By Sean Rooney on April 20, 2017.
Their eyes, red with emotion and weary from battle, told you everything you needed to know.
It’s never easy saying goodbye, but that’s what three Medicine Hat Tigers had to do Tuesday night following a Game 7 loss to the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Plenty more will do so in the upcoming months as the team graduates overagers and whittles down to the maximum three for next season.
“It’s five years of my life, it’s been a hell of a ride,” said Steven Owre, the top-line winger who had 88 points in his 20-year-old season plus 10 more in the playoffs. “I’m proud of everybody.
“We worked hard, went through a lot of stuff together.”
Merely coming out of the sombre dressing room to speak to local media was tough enough for the trio of Owre, Chad Butcher and captain Clayton Kirichenko. All three were dutiful to the end, but we didn’t ask them about their futures quite yet. None have signed NHL contracts so their options are wide open, from being done with hockey entirely, to signing a deal any day, to anything in between.
No doubt more will be known in the coming days and weeks, including tonight’s team awards banquet. But on Tuesday, in the milieu after a heartbreaking loss, they were understandably still in the moment.
“At some point it’s going to come to an end and tonight was that night,” said Butcher, whose 103-point final season put him fourth in the WHL and in elite Tigers company. “It could’ve gone either way; it’s a pretty tough way to go out.”
Butcher is only the fifth Tiger in the past 20 years to break the 100-point barrier, joining Trevor Cox (2014-15), Emerson Etem (2011-12), Linden Vey (2010-11) and Joffrey Lupul (2001-02).
Kirichenko’s 64-point season made him the club’s top-scoring blueliner since Kris Russell’s 69 back when the team won the WHL title in 2006-07. But his calm, never flashy demeanour was key for a team that won its division a year after being ousted from playoffs for the first time in 14 years.
Head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston focused on the overagers in his post-game speech to the team Tuesday.
“It was mostly thank you for all they put in to their careers and their time with us,” said Clouston. “We’re really proud of each and every one of the guys.
“At the start of the year most people picked us to battle for a playoff spot. We ended up second in the conference, first in our division. We get to hang up a banner.”
And yet there are at least seven others who will leave the Tigers behind. Ten players just finished their 19-year-old seasons and only three can come back as 20-year-olds. European imports John Dahlstrom and Kristians Rubins, goalies Nick Schneider and Michael Bullion, defencemen Brad Forrest, Ty Schultz, Jordan Henderson and forwards Matt Bradley, Mark Rassell and Zach Fischer all now have question marks hanging above their heads, though Schneider (signed, Calgary), Bradley (drafted, Montreal) and Dahlstrom (drafted, Chicago) each have an in with NHL teams that can help their prospects.
“Seven of us are going to be gone, so it’s disappointing, you played your last game with a lot of those guys,” said Rassell. “We’ve got phenomenal 19-year-old players, they’re going to be easy to move. Teams are going to be lucky that we have to dish out seven guys.”
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