Before the 2013-14 season began there were a lot of questions surrounding the Sherwood Park Crusaders. Outsiders may have thought the Crusaders could have been the ones on the outside when it came to Playoff time as a portion of the team would be made up of new faces.
“The expectations coming into the year were unknown due to 11 players graduating. We had a good start and I believe it was due to teams underestimating us in the month of September.” Says Crusaders General Manager and Head Coach Tim Fragle.
The Crusaders came flying out of the gates with a 7 and 3 start, including a 7 game winning streak.
The start was key for the Crusaders, and after another victory on Home Ice against the Brooks Bandits, the 2013 RBC Cup Champions, injuries and absences led to the Crusaders struggles in the mid Fall months.
“October and November saw inconsistent play which in turn was the most difficult part of our season. In early November we did see 3 Crusaders make the World Junior A Challenge Team Canada West, Andrew Taverner, Nicholas Jones and Tommy Nixon.” Says Fragle.
2013 marked the 3rd year in a row a Crusader made the Canada West squad.
“It was a huge honor to wear the red and white at the World Junior A Challenge in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. What made the experience better was that I got to go with two teammates. After coming home with a bronze, it was good to be back with the boys.” Says Goaltender Tommy Nixon, who was in his first AJHL Season in 2013-14.
During the absence of Taverner and Jones upfront and Nixon in goal, the Crusaders, as Fragle stated, had a difficult stretch losing 9 games in a row in November, and although the Crusaders had their lulls, they still managed to pick up victories against some of the countries top teams in Fort McMurray and Spruce Grove. One player who rose to the occasion during that stretch was Forward Sean MacTavish,
“Streaks are going to happen of course but maybe not to the extent we did. We as a team handled adversity well and in the end we pulled through when we really needed to.” Says MacTavish, who finished tied for 3rd, along with teammate Nicholas Jones, in league scoring with 72 Points.
The calendar year ended on a high note with a win in Olds, the Christmas break boasted well for the Crusaders as they were able to heal up some injuries and get some much needed rest.
“We showed signs in January & February that the team was getting better, mixed in was a 19 man shootout and the team played very well at the Sherwood Park arena in 2014.” Fragle said.
The Crusaders went undefeated at home in the month of January allowing them to climb the standings in the North Division, at one point the Crusaders were on the outside looking in when it came to playoff positioning.
The 19 man shootout Coach Fragle spoke of took place in Drayton Valley on February 17th. All players for both the Crusaders and the Thunder had at least taken a shot, and once everyone had gone through, it was back to the top of the order. Unfortunately the Thunder came out on top but it’s a wild moment that players, coaches and fans will remember.
“It was one of my first tastes of the shootout and it turned out to be a record breaking shootout.” Says Nixon on being in net for the Crusaders against Drayton Valley.
The Crusaders were in a dog fight for playoff positioning down the stretch that included 2 victories in Fort McMurray, a place where the Oil Barons had lost only 3 games all year, 2 of them in regulation.
The Crusaders were battle tested for the playoffs and were ready for once again, a Playoff matchup against the Bonnyville Pontiacs.
“Best moments of the year for me, was the playoffs. Beating Bonnyville in the First Round was one of the best parts of the year. We knew Bonnyville was going to be a tough series and being able to sweep them I think gave us a boost going into the Second Round against Spruce Grove.” Says MacTavish.
2014 marked the 5th time in 7 years the Crusaders and Pontiacs had met in the Post Season, with Bonnyville having a 3-1 edge.
Sherwood Park was able to pull away in Games 1 and 2 with an Overtime Goal from Andrew Taverner and a last second goal from Colten Meaver in Game 2. Game 3 saw the Crusaders earn a First Round series sweep for the first time in 11 seasons.
“The Playoffs saw all players step up in a tough First Round win over Bonnyville. We had timely goals, saves and end in a 3 game sweep but I’m here to tell you if was a very difficult 3 games.” Tim Fragle said.
“A sweep was satisfying for a couple reasons, we ended a rival's season and gave ourselves a couple of extra rest days.” Nixon adds.
After one rival, came another. And for the second straight season, the Crusaders faced off against the Countries top team, the Spruce Grove Saints.
Spruce Grove had won the previous year’s series in 6 Games and were hoping to make it a quick one after getting the First Round Bye.
Similar to Fort McMurray, the Saints had an excellent Home record. Mix that with the fact the Crusaders hadn’t won a game at the Grant Fuhr Arena in their 3 games west of home, you may have thought the Saints had the series in the bag. With Sherwood Park’s success at Home themselves against the Saints in the Regular Season, you also could have figured the Crusaders would just have to win one game in Spruce Grove to win the series.
No one expected what was to come.
The Crusaders shocked the entire AJHL by taking Games 1 and 2 in Spruce Grove.
Unfortunately, home woes cost the Crusaders a chance to move on to the Third Round for the first time in 11 seasons. Spruce Grove won the series 4 games to 3 en route to winning the Gas Drive Cup.
All 3 victories against the Saints came at the Grant Fuhr Arena.
“Although we lost in 7, I was proud of the guys and how we were able to compete against one of the top rated teams in the country. Nobody ever thought that we would be in that position but we were able to prove them wrong especially winning the first two games in Spruce.” Said MacTavish, who will be moving on to Boston University in the NCAA next season.
One of brightest spots of the Post Season was Ryan Kruper, the Crusader veteran had 5 points in 10 games but added timely goals.
“You know I thought overall our team had a good year as a whole, we were a really tight knit group throughout the lineup and despite our loss in the end I think I'd still call it a successful year.” Kruper reflects on the season.
“The series could have gone either way, our execution at home was our Achilles heel though. We dropped all three decisions at home at key times, we blew our 2-0 series lead at home and didn't finish the series at home when we were up 3-2.” Nixon reflects on the series loss to Spruce Grove.
The Crusaders were well supported throughout the Post Season, that included a capacity crowd for Game 6 against the Saints.
“Being a Sherwood Park native, it was especially nice when we went out for the games and I saw how big our crowds were. Aside from the games where the Midget AAA's played Team Canada (Women’s), I have never seen the Arena that full and it was motivating for us because we knew we had the full support of Sherwood Park.” Nixon adds.
Tim Fragle was also appreciative of the number of fans that came out to support the Crusaders.
“It was a bit of a disappointment the way we played at home in the playoffs as we had great crowds and support at the Sherwood Park Arena although a 7th game loss to Spruce Grove still hurts, with that said I am proud of the way the boys played as we pushed the #4 ranked team in Canada to a 7 game series in which most people didn’t give us a chance.”
The Crusaders will have lots of holes to fill in the Off Season, as they do in every season, losing key players such as the leagues top goal scorer, Nicholas Jones.
“We had a great group of guys who made this season very enjoyable. We went through some difficult stretches but ultimately overcame them as a team. It was a privilege playing for the Crusaders for the past two seasons. Everyone involved with this team is first class which allowed me to grow as a player and a person vastly during my Crusaders career.” Says the future Ohio State Buckeye.
Among the departures, they include 20 year olds Dillon Massie, Caleb Belter and Colten Meaver. Along with Jones, Andrew Taverner, Marshall Donald and Sean MacTavish will be heading off to the NCAA. Taverner with Quinnipiac, Donald to Northern Michigan and MacTavish to Boston University.
“We are loosing a lot of guys but I know our coaching staff and management will bring in good players to fill those roles of players moving on to college or whatever their situation may be.” MacTavish says on the future for the Crusaders.
Ryan Kruper will be looking to expand his role going into his 3rd year of Junior.
“The guys coming back from this year really need to instill a winning culture in the room and draw upon the experience from this year’s playoff run to bring together another tight knit team that'll compete in the playoffs again.”
Tim Fragle is optimistic about the offseason and into next year.
“Going into next season we lose some key pieces and experience, however we do return a strong group of players that we look forward in helping them take the next step in their development as players and as a team.”
The Sherwood Park Crusaders would like to thank everyone involved with the organization throughout the 2013-14 season, enjoy the summer and see you in August!