) is something that is pretty special for anybody," Moran said. "You have four of five years, if you're lucky, to get to the Memorial Cup. It's not like you can play your whole life trying to do it."

Smithson, now in his fifth season with the NHL's Predators, can attest to that.

"We still talk about it. Even in our locker-room in Nashville, we've had guys that have won Memorial Cups or been to finals," Smithson said. "I've told the story so many times of how good our team was and how we got to the finals and battled hard and just came up that one goal short. It was an experience and a game I'll never forget."

Eleven years later, a new batch of Hitmen are headed to Brandon to try to bring a Memorial Cup banner back to the Saddledome, and many of the alumni will be keeping close tabs on the action.

"Hopefully," Kinch said, "they can finish the job we were so close to doing."


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