KENNEWICK — Watching Jarrett Toll lift the Western Conference trophy above his head and skate toward his teammates is a vision that will forever be a cherished memory for Tri-City Americans fans.
The Western Conference title was the first for the 22-year-old franchise, and with it came the team’s first trip to the Western Hockey League finals, and goaltender Drew Owsley being named Western Conference MVP.
The Calgary Hitmen defeated the Americans 4-1 in the WHL finals to advance to the Memorial Cup, but coach Jim Hiller said despite the loss, it’s a time to remember.
“They’ve been together 81⁄2, 9 months — it feels like two years,” Hiller said. “They work hard, they are young guys, we have to remember that they are young teenagers with emotions. It’s an honor to be in the room and be with guys like that. As much as it hurts to lose, people care and it’s a special time.”
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Tri-City general manager Bob Tory agreed.
“We are really proud of our players, scouting staff and coaches,” Tory said. “We took the franchise to a step it’s never been to before. We lost three key 20-year-olds and Chet Pickard from last year, but the parts are greater than the whole. They bought into the ‘team-first attitude’ that helped them have success.”
Tri-City lost the first three games of the WHL finals to Calgary, but came back to win Game 4 to stave off elimination and force Game 5, which the Hitmen won 4-1 on Friday.
“That experience is in valuable,” Hiller said. “We played a very, very good hockey team in the finals. I thought we pushed stride for stride. We went down three games, we got back to 3-1 and we came back to this building (Pengrowth Saddledome) again. I thought we had our best game. You talk about the players and them being young, this will only make them stronger.”
The Americans had one of the youngest teams to play in the finals, and had key contributions from rookie defenseman Zach Yuen and 17-year-old forwards Justin Feser, Patrick Holland, Brooks Macek and Jordan Messier.
“It was a special season” Tory said. “Feser, Messier and Macek came off good rookie seasons and played key roles this year. Holland and Zach Yuen really got it going after Christmas. Holland went from being an 11 or 12 forward to a top nine and really put up good numbers. And, there’s the emergence of Drew Owsley. We have a good foundation to have a special program for a long time.”
To reach the finals, the Americans started by winning their third straight U.S. Division title and the top seed from the Western Conference in the playoffs, giving them home-ice advantage through the first three rounds.
Tri-City knocked off Chilliwack in the first round in six games, but lost forward Neal Prokop to a broke leg in Game 3.
The Americans moved forward, taking out defending WHL champion Kelowna in five games to earn a date with Vancouver in the Western Conference finals.
The Giants won the first game of the series, but the Americans won the series in six games to earn their first trip to the finals.
“I’m proud of them — without question,” Hiller said. “There were a lot of question marks early, and a lot of people discounted our team early. I think a lot of people discounted our team in March when we stumbled a little bit, and I don’t think a lot of people gave us much of a chance in the playoffs because typically our team isn’t as big as some teams. I think they showed a lot about their character and their will. They played great during the regular season and brought it up a notch in the playoffs.”
The Americans will return up to 15 players next season. Player exit interviews will be Monday, but a lot of decisions won’t be made until after camp in August.
Tri-City will move forward without overage defensemen Toll and Brett Plouffe and forward Johnny Lazo.
“They had great careers,” Hiller said of the trio. “They really did help turn this (program) around and point it in the right direction. People know about the Tri-City Americans now.”
Toll, who served as team captain this season, played his entire career for the Americans and holds the franchise record for playoff games with 57. He will stay in the Tri-Cities for a few weeks to finish his program to get his pilot’s license, then it’s home to Maple Ridge, British Columbia, and in the fall, college.
“My lacrosse team is waiting for me,” Toll said. “I’ll be joining them as soon as I get there. If I don’t get any offers anywhere, I’ll be going to university next year. Right now, it’s either UBC (University of British Columbia) or U of C (University of Calgary).”
Plouffe joined the Americans three years ago, coming over in a trade from Calgary.
“It’s been great. Coming to Tri-City is one of the best things to happen to my career,” Plouffe said. “I got an opportunity to play for Don (Nachbaur) and then with Jim, and got an opportunity to be a leader. It’s not the kind of opportunity I would have had being the seventh or eighth defenseman here in Calgary or anywhere else. I’m just thankful for getting traded.
“We set a pretty high standard here the last three years, winning the division three years in a row, the conference and the Scotty Munro. It will be good to look back on. We had a lot of success.”
College is next for Plouffe. He will attend Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he plans to play hockey and pursue a medical degree. But there is one thing he plans to do first.
“I’m going to have a good shower and a shave,” he said. “I’m going to have to get a lawn mower or something, I’ve never had this long of facial hair before.”
Lazo, who joined the team as a listed player three years ago, finished his final season with a team-high 39 goals during the regular season and ranked fourth with 71 points.
“It’s been an awesome ride,” Lazo said. “Three years have gone by so fast. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do next year, I don’t even want to think about that.”
Lazo said he’s had a few offers to play in college, but for now, he needs time to process the last few weeks.
“It hurts that we didn’t win this,” Lazo said of the WHL finals. “But we should celebrate the season we had — it was a good one.”