With the Bombers recently appearing in Canada's national junior A championship tournament, memories have resurfaced the team's last time in the title tourney. It was 2001, it was on home ice and if you ask any Bomber fan, they’ll tell you it was special.
The legwork for the tournament, then called the Royal Bank Cup or RBC Cup for sponsorship reasons, started months in advance. Flin Flon’s business community and local leaders struck up several committees to organize all the different aspects of the tournament, including finances, advertising, ticket sales, hospitality and volunteering - by the end of the tournament, about 600 volunteers helped out.
Off the ice, Flin Flon was taking steps into the future - the 777 mine was about to open up, as was the new Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting (HBM&S) tankhouse, while preliminary work to build the Flintoba Shopping Centre was well underway. On the ice, it was good ol’-fashioned Bomber hockey that would make the whole project work.
Head coach Larry Wintoneak kept the team stuck firmly to his gameplan, while several key figures on the ice would push the team ahead. There was goaltender Morgan Cey, league MVP and a national player of the year finalist that season; there was leading scorer Todd Hornung, a former NHL draft pick who had suffered a severe injury and had ended up in Flin Flon for one last junior hurrah; there was no lack of toughness, with Arland Eliason, David Kellington and J.L. Bone (who quit mid-season to pursue a boxing career) all putting up more than 200 minutes in the box; there were personalities, like defender Dustin Ernest or Slovenia-born Davor Durakovic, both known for occasional antics. At the eye of the storm was Mark Debusschere, a two-way winger who wore the captain’s “C” for the biggest season the Bombers had played in years.
A spot in the national title was assured as hosts - and the Bombers would need to prove they belonged.
During the regular season, the Bombers performed well, putting together a pair of long win streaks and finishing first in both the Dodge division (the conference for the league’s six northern teams) and in the league. Both Hornung and Chris Shaffer scored more than 30 goals, while Hornung led the team with 87 points.
Things changed come playoff time. While Flin Flon moved on through the first round against Humboldt in five games, Nipawin and star goalie Shaun Lee would dispatch the Bombers in the league semifinals in five, leaving the door open for second-place Weyburn to charge through to a league title.
“We would have liked to enter that tournament through the front door, not to run into a hot goalie in Nipawin and not make it through the front door,” said Debusschere to The Reminder in 2019.
The Red Wings would play for a spot in the tournament against the MJHL’s juggernaut, the OCN Blizzard, then three years into what would be a five-year string of consecutive league titles. The Blizzard winning would give both northern Manitoba junior teams a berth in the tournament, but the Red Wings snuffed that dream out by winning the series, clinching their spot with a Game 6 double-overtime thriller in OCN.
Regardless of the result of the playoffs, the Bombers would make it in. The Red Wings went through what the players called “the front door” as league and Anavet Cup champs, while the Bombers would be the “back door” team qualifying as the hosts. Also joining would be Les Panthères de St-Jérôme, the Quebec junior A champions, as well as the northern Ontario representatives, the Thornhill Rattlers. Western Canada would be represented by a giant in the AJHL champion Camrose Kodiaks, who had lost only six postseason games between league playoffs and their own regional tournament.
Back door or not, the Bombers thought they had a serious chance of home ice glory.
“We’re very hungry to win nationals,” said Wintoneak.
“The kids are hungry to play every night and that makes it easier and makes it fun to coach. We’ve got good goaltending from Morgan and the defense has played well.”
“In Flin Flon, we mine mostly for copper and zinc. Now, we’re looking for gold,” read an HBM&S ad in the tournament program.
Come tournament time, the Whitney Forum was transformed. Gone were the board and ice advertisements for local companies - in came logos of Hockey Canada partners, like Nike and Air Canada. Video cameras were brought in to shoot the games - large Royal Bank banners were hung up from the press boxes and the company’s logos were put at centre ice. Dozens of hotel rooms were booked up everywhere from Denare Beach to Bakers Narrows for players, staff and travelling fans.
Right next door was the city’s biggest hotspot, the appropriately-named Bomb Shelter, a concert venue, entertainment area and beer garden par excellence set up in the curling rink that hosted much of the party over the course of the tournament for travellers and townies alike.
Flin Flon and Creighton schools were assigned visiting teams to adopt, with players from the four incoming squads coming to the schools and meeting students. A logo contest was held for local kids.
The Bombers even welcomed a familiar foe into their ranks - Nipawin goalie Lee was loaned to the team for the tournament. The town - and the team - were ready to play.
“Everybody is ready to go. We are sick of practicing. We’ve got that burn inside our hearts again. We want to win,” said Debusschere to Reminder sports reporter Tim Babcock before the tournament.
The Bombers would play the first game of the tournament against St-Jerome - a 6-2 win for the home team - but the next day brought a 6-2 loss to the Red Wings, which pushed the Bombers down the standings.
“We got beat by a good hockey team,” said Wintoneak to The Reminder.
“Discipline was a key. We didn’t do anything on the powerplay and they had three powerplay goals and a shorthanded goal. That was the difference of the game right there.”
Camrose would deal a second loss to the Bombers not long after, beating the maroon and white 5-1. The Bombers would climb ahead of the Rattlers in the standings with a 5-2 victory and end up third in the five-team round robin. That would qualify the Bombers for the tournament semifinal - against the same Red Wings that had plagued the Bombers all season.
Come game day, the Whitney Forum was at full capacity. Fans were packed three layers deep at the rink’s walking track.
“I remember the Whitney Forum just rockin’. That was unlike any other games we had. Playoffs were something, but having it packed like that... The city was electric and the fans were out in full force,” said Debusschere.
Come game time, the Bombers got ahead early. A shot from Jarvis Loga gave the Bombers the lead less than five minutes in, adding a second goal from Curtis Olsen a few moments later. Two more goals came in the third period.
When the game was over, the Bombers had a 4-0 shutout victory and the raucous home crowd almost cheered the Whitney Forum’s roof off - they had not only exorcised the “front door” demons, but they had qualified for the finals. Cey had stopped all 38 shots that came his way, helping push the team to an emotional win and into the national title game that Sunday.
“We’re pretty happy right now. We’re pretty excited,” said Cey.
“We got bounces tonight and that is something that you need to win. The Flin Flon fans are amazing, too. It is really going to be sad next year when I’m not playing here. It’s quite a place to play and I’m really glad I got to play my junior hockey here.”
The Kodiaks would lie in wait.
Flin Flon was abuzz heading into the national final May 13. The Bombers and the Kodiaks, who had gone perfect through the tournament so far, would face off in front of a record-setting audience. The TSN national broadcast crew would come to the Whitney Forum, calling the game for a Canada-wide audience. Dave Randorf and Pierre Maguire would commentate. Inside the Forum, the rink was even more packed than it was for the Weyburn game two days previous.
That home crowd would not have as many chances to cheer, sadly. Midway through the first, Brad Wanchulak of the Kodiaks scored what would stand as the tournament winner, while a pair of goals in the second period by the visitors put the game out of reach. The Bombers would miss out on glory with a 5-0 loss. The Kodiaks, led by captain Jason Kenyon, would hoist the RBC Cup at centre ice - the team would bring a pair of trophies, the cup itself and a Flin Flon moose leg, with them back west.
“The 2001 Bombers are a second-place team that Flin Flon will never forget,” wrote Babcock in the May 15 issue of The Reminder, two days after the loss.
Several key pieces of the team would leave Flin Flon after the tournament and weave their own paths. Wintoneak would leave the club and continue his coaching career, with stints in Ontario and with the Bombers’ rivals in La Ronge. Wintoneak now lives in the Kindersley area, where he continues to coach - even serving as the coach of Kindersley Klippers in 2019-20.
Cey would play four seasons of NCAA hockey at Notre Dame, graduating with a sociology degree, signing a contract with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and going on to play several seasons of minor league pro before settling down in Colorado. Cey now serves as the director of American operations for business consulting firm Morris Interactive.
Hornung headed back to southern Saskatchewan, where he will coach the Swift Current Legionnaires U18 AAA program next season. Debusschere now works as a chartered accountant and business owner in Saskatoon, while Ernest owns and operates hockey camps and coaches the U17 prep program for the Notre Dame Hounds.