The Western Regals had more than winning hockey games on their minds this season.
The western Prince Edward Island under-18 triple-A team lost two of its own in September when a dory capsized in the Cascumpec Bay off the community of Northport, killing Alex Hutchinson and Ethan Reilly.
Both 17-year-old boys had played for the Alberton-based Regals, and Reilly was expected to be on the roster again this year.
Just a few weeks after the tragedy, the Regals found themselves lacing up their skates for the start of another season.
"We're missing a piece of us. It was hard on the kids. The kids weren't easy to deal with at times and rightfully so," said assistant coach Joey Dumville, who has coached the team for seven years alongside coach Jason Smallman.
He also coached both Hutchinson and Reilly.
"We got them together. We kept the dialogue open. We met a lot. We had practices twice a week."
Dumville said the goal at first was to get the kids back on the ice and some smiles on their faces despite the boating tragedy. They met with counsellors and by Christmas, the mood was starting to shift.
"Everybody was putting a lot of pressure on themselves. We just had to figure out a way to get back to playing hockey and then doing the simple things right," he said.
"The room was fun again. We still remembered. We still talk about our friends. But we were just getting a little bit more comfortable, and once we kind of had that end goal, and then trying to win it, you know, it was kind of the elephant in the room.
"We didn't say we wanted to win it, but we wanted to win it for them."
And they did.
WATCH | The overtime goal happens just after 2:26:30 in this video.
On April 3, Rankin Noye scored the overtime goal that crowned the team provincial champions.
"Ethan used to always tell us that's where he would love to score: 'Go top shelf.' And Rankin comes around the defender and puts it to top shelf," Dumville said.
"It was probably one of the most emotional things I've ever been a part of. To see the kids and the happiness in their face and the excitement and and see that spark, you know, the kind that's been missing for them all year."
'Like they're still here with us'
For players and coaches alike, they agree it was a hard year, but they also agree they were driven in a unique way.
"It's been tough; you never want to lose two people that you're close to," said team captain Michael McRae.
"We had to win it for them and we wanted to finish it out."
The families of Hutchinson and Reilly were also an active part of the season, cheering the team on at many games and practices.
"It gets us going, really, because it's nice to see them enjoying watching hockey and it makes us feel like [the boys] are still here with us," McRae said.
"I know they're hurting so bad and for them to put on a brave face to show our kids, you know, that they're here and to help support us — I can't say enough about their support," Dumville said.
We slowly clawed our way back ... making the boys upstairs proud.
— Joey Dumville, assistant coach
Carson Wood was a close friend of both boys and is a player on the team. He said the memories of his kind friends who would "do anything for ya" are always in everyone's minds.
"As soon as you put the skates on, you thought about them," he said. "It kind of made you want to play a lot better for them as well."
There are somber times, but McRae also laughs while remembering his friends and teammates, and slips often into the present tense.
"The best part of coming to the rink is just coming in and talking to Ethan, 'cause you're always laughing," he said.
"Alex is the same way, really. He's always … cracking jokes and always talking about fish and we get a good kick out of that."
'Make sure we win 'er for Alex'
The Regals are also closely linked to the Junior B Western Red Wings in the Island Junior Hockey League, the team that Hutchinson would have played on this year.
"I was real fortunate enough to get to know him," said Connor Morrissey, who plays for the Red Wings and coached the Regals for the first time this season.
The Red Wings will now proceed with their own playoff season this week.
"We're in it for one reason and one reason only: to make sure we win 'er for Alex," Morrissey added.
Dumville said he and one of the Red Wings coaches are now getting organized to start a foundation in honour of their two lost players and young community members.
"There was a lot on our minds, you know, a lot of sorrow," he said. "And you know what? We slowly clawed our way back — making the boys upstairs proud."
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