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Grace under pressure: Whalers win a nailbiter - Dec. 03, 2013

Vern Faulkner
St. Stephen
Though four hockey teams entered the 2013 Rob Gullison Memorial Tournament in the peewee division, two teams were far and away the superior competition.
Determining which of those two was the best overall, however, proved a rather difficult challenge.
Not unsurprisingly, the well-balanced Charlotte County Whalers rolled to two easy victories in the first of the two opening games of the tournament, played Friday and Saturday. Likewise, the squad from West York also dominated its opposition, ensuring that the final game of the round-robin, played early Sunday morning, was nothing more than a tuneup for the finals to be held later that afternoon.
That tuneup also offered a little prophetic foreshadowing.
In the morning game, Charlotte County stepped out to an early 2-0 lead, but then surrendered three unanswered markers, forcing the eastern county team to engineer a comeback to garner a 3-3 tie.
In the afternoon clash, with the championship banner on the line, a slightly different storyline played out, albeit one that resulted in a similar deadlock. The Whalers scored in the first period, then rode the stellar efforts of netminder Konner Thompson, who kept the opposition off the scoreboard for almost the entire duration of the contest.
In desperation, West York pulled its netminder, and with 22 seconds and the net empty, managed to bang in the equalizer.
– Fundy High School
IN the first frame, the Whalers scored once,
West York scored with 22 seconds left and the net empty
A five-minute, five-on-five overtime solved nothing.
Emotionally, “the kids were down, but they picked themselves back up,” reflected head coach Geoff Cunningham.
He painted a scene of emotions tossed back and forth on the tides of the moment.
“They were almost celebrating on the bench: you know what kids are like.” To the credit of each player on the roster, “They regrouped in a hurry.”
The Whalers held a distinct edge in the following five-on-five, five-minute overtime period, but neither the Whalers nor West York could score, forcing a shootout.
Once more, goals proved a challenge, with the Whalers scoring but one.
That singular marker, however, was all the local squad needed, as Thompson barred the door on all five skaters to test him.
“The kids are on top of the world,” said Cunningham, a veteran coach who said banners are, in minor hockey, challenging things to win. He should know: as the coach of a bantam team last year, he guided teams to three separate tournament finals, yet emerged bannerless in all three outings.
“Those things, we don’t win them very often,” said Cunningham.
Thompson, who has played goal for his entire “six or seven years,” in hockey, said the game became more mentally challenging as it progressed.
“It was really nerve-wracking, knowing we had an overtime period,” said Thompson. “I figured if we could get through the overtime period, we’d be OK. Our talented guys would take over.”
Small problem: the other netminder was just as equal to the task, which shifted the mindset of the Grade 7 Fundy High School student.
“I knew it was going to be a really good shootout,” Thompson said.
Sunday’s shootout was the first time Thompson had ever participated in such an event. With little other to work on, he simply focused on coaching advice to “stay out and cut down the angle.”
Much mental work took place, the young puck-stopper divulged, with his focus simply to “stay in his game.”
He explained what that meant to him: trying to win two of three periods in every game.
In the OT, he had to shift his thoughts, and reflect upon continuing strong play.
Facing the last shooter, said Thompson, he focused on “staying square with the puck. I knew if I stayed with the puck, the only way he could score was to go for a corner.”
The fifth shooter, made a few small moves and “got me to go over to the side, and tried to lift it up over me – but when he did, he hit me in the facemask.”
After that came bedlam, as Thompson was mobbed by his delirious teammates.
Thompson said he feels “really good” about the entire process – and especially about the result.
“That was my first banner I ever won.”
While Thompson was undoubtedly a key to the win, the entire roster was vital in what Cunningham asserted a “team victory.”
“We’ve got one goaltender and 13 skaters,” said Cunningham. “If one kid didn’t show up and bring his game … if one kid didn’t play, we wouldn’t have won that tournament.”