Just a few months removed from a heartbreaking loss in the championship game of the 1997 Royal Bank Cup, the South Surrey Eagles entered the next season as something of a wild card.
They had just seven returning players from the previous year’s team and were without not only their former head coach, Rick Lanz, who had left to join the staff of the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans, but also their entire first line, which the year prior has arguably been the best in the entire country, as Shane Kuss, Scott Gomez and Rodney Bowers combined for an astounding 377 points.
Their new coach was former Lanz assistant Mark Holick, and the team’s roster, according to captain Kris Wilson, “was basically just a band of gypsies.”
Though lacking in star power with the departure of Gomez, who followed Lanz to the WHL, and Kuss and Bowers, who aged out of the league, the team still featured a strong contingent of forwards. There was Wilson – or “Freight Train Willy” as former owner Cliff Annable still calls him – as well as Mike Bishai, Lyle Steenburgen, Brian Herbert and John McNabb, who joined the team from the WHL. The team’s defence was also impressive, led by Czech import Jakub Ficenec, a 1997-holdover who scored 91 points in 55 games, Joe Vandermeer and Aaron Schneekloth.
This week marks the 20th anniversary’s of that team’s crowning achievement – a Royal Bank Cup national championship win, which came in Nanaimo on May 10, 1998.
And though Holick, who had assistant coach John Short with him on the bench that year, called the group “incredibly tight-knit,” no one outside of the team likely would have batted an eye had the defending BC Hockey League champs finished the 1997/98 season as a middle-of-the-pack team, maybe making the playoffs, maybe winning a round or two.
Instead, the Eagles – who a few years later would drop the ‘South’ from their name – finished as the best team in the entire country, capturing the elusive trophy that had slipped from their grasp the season before in P.E.I., when they lost the final 4-3 to the Summerside Capitals.
“They were very confident, very close… it was a special group,” Holick said.
This year’s RBC Cup is also back on B.C. soil and is currently being held in Chilliwack. It wraps up Sunday.
And though two decades have passed since the final buzzer of a 4-1 victory over the Weyburn Red Wings, that ’98 Eagles team still holds a special place in the hearts of those who were a part of it.
“It seems like it was yesterday sometimes,” said Wilson, a Seattle-area resident who captained that year’s team and ended up playing four years with the Birds.
“There’s just so many memories I have with that team – and especially that year, because of that success we had that season, and really, weren’t supposed to have, I guess… in the preseason polls, I want to say we were ranked like third in our own division.
“On our part, we felt that was kind of a slight.”
In the BCJHL regular season, the Eagles weren’t able to quite match the win-loss record of the high-powered 1996/97 squad, winning 43 games and losing 15, compared to the 47-win, seven-loss record the season before, but they picked up their play in the playoffs, rolling through their own league with what, to Holick’s recollection, was a 12-1 win-loss playoff record. They defeated the Penticton Panthers in the league final.
The team had to play an extra playoff round that year – against the Cranbrook Colts of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League – just to be crowned provincial champs. And though the Rocky Mountain loop was thought at the time to be a step below BCJHL competition – which proved true, as the Birds won with relative ease – that series with the Colts was a memorable one for those involved.
“I remember that rink – we had to walk through the crowd to get to our dressing room, and that wasn’t much fun when you’re the visiting team,” laughed Bishai, an Alberta native who scored 100 points in 57 games for the Eagles that season, and went on to a long pro career that wrapped up in 2013.
After dispatching Cranbrook, the Eagles went north to the Edmonton-area to square off against the Alberta-champion St. Albert Saints, who were led by future NHLer Mike Comrie.
It was in Alberta where the Eagles experienced what Bishai, now a midget AAA coach in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta, called “a big wake-up call for us.”
The Eagles lost each of the first two games of the best-of-seven series, which under the rules of the day, meant the two teams would head back to South Surrey for four straight. And while the B.C. champs were shell-shocked, the Saints were heading south with plenty of confidence – perhaps too much, as Annable recalled.
After Game 2, Annable said the team saw a handful of celebratory Saints players – in various states of undress – wandering the arena carrying brooms, signifying that they expected to sweep the series in four straight games.
“I remember (Eagles defenceman) Jake Ficenec saying ‘They’ll pay the price for that,'” Annable recalled this week.
He referred to that moment as the key moment for the team, which to that point had not faced much adversity in the post-season.
As Ficenec predicted, the Saints did indeed pay the price, as the Eagles rolled to four consecutive wins at home to clinch a spot in the Royal Bank Cup national tournament.
From there, the Eagles – whose mantra all season long was “unfinished business” – cruised undefeated all the way to the final against Weyburn, where goaltender Peter Wishloff backstopped to the team to victory, earning player-of-the-game honours for the effort. According to a Peace Arch News story from May 13, 1998, Ficenec went into the dressing room after the win and tore a large “Unfinished Business” poster down off the wall, and in an expletive-sprinkled tirade, said he “was sick of this (poster).”
“We were on a mission… we were on a mission all year long,” he told PAN at the time.
Speaking with PAN last week, Wilson – who now works in youth hockey in Seattle – heaped credit upon both Holick and Short for molding them into a championship team.
“We all bought in to their system… and Shorty was a damn fine coach. He wasn’t a big Xs and Os guy, but he’s a guy you always wanted in your corner.”
Looking back, the individual talent that was assembled that year was undeniable – as evidenced by the long careers many had after graduating junior. Bishai, for example, moved on to play four years at Western Michigan University, followed by more than a decade of pro hockey in the American Hockey League, ECHL, Europe and, in 2003/04, the NHL, when he earned a 14 game call-up from the Edmonton Oilers.
Others had equally impressive careers – Ficenec played three seasons in the AHL himself, before embarking on a 14-year career in Europe that ended in 2015 and included, after obtaining dual-citizenship, a spot on Germany’s Olympic team that played in Vancouver in 2010; Vandermeer played pro, as did Herbert, Schneekloth and a host of others. Schneekloth has since got into coaching, and is currently the head coach of the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles.
The team’s enforcer, Jeff Nabseth, sadly passed away in 1999 after being hit by a vehicle while cycling on Vancouver Island. Annable, who has no shortage of stories about any of his former players, called ‘Nabber’ one of the toughest people he ever met – on or off the ice.
Wilson, meanwhile, went on to play four years of NCAA Div. 3 hockey at University of Wisconsin-Superior. He credits his playing career – and in many ways, the life he’s made since – to the success of that 1998 team.
“I went from a seldom-used player who only played 40 games a year and (they) gave me an opportunity to play… and I got an opportunity to further my education, I got a small role in the movie, Miracle – it really changed my entire life,” he explained.
“It’s the same for the other guys – the skill that they had brought them to those places, but I really believe a lot of it had to do with that team and what we accomplished.”
Holick, too, parlayed that national title run into a long, successful coaching career that’s taken him everywhere from Prince George to Italy. He has now moved back to South Surrey and is involved with the Yale Hockey Academy.
He called Annable “one of the best people I’ve ever worked for.”
Annable, too, has nothing but good memories of his former coach.
In particular, two conversations stick out. The first came over coffee in Blaine, Wash. shortly after Lanz had announced he was leaving for the WHL. Annable had been inundated with job applications, he explained, but when Holick asked who was going to coach the team, his reply was quick.
“I took a little bit of ribbing for that… a lot of people said, ‘Mark Holick? What does he know about hockey?” Annable recalled, adding that Holick had been working as a car salesman while also serving as an assistant coach under Lanz.
“Then there we are a year later, on Mother’s Day, after winning 4-1, and we’re shaking hands with the team from Weyburn and I said to Mark, ‘I guess we showed them, didn’t we?'”
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