After a month-long layoff, it took the North Central Bobcats a few periods to come out of hockey hibernation.
Champions in three of the five tournaments they played leading up to the Tier 1 bantam provincial championship, they saved their best for last.
The Bobcats capped a dream season with 6-1 victory over the North Vancouver Storm Thursday night in front of a crowd of about 600 that packed into the stands at Kin 1. It was a sweet celebration for the Bobcats, a team of 13- and 14-year-olds who invited their parents to surround them on the ice for a triumphant photo session.
The significance of what they accomplished was still sinking in for Bobcats captain Nico Myatovic as his teammates took their turns parading the B.C. banner around the ice. The 14-year-old centre knows his team put down one for the ages, living up to the pressure of playing at home and winning the biggest tournament of their lives.
"It's unbelievable, to do it in front of a home crowd in this fashion is something I'll never forget, for sure," said Myatovic. "All season our power play's been good and to get three power-play goals that obviously boosted our team. As well, our five-on-five play has been stellar and out defensive zone's been good also.
"We've had a lot of experience in championship games and I knew coming in that we'd have no problem closing this one out. We just knew we had to play our game and everything would go our way."
After a scoreless opening period, the Bobcats scratched out a 4-0 lead in the second period, scoring three straight power-play goals to take control. Defenceman Matyas Mocilac was the first to find a way through the armour of Storm goalie Shayan Kermany. That even-strength goal came just 22 seconds in to the second period.
The next three goals came with the Storm on the penalty kill. Defenceman Tye Peters made it 2-0 when he shoveled in a shot from the side of the net, 3:47 in. Myatovic scored the next two, the first off a rebound in front and the second on a give-and-go play with Decker Mujcin.
Chase Pacheco made it 5-0 with 5:38 gone in the third period, batting in a lose puck left unguarded at the side of net. The Storm connected near the end of a power play midway through the period when David Fay's shot from the side deflected in off the skate of Mitchell Lennox. But any hopes of a comeback were spiked when Leighton Pillipow raced in to get to a loose puck and blasted it in behind Kermany with about six minutes left.
Bobcats goalie Tysen Smith was solid throughout, blocking 25 of 26 shots. His team was outshot 26-21.
"This is special, it doesn't happen very often," said Bobcats centre Scott Cousins. "When we got the opportunity to win it at home we had to take advantage of it. It was a good performance by everyone on this team, just an all-around good effort.
"The boys really got it done on the power play. Emotions were running high and just for them to be so poised with the puck and be able to function and put it in the back of the net, it worked really well. Tysen is a strong goaltender and I can't say enough good things about both of our goalies, Tysen and Jasper (Tait), they've both been lights-out for us this year."
The final was a rematch of their tournament opener against the Storm on Monday, which ended in a 1-1 tie. Bobcats head coach Mirsad Mujcin knew it would take a few periods for his players to find their skating legs and regain their timing around the net after nearly a full month between games.
"Winning is always the ultimate goal but just watching these guys develop into young men and show composure and fight adversity, this is a special group for that and once again they proved it," said Mujcin.
"This is the fourth tournament win for them out of six. We're a proud team and they just have a lot of respect for each other and respect for the game and it's a pleasure to work with them. When we found our groove, we knew it - everyone felt it and you could see it in the kids' eyes and it kept spiraling in what we did today."
North Central played two games Monday, winning the nightcap 7-5 over Victoria Racquet Club, and followed that up with 6-4 win Tuesday over North Okanagan, a 10-1 triumph over Cloverdale on Wednesday, and a 6-1 defeat of the North East Trackers Thursday afternoon.
"This feels pretty good, we deserved it, we've been working hard all year," said Bobcats defenceman Zach Leslie. "We were gone almost every weekend. We didn't have many home games. We had good success with the team.
"We all bond well, the chemistry is there. Mirsad (Mujcin) is a good coach and the same with (assistants) Jake (LeBrun), Stephen (Penner) and Mike (Burgess). They're all pretty good coaches and I enjoyed having them."
The Bobcats represented the North Central zone for the first time in BC Hockey's double-A regional team program, formed two years ago in the Okanagan. North Central and North East joined this season to form an eight-team bantam league and a six-team midget league. Each team played a 20-game schedule in the Okanagan Mainline Amateur Hockey Association. The regional concept allows players from smaller centres not large enough to form their own Tier 1 teams to play at the highest level.
All but four Bobcats are second-year bantams. The team has 17 Prince George players and three out-of-towners - Max Sanford (Williams Lake), Dawson Davis (Fort St. James) and Chase Pacheco (Kitimat) – who were billeted during the hockey season.
The provincial tournament was a chance for players on all six teams to audition for a pack of Western Hockey League scouts preparing their lists for the annual bantam draft, May 2 in Red Deer. Several Bobcats have been invited to the local U-16 high performance tryouts at the Kin Centre April 5-7, vying for spots in the U-16 BC Cup tournament in Salmon Arm, April 18-21.