PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE — Wallace Hunter is only 5-7 and 165 pounds but he was a giant among men Sunday afternoon.
The 20-year-old left-winger from Oak Lake broke a scoreless tie by squeezing a shot through goaltender Josh Kotai’s pads at 10:08 of the second period and he added an assist on Hudson Malinoski’s goal 97 seconds later to spark the Brooks Bandits to their third consecutive Centennial Cup title with a 4-0 triumph over the Battlefords North Stars before 1,527 fans at Stride Place.
Wallace’s gutsy effort eased the tension in a game the Bandits dominated from the opening faceoff with their dazzling transition game.
“We just needed to stay composed,” said Wallace, who needed extra medical attention and ibuprofen to reduce the swelling above his right eye after being struck in the face by a skate boot in Saturday’s 3-0 semifinal win over the Ottawa Junior Senators. “I think we knew we were gonna get one — it was just gonna take a little extra work and once we’re able to get that first one, we kind of exploded from there.”
Heath Armstrong and Malinowski, with his second of the game at 19:45, added goals before the end of the middle frame. The likely outcome was clear after 40 minutes.
“It was a great feeling (to go up 1-0),” said veteran Brooks blue-liner Hughie Hooker, a 19-year-old Winnipegger. “We were outshooting them. We just couldn’t catch a break and it was a close, tough game, but as soon as we saw the first one go in I think that just kind of gave us a little extra boost and we just went from there.”
Initially, Hooker saw only the comic value of Wallace’s bruised face.
“At first I thought it was pretty hilarious because I saw the collision but I didn’t really know exactly what happened,” said Hooker. “I saw him after and his whole eye was shutting and it was purple but felt kind of bad because he couldn’t really see.”
The pace of play and Brooks’ control of the puck confirmed a widely held opinion that there was a sizeable gap between the No. 2-ranked North Stars and the top-rated Bandits.
So did the Bandits live up to the hype?
“No, they were better than we expected,” said Battlefords GM and head coach Brayden Klimosko with a chuckle. “Until you see it in a game and in the moment, they’re so good. It’s a special group they have over there. We tried to keep with them but you make one mistake and it’s in the back of the net. So they’re pretty elite over there.”
It was a dominant performance by the Alberta Hockey League champions who had four Manitobans — Wallace, centre Jordan Hughesman and defencemen Sam Court and Hughie Hooker — making major contributions to the six consecutive wins during the tournament.
“The trust in the group and the trust in the locker room was always there,” said Court, a 19-year-old Winnipegger who drew an assist on Malinowski’s power-play goal. “I knew we had it in us from the start of the game for sure.”
Added Hughesman, a 20-year-old from Winnipeg: “You never know what can go on in a one-game (final) like this. There’s always the chance of a bad bounce and you have that going through your head but I knew if we stuck to our game and we would have come out on top.”
The victory was the 18th consecutive win at the national junior A championship for Brooks GM and head coach Ryan Papaioannou. The Bandits also won national titles in 2019 and 2022.
“I think those (Manitoba) guys were fantastic,” said Papaioannou, who completed his 14th season in charge of the club. “I think that’s been the kind of the gold (standard) of our program — just the diversity in our recruiting and looking for the best people and the best players regardless of where they’re from.
“And just so happened this edition had four Manitobans — great players, great kids.”
Brooks controlled the opening period, outshooting Battlefords 11-1 through the 14 minutes, and it was the top line of Wallace, Malinowski and Aiden Fink that almost solved Kotai 4:20 into the game. Wallace, wide open in the slot, snapped a shot and the rebound came to Fink, who was denied by Kotai’s quick pad.
For all of his brilliance, a mental lapse by Kotai at 14:09 of the middle frame almost cost the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League champions. He mistakenly went to the bench during a stoppage, thinking it was an official timeout, and was forced by officials to come out of the game in favour of backup Justen Maric for one shift — caused some anxiety on the Battlefords side.
Maric was required to make one save and Kotai returned after the next whistle, but it was only three minutes late that Wallace would finally break the ice. Klimosko insisted Kotai was not distracted on first goal.
“No, I think that (the Bandits) kept coming in waves,” said Klimosko. “He was good the whole time and (the goal) has nothing to do with that. You keep pushing and you continue to push, something’s gonna go in finally. And that’s I think what happened.”
NOTES: Brooks went 1-for-4 on the power play. Coming into the game, Battlefords had killed off all 17 previous short-handeded situations in the tournament. The North Stars were scoreless in their only power play… Brooks outshot Battlefords 42-30 with Bandits goaltender Ethan Barwick posting his third shutout of the tournament.