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Wheat Kings season ends with playoff cancellation

Tim Smith/Brandon Sun

(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun)

The season is officially over for the Brandon Wheat Kings.

The Canadian Hockey League announced on Monday afternoon that its three major junior leagues, the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, will not be holding playoffs and the Memorial Cup won’t be contested for the first time in its history due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision was jointly reached by CHL president Dan MacKenzie and commissioners Ron Robison (WHL), David Branch (OHL) and Gilles Courteau (QMJHL) in consultation with their respective boards of governors.

Wheat Kings owner Kelly McCrimmon said the WHL board had regular updates from Robison.

“I respect the decision, which was made with everybody’s health and safety in mind, which is the priority, as it should be,” McCrimmon said. “It was a difficult decision I’m sure but we have a lot of trust in the leaders of our three leagues. They were in discussions daily with medical experts … The CHL felt that there wasn’t the certainty needed to be able to play in the Memorial Cup, which in turn impacted each league’s decision in respect to their own playoffs.”

In a release, Robison said it wasn’t an easy conclusion to reach but ultimately it was the only one.

“Nothing is more important to the WHL than the health and safety of our players, officials, staff, and fans,” Robison said. “Without any ability to predict as to when it will be safe and responsible to return to play, the WHL has made the difficult decision to cancel the WHL playoffs and the balance of the 2019-20 season. All of us at the WHL will continue to do our part in battling this virus so that we may be in a position to enjoy more WHL hockey.”

Wheat Kings general manager Darren Ritchie had the unenviable task of reaching out to his 23 players with the news.

“They’re disappointed but they understand,” Ritchie said. “Our team had made so much improvement through the year. We were playing good hockey and probably playing a great playoff-style game. I know guys were looking forward to the last five regular season games and playoffs.

“I feel bad for them, I feel bad for our coaches, I feel bad for our fans but it was the right decision.”

Brandonite Lynden McCallum agreed. The second-year forward said the right decision was reached, however tough it might be.

“I think as disappointing and disheartening as it is, the medical professionals obviously know the magnitude of the situation we’re in,” McCallum said. “I believe they’re going to make the right decisions and we just need to look to them and do our part and be responsible people in society and good citizens. There are things that are bigger than the game and this is one of them.”

Ty Thorpe, another second-year forward from Brandon, echoed McCallums thoughts.

“Of course I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to finish the season,” Thorpe said. “We had a really great group and I thought we could really go a long ways in the playoffs but I obviously understand that the circumstances are what they are. There’s an issue going on right now that we have to take seriously and do everything we can to prevent this. The measures that were taken were unfortunate but obviously necessary.”

The three most difficult calls for Ritchie on Monday were to the team’s graduating overagers, fifth-year forward Connor Gutenberg of Brandon, second-year goalie Jiri Patera of Prague, Czech Republic and defenceman Dom Schmiemann of James River Bridge, Alta.

“They’re young men at 20 years old and those guys probably had a better feeling of what was going on than most,” Ritchie said. “It’s a tough day for them. They don’t get to finish their careers on the ice doing the thing that they’ve loved since they were five years old and their parents showed them the game. All three are very mature, great kids.”

McCrimmon agreed.

“I’m disappointed for our fans, I’m disappointed for our players, certainly our three 20-year-olds, Dom Schmiemann, Connor Gutenberg, Jiri Patera,” McCrimmon said. “From having been part of as many teams as I was in Brandon, I knew that it’s a real special season when a player plays as a 20-year-old, and when that season ends, it’s always an emotional time for a player. For it to end this way is really unfortunate.”

Gutenberg began his Wheat King tenure in the 2015-16 season, the sole 16-year-old on a Brandon team that went on to win a WHL championship. Ritchie was an assistant coach on that team.

“I have a long relationship with Connor going back to him being 16 on our team and winning,” Ritchie said. “That’s special and I’ll always treasure that.”

Patera joined the Wheat Kings last season after being selected in the import draft. Brandon’s first-ever European goalie proved to be an impactful player on the ice who also spent a good part of his off-season in the Wheat City.

“Jiri has almost made Brandon his home, spending all of last summer here training,” Ritchie said. “I always enjoyed having conversations with Jiri. He was very mature and understood what he wanted to be. He was always proud to be a Wheat King and part of our organization.”

Schmiemann was acquired from the Tri-City Americans in October as Ritchie made a concerted effort to bulk up his lineup. The big Albertan quickly assumed an important role as a shutdown defender.

“It felt like he had been here for years,” Ritchie said. “The leadership that he brought … he was just another quality man who understood the things that we wanted from him on and off the ice.”

Brandon had been set to face off against their new arch rivals, the Winnipeg Ice, in the first all-Manitoba WHL playoff series in league history.

It’s the third major announcement the league has made on COVID-19 in the last two weeks.

The season was paused on March 12, and then cancelled last Wednesday.

The season would have wrapped up on Saturday with the Wheat Kings handing out their year-end awards in a game against the Ice.

McCrimmon said the Wheat Kings will announce this week how it will handle reimbursing fans for the four unplayed regular season games.

“It’s something that’s been discussed, and now that there’s finality to the season, we’ll announce that here shortly,” McCrimmon said.

It’s the first time in the WHL’s 54-year history the league won’t crown a champion, and also the only time in 102 years that the Memorial Cup won’t be awarded.

McCrimmon said leaders across the junior and college hockey world have independently arrived at the same conclusion in the face of the pandemic.

“They made the decisions that they made with the best interests of society, the players, the coaches, the fans,” McCrimmon said. “From my standpoint, I have a lot of regard for the way the sport is handling it … We need to recognize our place. We’re a very small part of this issue and we needed to lead where we could, by example.”

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