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  February 3, 2001



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Fans earn their stripes


By BRET HART -- Calgary Sun

 When the Hitmen played Regina the other day, a woman in a Regina Pats jersey attracted a lot of attention from Hitmen fans as she enthusiastically cheered the Pats for the whole game.

 That would be fine, I'm sure the Pats have as loyal a corps of fans as anybody in the WHL -- except the Hitmen lost and the ardent Pats supporter turned out to be none other than my wife.

 In a section where the Hitmen hardcores live at every game -- and take it seriously when I'm not sitting in my lucky seat -- imagine the strange looks I got when Julie was cheering for the other team! (She's from Regina, a Pats fan from way back.)

 Such is the passion in junior hockey.

 I love it!

 I always thought wrestling fans were an enthusiastic bunch, and they are, but for the majority of them, loyalties change along with the hottest storyline. It's not like that in junior hockey, where fans stick by their team no matter what. I think that's especially true when it comes to the loyalty Hitmen fans have shown throughout the team's storied history.

 It's hard to believe this is only the Hitmen's sixth season, when you consider that they've already achieved third consecutive final four appearances -- not to mention the WHL Championship in 1999.

 I guess we were expected to go into some sort of a slump, having lost mainstays like Brad Moran, Chris Nielsen and Jerred Smithson, and I'm sorry if we've disappointed any of our rivals who were counting on that!

 We're taking on the Red Deer Rebels tonight and they're considered the team to beat, but the Hitmen know that feeling well, having been No. 1 all of last season only to be upstaged in the playoffs. Well, now we're looking to do the same thing to Red Deer and Kootney.

 Don't forget, the Hitmen have acquired a reputation as being their toughest when they're vying for position!

 Red Deer is in for a tough fight, with Hitmen coach Dean Clark having a team running on all cylinders now.

 Owen Fussey is back from a debilitating spleen injury that was a lot more serious than most people realized. He's playing great. Kris Beech is back from an elbow injury and look at Shaun Sutter, back from what some thought was a career-ending back injury and he's still not afraid to bang along the boards. I don't know what it is about those Sutter boys, every one of them is so consistently good.

 I know what it's like to have to live up to your family's reputation and Shaun Sutter does a darn fine job of it. He's one of my favourite players, reminding me of Brent Dodginghorse, the way he gets in the corners and does all the digging and grinding and makes things happen.

 The man of the hour on defence is Matt Kinch, in my opinion, the best in the league. I'd like to see what his plus/minus is at the end of the season!

 At the beginning of the season, Pavel Brendl told me he wanted to work on his defensive skills and is now one of the best all-round players on the team.

 Wade Davis and Rod Sarich are coming into their own. Near the net, both are hard to push around.

 Toni Bader, Jared Carli and Robin Gomez are tough scrappers with the heart to become champions.

 Goaltending is really strong with Brent Krahn and Brady Block working two completely different styles. Heading into the home stretch, both will be tough to beat between the pipes.

 Jordan Krestanovich, Sean McAslan and Shaun Norrie are undoubtedly among the fastest skaters in the league who, along with Beech and Brendl, give the Hitmen that phenomenal offensive punch.

 I've been invited to travel up to Red Deer with the Hitmen today to cheer them on against the Rebels.

 I'll be the one in the other team's jersey this time.

 You gotta love it.

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