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JONES: Sherwood Park Crusaders championship aspirations come to sudden halt

Sherwood Park Crusaders forward Will Zapernick watches as the puck zips into the Grande Prairie net on the way to a 4-1 win over the Storm at the Sherwood Park Arena on Oct. 27, 2019.
Sherwood Park Crusaders forward Will Zapernick watches as the puck zips into the Grande Prairie net on the way to a 4-1 win over the Storm at the Sherwood Park Arena on Oct. 27, 2019.

After 41 years of history as mostly a floundering franchise that somehow managed to survive in a 70-year-old second-rate rink in a community with otherwise first-rate facilities, their time at the top had finally come.

And then, faster than you could say coronavirus, it went away.

“Now we know how the Montreal Expos felt,” said Kyle Chase, the general manager of the Sherwood Park Crusaders of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The Expos, in 1994, had the best team in baseball when the major leagues shutdown the season due to a labour dispute and the World Series went un-played.

The Crusaders, a team with a 49-9-0 record and scored 143 more goals than they allowed that had never even made it to the AJHL Final, was ranked No. 1 in the nation when Hockey Canada announced the cancellation of all play because of COVID-19.

“We’re not looking for a pitty party because the most important thing here is everybody’s health,” said Chase.

But having their season shutdown because of the pandemic didn’t make it any easier because of the season the team was finally experiencing after so many sorry seasons played out with cash calls galore for ownership groups that at one point included Chase and nine others.

Despite the almost total lack of success through all those seasons, the Cru managed to become the second longest running franchise in the AJHL.

“It was most crushing to our 20-year-olds. You have guys who played their last junior hockey game and they didn’t even know they were playing it,” said Chase.

A virtual worldwide shutdown of sports isn’t going to result in much focus on a Tier 2 hockey team in a bedroom community. The focus on hockey has obviously been on the NHL and the “pause” called in the season of teams like the Edmonton Oilers. What focus was left seemed to go to their CHL teams including the WHL Eastern Conference leading Edmonton Oil Kings.

The Oilers and Oil Kings seasons hit the “pause” button. Thursday the 10 leagues that make up the CJHL had their seasons outright cancelled.
The 20-year-olds on the team include captain Arjun Atwal, alternates William Zapernick and Jarred White, Jacob Kendall and Nik Bowman.

“Kendall is battling to get a scholarship and has a couple of schools very interested and probably his play in the playoffs would have determined if he were to get a NCAA Div. I scholarship,” said Chase.

Atwal led the team and the league in scoring with 107 points in 54 games.

Carter Savoie, 18, ended up second in the league with 99, Zapernick with 88 and Michael Benning, the 18-year-old younger brother of Oilers blue liner Matt with a league leading 75 for a defenceman.

Savoie and Benning are both committed to the University of Denver, two of seven players on the team headed to NCAA college hockey on scholarships. The others are Ty Mueller (U Nebraska at Omaha), Zapernick (U Alabama at Huntsville), Reid Irwin (U Denver), goaltender Carter Gylander (Colgate) and White (U Alabama at Huntsville).

Gylander was a seventh round pick of the Detroit Red Wings last year.

Benning and Savoie both attended the CJHL Prospects game in Hamilton this year and are projected picks in the NHL Entry Draft.

“Savoie and Benning are both going to be high picks in the NHL Entry Draft. Savoie could go as high as 45th and Benning as well,” said Chase.

“With our 20-year-olds and the guys moving on to college, we’re going to be losing a lot of real good players. The opportunity to repeat itself in terms of the statistical record for the Crusaders next year is going to be a difficult task to repeat.

“In saying that, we have some very good young players and some good young players coming in. We’re going to battle our way back. We know how we got there the first time and we’re going to work hard to do it again.”

The Cru accomplished a lot this season on and off the ice.

Ownership with president Kevin Love and partner Ryan Maxwell is super solid.

Head coach Adam Mahnah and associate coach Jeff Woywitka were part of the staff that also included athletic therapist Josh Armstrong, head scout Brad Morgan and academic advisor Gerald Kunyk.

“What really hurts is how the community came together with this team. We had such good fan support and such good community support. We’d come such a long way as an organization,” Chase said.

Their season of seasons is over and the players haven’t even had the chance to get together for some closure.

“Our league told us not to get anybody together just yet. Guys are able to come to the rink one by one to get their equipment if they want. We didn’t have anybody come in (Friday). Hopefully, we’ll get together in a couple of weeks and have a conversation. There’s got to be some kind of closure here.”

Whenever that happens there was one kid on the team, Brennan McDonnell, who is from Tampa and will be flying home to Florida on Monday.

“It’s the players that it comes down to. It’s ripping these kids hearts out. It’s so hard to watch these kids get it pulled out from under them.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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