Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Silver Lining on Opportunity of a Lifetime

When they first accepted the invitation to be part of an all BCHL roster representing Team Canada in Russia they had no idea what the hockey would be like but they knew they couldn't pass up an opportunity of lifetime. To wear the iconic Canadian jersey and be able to travel overseas to play the game they love in a country they know very little about was nothing short of the realization of a hockey dream.

RJay Berra and Justin Fillion have played hockey for many years together growing up in Prince George. In 2008 they won a BC Hockey championship playing for the Cariboo Cougars Major Midget team and the following season they would both move up to play for the Prince George Spruce Kings playing three more years together on their hometown Junior A team.

In those three years the two remained close friends and shared seats on the bus traveling up and down the highways of BC. In those three years the two challenged each other to be better in their positional play on the ice and the improvements began mounting on the stats sheet. Before Christmas, of this past season, both players hit the century mark for points with Justin getting it done from the point a handful of games ahead of Berra.

At the trade deadline of January 10th, the two had to deal for the first time with the concept that they would be wearing a different jersey and playing for different teams many kilometers away from home. Justin Fillion was traded to the Victoria Grizzlies staying in the BCHL while RJay Berra found himself one time zone over playing for the Grande Prairie Storm.

The two handled the transition like professionals and never missed a beat in their point production making immediate contributions to their respective teams. For Justin, his 41 points in 44 points with the Spruce Kings was followed up with 15 more points in 18 games and 12 points in 12 playoff games with the Grizzlies.

RJay Berra left the BCHL as the leading goal scorer with 34 goals in 45 games and 55 points total with the Spruce Kings. In his very first game with the Grande Prairie Storm, which was played some 24 hours after being traded, Berra scored his first goal in the AJHL to tie the game and allow his new team to win in overtime. Berra would go on to finish with 16 points in 18 games and was a point a game guy in the playoffs as well.

The Spruce Kings desire to give both of these hard working players a chance to finish out their Junior ‘A’ careers with teams that had legitimate shots of going deep in the postseason never panned out. It can be said that both of their playoff lives were not what they were supposed to be, but this is where the hockey gods finally stepped in for the pair of twenty year old Prince George hockey products.

Just before the playoffs began in late February, Vladislav Tretiak had initiated talks with Hockey Canada and was looking for a team from Canada to play in a newly formed tournament in Russia. The tournament, and others like it, was a small part of the rebuilding of hockey in a country that will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics and is looking to restore it's pride and dominance in the game.

For Russia it was essential to have representation from the country that is viewed as a perennial favourite and has developed a long standing level of respect around the world. To play a team from Canada would surely bring out the best of the best in the players and teams participating. With the prospect that the NHL would not be sending players to the next Winter Olympics, Russia's desire to become one of the best had to start with tournaments of this nature to identify players that could be playing on the world stage in less than three years.

The tournament would be the equivalent of one leg of the Summit Series that made a stop in Prince George; in fact one of the teams would consist of many of these same players we saw in November. The problem was that the CHL playoffs would be just getting through the heart of the second round and their simply wouldn't be enough players available on such short notice. Cue the premiere Junior A league in Canada.

The BCHL would be down to the final two teams leaving enough players that could easily suit up for Canada and play in that tournament. The process was started and Ron Paterson of the Surrey Eagles became the General Manager of the team putting together a roster of BCHL players, coaches and other staff members to travel to Europe and represent Canada in Russia.

Justin Fillion was the first of the PG pairing to be identified having played in the Coastal Conference for the tail end of the season. Patterson had seen firsthand what this defenceman was capable of doing on the blueline both defensively and offensively. RJay Berra almost slipped under the radar because of being traded to the AJHL. When it came time to look for players to fill roles on the team, Berra's name kept coming up. The call was made and Berra accepted.

RJay and Justin met the rest of Team Canada where they had a few practices before setting out on a journey that would take them halfway around the world. The journey included a lengthy layover in London, England allowing for some sightseeing that included Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and numerous other historic attractions.

It wasn't until they were in Russia that the realization of where they were started to set in. North American cell phones don't work in Russia, they were at the mercy of their supplied Russian interpreter, they were eleven hours off their normal time schedule and the food was something they hadn't experienced before. In all of this was something else - a level of respect and adoration from everyone that saw the Canadian flag and came to realize that these were Canadian hockey players.

Achieving the level of celebrity status wasn't something that this group of sixteen to twenty year old players had expected. Everywhere they went there were fans following them and some brought out their Hockey Canada gear to show off. Little kids couldn't get enough autographs and the interest shown to all the players was almost overwhelming with people trying to discover what part of Canada they were from.

Whether it was on their sightseeing trips or after ice times, there were always people there to shake hands, take photos and to talk to these Team Canada players. Of course the primary purpose of the trip was to play in a high calibre tournament featuring an All Star Team from the Minor Hockey League - a feeder league of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) - and two under twenty national teams from Russia and Slovakia.

Team Canada was provided with two ice times each day and an exhibition game against their first opponent in the Region Centre Cup Tournament - the MHL Red Stars. In that first game, Canada came out on the wrong side of a 9-2 score and was left wondering what they had gotten themselves in to. Their opponents, perhaps driven by their own national pride, were openly critical claiming they didn't know anything about this British Columbia junior league.

Taking everything in stride, Team Canada simply went back to the white board and looked at key areas that would improve their game against a much older and more experienced squad. The MHL Red Stars roster listed three players that already had their 22nd birthdays and seven 21 year olds with the rest being either 19 or 20 years old. In comparison the BCHL Team Canada roster only had two players that already had their 21st birthdays and also had two 16 year old players on it.

After a trip to Moscow and a couple of practices, it was time for the Tournament and three games that would each be worth three points in the IIHF round-robin format tournament. Team Canada and the MHL Red Stars would open the tournament and, as they had in the exhibition game, the Red Stars came out strong and opened up a 3-0 lead before the Canadians could respond.

Team Canada did respond and had the elite team on its heels to the point where Canada made it a one goal game and were only trailing 3-2 thirty-five minutes in to the contest. The experience of the Red Stars would take over and they went on to score three more unanswered goals. After the game the MHL Red Stars weren't nearly as critical of the Canadians claiming that they played like a true Canadian team and did not give up throughout the contest.

After the game, Team Canada watched their next two opponents battle it out in a close game that went to overtime tied 4-4 and eventually required a shoot-out to have the Russian U20 National Team defeat the Slovakian U20 National Team 5-4. The next day saw the MHL Red Stars hand Slovakia a devastating 12-1 loss and that was the first time that Team Canada started thinking that they could do something magical.

Team Canada played their second game in the feature time slot against the Russian National Team in front of 6,000 loud partisan fans that never stopped chanting and cheering for the duration of the game. Russia opened the scoring but a couple of quick goals put Canada in the lead. This was a position they hadn't been in before and it wasn't something they were prepared to give up easily.

When the second period started, Team Canada would get another quick goal to give themselves a 3-1 lead. A few minutes later Russia and Canada would trade goals leaving the visitors with a 4-2 advantage on the scoreboard. Before the midway mark of the period, Russia made it a one goal game and that is how the period would end. In the third period, Team Canada put a dagger through the heart of the bear with a fifth goal and then withstood a heavy attack that included four consecutive power plays for Russia.

After the game the realization of what they had done simply couldn't be contained and the same emotions and excitement came through in a unanimous feeling that they had just won a championship, that they had won gold. They had just defeated a team that had players with professional experience - a national team that had been to previous international tournaments and brought home gold medals.

The adrenaline rush of the win over Russia stayed with Team Canada well into their next game against the Slovakian U20 National Team. Before the end of the first period Canada had built up a 4-0 lead over their opponents. The teams would trade a pair of goals in the second period giving Canada a 6-2 lead. Slovakia would score the only goal of the third period, a shorthanded tally, but the damage had already been done and Canada posted the 6-3 victory to stake their claim to silver in the International Tournament.

Dressed in their Team Canada colours, the silver medalists watched the final game between the MHL Red Stars and the Russian National Team. The two skated in to the final minute tied 3-3. In the dying seconds of regulation time, Russia was assessed a penalty and the Red Stars capitalized scoring with 24 seconds remaining on the man advantage and then added an empty netter to make the final 5-3.

As they have done so often in their playing days with the Spruce Kings, RJay Berra and Justin Fillion figured on the scoresheet on some key goals finishing with a combined five assists. In Canada's 5-3 win over Russia, Berra's assist was on the game winning goal and Fillion's contribution was on the insurance marker in the third period.

Against Slovakia, Berra's assist came on the 3-0 goal forcing Slovakia to take their timeout. Fillion picked up two assists, one on Canada's first goal which was a point shot from the defenceman that was tipped in front and the other assist a mirror of the first on Canada's sixth goal.

The two regulation time wins gave Team Canada six points, three points back of the MHL Red Stars, four better than the Russian National Team and five more than the Slovakian National Team. Despite suffering that opening game loss to the MHL Red Stars, Team Canada still finished the tournament scoring more goals than they allowed.

After a full day off in Moscow to savour the victory and get in one last sightseeing opportunity, Team Canada's trip home began at 5:30am Tuesday morning in Moscow (6:30pm Monday Pacific Time) and will finally end when they touchdown in Vancouver around 6:30pm Tuesday evening. RJay Berra and Justin Fillion are not expected back in Prince George until later in the week and I for one look forward to the opportunity of sitting down with them and reliving the memories they have that will surely last them a lifetime.

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