April 21st, 2024

The title that reignited a city: 2004 Tigers return to glory

By JAMES TUBB on March 30, 2024.

Medicine Hat Tigers goalie Kevin Nastiuk raises the championship trophy over his head after Medicine Hat defeated the Everett Silvertips 4-2 on May 5, capturing the franchise's fourth league title. Nastiuk was also named playoff MVP.--NEWS FILE PHOTO


The Medicine Hat Tigers’ 2004 championship team not only returned the city to its glory days, but set a path for a second title two years later and an expectation of excellence ever since.

Forward Stefan Meyer, who was born in Medicine Hat and grew up in Fox Valley as a Tigers fan long before donning the orange and black, says he still gets goosebumps thinking of how packed The Arena was and the support they had all season from the city.

“I know they got in trouble for this but the rink was so full that people were jammed up on the top to the wall and the stairway where you walked, there was actually people sitting on that as well, it was crazy,” Meyer said.

The Tigers’ 2004 title meant more than a third championship banner to hang from the rafters. It was the first championship in 16 years and came a year after they broke a five-season playoff draught. It was a team that brought winning and a spotlight back to Medicine Hat.

For forward Ryan Hollweg, who was drafted first overall in 1999, that team and that championship was a weight off the shoulders for a city looking to return to a promised land it had thrived in during the 80s.

“It’s a special part for me, I got to come in with a group of young guys and it was a tough run for the Tigers up to that point,” Hollweg said. “Nobody wanted to play there, they were suffering putting fans in the building.

“But to be able to go through all of that and be at the very bottom and, essentially, rebuild and see the whole process from the ground up like the building of a house. We started on the foundation of it. Guys like Jay Bouwmeester, Chris St. Jacques, these guys were all there part of that rebuild process. We saw the worst of times but when you go through that, it just makes you stronger and you never want to get back to that. It’s amazing what Medicine Hat has been able to do, what they’ve been able to sustain over the years.”

Hollweg played in 2004 after missing all the 2003 season with a fractured skull. He was one of three impactful veterans in the lineup, with St. Jacques and Darren Reid having their fingerprints on the title win. St. Jacques led the team in both regular season and playoff scoring while Reid scored a hat trick in the Game 4 championship clincher over the Everett Silvertips.

St. Jacques recalls how freeing it was to beat the Red Deer Rebels in the East finals after losing to them the year before. He says he’ll never forget the crowds of fans waiting for them to get off the bus after beating the Rebels, and even more waiting to see the trophy as they returned from sweeping Everett.

“The people that were there waiting for us and the same when we beat Everett in the finals, it’s goosebumps, it still brings back goosebumps talking about it,” St. Jacques said. “That was an honour and a privilege to be able to bring that championship home.”

There were a lot of different players who stepped up throughout the season for that team, it was hard for head coach Willie Desjardins to pick just one. That season was his second at the helm in Medicine Hat and he’s yet to forget how that group could line up against anyone in the league.

“You go through the lines, you had St. Jacques, Hollweg, (Clarke) MacArthur and (Yanick) Seidenberg were one unit that I had run together,” Desjardins said. “You had Reid, Meyer and Regier, you’d run that group together. I’d take a couple of guys off that first unit and match them up with (Brett) Robertson as a third set. And then you had (Kieran) Block, (Nathan) Exner and (Tommy) Maxwell on the fourth. It’s 20 years but I still remember those lines pretty good, and (Kevin) Nastiuk was great in net.

“There’s so many guys that you look through that were huge to build that. That group is a special group and a lot of the credit belongs to them for how hard they played.”

Desjardins can remember in Game 4 the Silvertips were outshooting them after 20 minutes and Reid stepped up in the dressing room during intermission to tell the group, that was enough.

“They got five or six shots the rest of the game, it was just a group that could take over,” Desjardins said.

A large part of their success also came from the playoff MVP in net, Kevin Nastiuk. He says the 2004 championship has always stuck at the top of his special memories because of the group he achieved it with and the city they brought it back to.

“No matter where you play in pro hockey, people always ask you, ‘Where’d you play junior or play college?’ It brings you back to your roots,” Nastiuk said. “Whenever I’d say Medicine Hat, I was always proud to say that I was part of those championship teams and it gives you a sense of pride. I just look back and how the whole community and the Arena staff, to our teachers at Medicine Hat High School, just everyone really believed in us and made it a real positive experience and a lot of great memories.”

Desjardins says players from the 2004 team often joke that he likes his 2007 championship team better. The franchise’s winningest coach says he likes all of his teams but will never be able to look past the 2004 team who could not be beat in a seven-game series.

“Whenever you get to coach a championship group you’re so lucky because they’re really special, but that ’04 team, they were a special group,” Desjardins said. “How hard they could play, and you knew they would control things.

“We lost in the (Memorial) Cup but nobody beats us in a seven-game series. There wasn’t a team that was going to beat us in seven games out here. It was just the way we were made up.

“I just want to say thanks to that team, because it was a special run.”

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