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Hard work, tough competition - how the Bombers got their swagger back

The SJHL playoffs are well underway and the Bombers are once again entering with a title on their minds - and after finishing first in the league for the first time in 23 years, it feels closer than ever.

The SJHL playoffs are well underway and the Bombers are once again entering with a title on their minds - and after finishing first in the league for the first time in 23 years, it feels closer than ever.

Heading into the first weekend series of the playoffs, the Bombers were restless - having not played a game with any meaning in the standings in over a month, the team’s results began to slip. In their final 10 games, the Bombers went sub-.500, losing five games in regulation and a sixth in overtime - including a loss to the same Klippers team they’d face in the first round. They lost their months-long status as Canada’s top junior A team, ending the year in second to the OJHL’s Collingwood Blues.

Getting back on track was key for the Bombers, as soon as possible. Four games later, three goals allowed, 19 goals scored for the maroon and white and a series win already in the books, the team is right where they feel they need to be.

“We talked a lot about now we're playing meaningful games and it's time to elevate our play, get back to the team that we were before, where we were a confident group. We believed in the way we played the game, just who we were. I think getting that swagger back was kind of one of the main priorities,” said Bomber head coach and general manager Mike Reagan.

“I think we accomplished that. We played a very solid first game, then a dominant second game. It was nice to see. I could sense there was a little bit of nervous energy in the community - I think everybody’s a little more confident now.”

Getting that feeling of accomplishment and dominance from earlier in the season was important for Reagan. He said he started to see it come back in some of the Bombers’ final regular season games and in parts of the final two they played against Humboldt. The Broncos still won both games - “we played four very good periods,” Reagan said - but the feeling was already on its way back.

“The message I wanted to get out to the community, as well as our players, was to remember how much we accomplished,” he said.

“I think it can go both ways - when things are going good, it can be blown up to being, ‘This is the best team ever,’ and when you hit a bit of a rough patch, things are made out to be worse than what they are. I think we had to remind the guys of how much we accomplished this year - we’ve got to remember everything we’ve done well.”

In Reagan’s tenure on the bench, the Bombers have never finished a season in first place. They have finished second twice, in 2016-17 and 2019-20, but in every playoff run the Bombers have had under their coach, at some point they would have been considered underdogs. That’s not the case this year, where the Bombers finished first by 11 points, earning their first regular season one-seed since 2001, where the team reached the RBC Cup final on home ice.

The individual pieces seem to have fit perfectly. Justin Lies, back this season for a last junior hockey hurrah with his beloved hometown team, wears the captain’s “C” and led the team in scoring. Defender Noah Houle took a big jump forward, taking over the team’s lead powerplay quarterback role, being named the SJHL defenceman of the year, leading all defencemen in points and coming one assist short of leading all SJHL players in assists. Harmon Laser-Hume found another gear, becoming the SJHL’s top netminder. Carter Anderson and Adam McNutt came to Flin Flon after leaving WHL programs and made immediate impacts. Alexi Sylvestre carried the team’s offence on his back during their late-season slump and had six points in their first two playoff games.

Matt Egan persevered despite a mid-season cancer diagnosis to not only get back into the lineup but thrive - he, Kylynn Olafson, Cole Tanchuk and Jacob Vockler, the four Bombers who remain from the teams who played in both of the team’s two previous runs to the finals, hope the third time is the charm. Egan scored the goal in Game 4 that clinched both the game and the series for the Bombers in a 2-1 win.

In any series they play this year, the Bombers will have home-ice advantage. Anyone hoping to beat the Bombers this playoffs will have to do something next to impossible this year, something just four teams did this season - win in the Forum.

“I would like to think that the adversity that we've went through over the last month will help us out at some point. The only thing that we've really talked about as a team is that someone's going to have to beat us in the Whitney Forum in order to bounce us,” said Reagan.

“That's always a comforting feeling. I think we're a pretty confident group in our own building.”

They have a reason for the confidence. Flin Flon went 24-2-1-1 in the Forum this year, as well as the two wins last weekend. Over 1,100 fans showed up for both of the Bombers’ wins last weekend to help make that happen, a bigger crowd than most of the team’s first-round games in their last five playoff runs. Only last year’s Game 7 overtime passion play against Estevan, where the Bombers sent the Bruins home with “the bounce” by Cole Duperreault off the side glass, had a bigger crowd than either Game 1 or Game 2.

Teams have hoisted the SJHL title on Whitney Forum ice three times in the past decade, but none of them were the Bombers. Melfort did it in 2016 and Battlefords did it in both 2017 and last year. The Bombers have reached the league finals four times this decade, each time entering as the underdog and each time coming up short. As a franchise, the Bombers have not won a title in over 30 years, doing so last in April 1993 - days before current Bomber assistant coach Cole McCaig was born.

That history is just that, though - history. The future is still waiting to be written, and Reagan hopes this year’s team is the one that breaks through. This one feels different, he says - the players want it just as bad as the fans.

“I think this is probably the most competitive group of guys that I’ve ever coached. In our practices, I’ve never questioned their work ethic, not once. I’ve had good teams before where I’ve had to push some guys in practice because their practice habits or their work ethic wasn’t great - these guys come to work every day. We have a group here that is ultra-competitive,” said Reagan.

“These guys have been motivated since day one.”

Reagan wants this to be the year where the drought ends, not just for the team but for the community, to reward Flin Flon for the role they’ve played in getting the Bombers to their current point.

“I think we need it because we’ve been so close - it almost makes you ask, ‘When is our time?’ I don’t know if I share the same sentiments as the rest of the community, but the last two years, maybe the last five years, it almost feels like the hockey gods owe us. We’ve worked extremely hard. We’ve done everything we can do to put ourselves in this position. Maybe it’s our time to be rewarded,” said Reagan.

“I feel like the Bombers have been a big part of the transition of Flin Flon. It was doom and gloom in 2021 and 2022, but a common thing in our community that we could all rally behind was the team - maybe it’s made things feel like less doom and gloom for people. Obviously I care about our community and we want to have a positive impact on it and I think we’ve done that even without winning a championship, but at some point we want to get over that last little hurdle.”

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