The 2001-02 Western Hockey League regular season was a smashing success. Record smashing, that is.
A season in which geographical realignment was the big story, the WHL topped the 2.5 million mark in attendance for the seventh straight year, finishing with an eye-popping 2.95 million to eclipse last year’s total of 2.7 million.
With the help of the popular Vancouver Giants, who were a huge hit at the gate in their first season, an average of 4,250 people watched Western Canada’s top junior hockey players compete each night. Other success stories include the Kamloops Blazers, who topped 200,000 for the first time in their history, and reigning Memorial Cup champion Red Deer Rebels, who played to a 99-per-cent capacity at the Centrium.
The addition of the Giants led to some division shuffling and the creation of an all-United States grouping, and an all-British Columbia Division, less travel and more intense play brought about by the rejuvenation of some heated rivalries.
It all makes for some interesting first-round playoff match-ups starting Friday.
In the West, the Western Conference’s top team, the Portland Winter Hawks square off against nearby Seattle Thunderbirds in a best-of-seven that opens at Portland’s Rose Garden. The Winter Hawks, led by 51-goal scorer Josef Balej, were 6-0 at home this year against the Thunderbirds, the WHL’s most penalized team.
Last year at this time the Winter Hawks had to travel into B.C. to start the playoffs against the Prince George Cougars while the Thunderbirds did likewise against the Kelowna Rockets.
Instead of facing the Blazers as they did in 2000-01, the Spokane Chiefs host the Tri-City Americans. The Americans’ spark plug is the league’s third-leading scorer, Eric Johansson (44 goals, 103 points assists). That clash starts at the Spokane Arena and on paper it’s a saw-off since the Americans and Chiefs were 4-4-4 in head-to-head meetings this season. In B.C., natural enemies Kamloops and Kelowna collide beginning Friday at Sport Mart Place, home of the B.C. Division champions. The Rockets, who are led by 2001 National Hockey League first-round draft pick Shane Bendera in goal, took the season series 5-3-2.
The Kootenay Ice, which moved to the Western Conference this season and finished two points back of the Blazers, draw the Cougars, starting Friday in Cranbrook. The Ice is the WHL’s third-most experienced playoff squad with 298 man-games, just behind the Rebels and Swift Current Broncos (302 each). The opening round draw in the west is exactly what the WHL governors had in mind when they approved realignment.
“I think the whole conference is psyched,” Winter Hawks president/governor/general manager Ken Hodge said. “It gives us the opportunity to kick-start the first-round of the playoffs, especially in the south where for the most part teams struggle to get interest generated to start the playoffs because of college basketball’s Final Four.”
The Rebels held off the Swift Current Broncos to win the Central Division and the WHL’s regular season title. The Rebels retained the No. 1 ranking in the Canadian Hockey League and open against the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Friday at the Centrium. The Rebels, led by Mikhail Yakubov, Colby Armstrong and Carsen Germyn, were only 2-3-2 against the Nathan Barrett-led Hurricanes during the regular season.
The Rebels are favoured to repeat as WHL playoff champions and earn a return trip to the Memorial Cup, although their head coach and general manager, Brent Sutter, despises such talk.
“Everyone else’s opinion about us doesn’t mean a thing. We’ve never got caught up in what other people think about us. It’s irrelevant,” he said. “Yeah, sure, we’re ranked No. 1 now but the only thing that matters to us is that we’re ranked No.1 at the end of the playoffs.”
The Broncos finished the season ranked fourth in the country and draw the Calgary Hitmen for the first round. The Tyler Beechey-led Hitmen had much success against the Broncos during the regular-season, winning three of four meetings. Swift Current reached the 40-win plateau for the fifth time in six years this season.
In the East Division two intense rivalries resume. Division champion Brandon Wheat Kings face the Saskatoon Blades while the Regina Pats get the Moose Jaw Warriors.
The Brandon/Saskatoon series starts Saturday in Saskatoon because Brandon’s Keystone Centre is tied up with the annual Royal Manitoba Fair. The Wheat Kings’ opening round home games will be played at the Winnipeg Arena, with Game 3 there March 26. The Wheat Kings and Blades have met six times in the playoffs over the past 30 years, with the winner reaching the league final each time. The Wheaties were 30 points better than Saskatoon this season.
“They’ve been playing good hockey lately,” Brandon captain Ryan Craig told the Brandon Sun. “But we’ve got to go out and worry about ourselves. You can only worry so much about what the other team does. It comes down to how we play and how hard we play and that’s what we’ll focus on to prepare.”
The Pats host the Warriors starting Friday. Regina had the upper hand in their head-to-head series, going 6-2-1-2, although Moose Jaw took the final encounter on Saturday. The Regina/Moose Jaw rivalry is as intense as any in the league.
“We’re going to see feisty hockey, especially in their rink where it always gets a little nasty,” Pats defenceman Filip Novak, whose NHL rights were traded from the New York Rangers to the Florida Panthers on Thursday as part of the Pavel Bure trade, told the Regina Leader-Post.”It’s such a great rivalry. I’m sure the fans are going to love it. I know I’m looking forward to it.”
The new Western Hockey League playoff format that was introduced this season has the top four teams in each Division (Central, East, B.C., U.S.) advance to the playoffs.
In both Conferences, the first round match-ups will feature best-of-seven series within each Division. The first place team will play the fourth place team, and the second place team will meet the third place team based on regular season standings.
In both Conferences, the second round match-ups will feature best-of-seven series within the Conference. The four clubs, which win their first round playoff series, will advance to the second round. The first place team will play the fourth place team, and the second place team will meet the third place team based on regular season standings.
In both Conferences, the third round match-up will feature best-of-seven series within the Conference. The two clubs, which win their second round playoff series, will meet with the home ice advantage going to the club with the most regular season points.
In the League Championship, the two Conference Champions will meet in a best-of-seven series with the home ice advantage going to the club with the most regular season points.
The following is the list of the WHL Playoff Champions.
2001 - Red Deer Rebels* 2000 - Kootenay Ice 1999 - Calgary Hitmen 1998 - Portland Winter Hawks* 1997 - Lethbridge Hurricanes 1996 - Brandon Wheat Kings 1995 - Kamloops Blazers* 1994 - Kamloops Blazers* 1993 - Swift Current Broncos 1992 - Kamloops Blazers* 1991 - Spokane Chiefs* 1990 - Kamloops Blazers 1989 - Swift Current Broncos* 1988 - Medicine Hat Tigers* 1987 - Medicine Hat Tigers* 1986 - Kamloops Blazers 1985 - Prince Albert Raiders* 1984 - Kamloops Jr. Oilers 1983 - Lethbridge Broncos # 1982 - Portland Winter Hawks 1981 - Victoria Cougars 1980 - Regina Pats 1979 - Brandon Wheat Kings 1978 - New Westminster Bruins* 1977 - New Westminster Bruins* 1976 - New Westminster Bruins 1975 - New Westminster Bruins 1974 - Regina Pats* 1973 - Medicine Hat Tigers 1972 - Edmonton Oil Kings 1971 - Edmonton Oil Kings 1970 - Flin Flon Bombers 1969 - Flin Flon Bombers 1968 - Estevan Bruins 1967 - Moose Jaw Canucks * won Memorial Cup # Portland won Memorial Cup as host team.
This playoff preview courtesy of the WHL, and was written by Jeff MacKinnon