It was not a good way to start the day.
Sam De Pau felt like a zombie when he woke up on the morning of March 12, 11 months ago. Hours later, the Grade 12 goaltender would be playing in the deciding game of the Winnipeg High School Hockey League Free Press B Division final but first he had to get to the rink.
It was the biggest game of his life.
"I was super nervous," says De Pau. "Not just that but I was really sick; I had the flu. I played that the whole playoff series with the flu. Game 3 was the worst by far. I didn't even go to school that day... but I still played in the end."
De Pau, whose Collège Béliveau Barracudas split the first two games of the best-of-three final with the Glenlawn Lions, had been a major factor in his club's trip to the final.
The Barracudas finished the regular season in fourth place, made an impressive run through three rounds of playoffs before meeting up with the Lions, also surprise finalists after landing in fifth spot, one point behind Béliveau.
"There was no way I was coming out," says De Pau. "My coach knew that, too. If it was regular season and I felt like I did in the Game 3 there, I would have sat for sure."
I risked it all tonight going to what will likely be the last two live hockey games for some time.— Jeff Hamilton (@jeffkhamilton) March 13, 2020
Congrats to Collège Beliveau Barracudas on a 7-5 win over the Glenlawn Lions to clinch the @OfficialWHSHL B Division final. #wfp pic.twitter.com/beIJDfLSXQ
For Béliveau bench boss Scott Cawson there was a lot on the line, too.
It was an opportunity to claim the school's first city title since the inception of the hockey program six years earlier.
Later on, the game would come to mean more than that. It stands as a milestone — the final high school hockey game to be played in the city before the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions.
"I remember clearly having this discussion with the coaches prior to the game about rumours that had been going on," says Cawson. "But these were rumours, more of what was happening in the city and in other places. We had no clue at that moment that they were looking at shutting the season down or shutting hockey down.
"We discovered shortly thereafter that the league had actually been in discussions about not allowing us to play the games and decided to hold off and allow them to take place."
At puck drop, Glenlawn captain Jake Hudson took time to soak it all in.
One of nine Grade 12 players on his team, Hudson and his teammates were hoping to go out in a blaze of glory by winning a city hockey title for the first time in school history. The energy level in the Red Arena at the Seven Oaks Sportsplex was palpable.
High school hockey draws a more enthusiastic level of support than most other levels of the game. Supporters are more invested and on this Thursday night, tensions had reached a fever pitch.
Parents, siblings and teachers were jammed into the stands and spilling out into the standing room area on the concourse.
"Everyone was there," remembers Béliveau captain Alex Thor. "Everyone from our high school, people that graduated in the last year, two years ago. It was definitely a big deal for everyone at the school."
School spirit had overtaken everyone with a rooting interest.
"It was pretty crazy," remembers Glenlawn captain Jake Hudson. "Everybody was there, both schools were there and it was like the first time we really had mascot at the game, too, so it felt like a big deal. The crowd was huge and everybody was cheering and wearing jerseys, so it was a pretty good feeling."
Those positive vibes continued into the first period when Liam Bosiuk, a member of Glenlawn's top scoring line with Connor Davis and Matthew Trott, gave the Lions a 1-0 lead. The lead was shortlived as Béliveau's Alexander De La Ronde sniped with 0.4 seconds remaining in the period.
"We would have had a 1-0 lead going into the second but for them to tie it up that late in period was super deflating," says Davis.
Early in the second, Evan Thor would pot his first of two in the period to give the Barracudas their first lead. Alex Thor, his older brother and team captain, and James Pinchin also scored.
Hudson replied with a goal for Glenlawn, but trailing 5-2 heading to the third, the Lions looked finished.
But the unpredictability of high school hockey was back in the final period.
Less than four minutes in, Béliveau's Evan Thor was assessed a checking-from-behind major and game misconduct, opening the door for the Lions. Hudson and Davis scored quickly on the five-minute power play and the comeback was on.
"Every time there was a goal or hit, your side was going crazy -- it was super electric in there," says Davis. "I scored to make it 5-4 and at that point I thought we were gonna come back."
Goals by Béliveau's Cohen Cheung and then Russell Buffie, with 5:23 left, gave the Barracudas a three-goal cushion.
Glenlawn's Bosiuk responded with his second of the night with 44 seconds left but it wasn't enough. The Barracudas began the celebration of their 7-5 victory at 6:40 p.m., rushing De Pau and leaving sticks and gloves strewn across the ice.
Despite being told between periods to refrain from shaking hands post-game, the teams did it anyway. It was a more innocent time afterall; the early stages of the pandemic. Players, alumni and parents crowded the ice surface during the post-game jubilation, taking pictures.
"I know that in the beginning of the third we started making a comeback and that kind of got our bench going," says Lions head coach Dean Rigaux, an English and drama teacher at the school. "They’re high school kids right? They have their emotions on their sleeves and kind of built a lot of momentum and the kids kind of started getting excited, thinking to get we can we can do this.
"And then unfortunately they got a goal shortly after that and it was too much."
Adds Steve Hudson, Jake's father, who was watching from the stands: "Right down to the last minute or so there was a feeling that they could pull the rabbit out of the hat."
In the intervening months, regret over falling just short turned into hope for redemption for returning Glenlawn players, including Davis and Trott who would be back for their Grade 12 seasons.
Alas, it was not to be. After an agonizing attempt to restart, the WHSHL made the decision in early January to cancel the 2020-21 season although school division officials had previously pulled the plug on the Glenlawn and Béliveau teams.
"I felt really bad for all those (Grade) 11s coming back," says Rigaux. "They thought we'd have another run at this thing with what we had coming back."
"It was bittersweet because I go into it with different outlooks," says Tracy Thor, manager of the Barracudas and mom to Béliveau's Alex and Evan. "I'm a parent of two kids on the team, which is a big deal, right? As a parent it’s kind of fun but I'm also a parent of a Grade 12, who would actually be playing his last game – win or lose. And for all those reasons senior parents go through all that sort of last-of-everything (feeling)."
Going out on top has been something to savour for Béliveau's graduating crew but for younger players, the game has left a void.
"It's one of those things that you're not going to forget," says Alex Thor, whose younger brother Evan missed his Grade 12 season and a chance to be part of a championship repeat due to the pandemic.
"The whole school’s at your game and everyone's been waiting for this for two years with the amount of work that goes into it, it's definitely what you work for. Since I came to the program in Grade 10, we've always been going for a championship."
Béliveau parents also celebrated together post-game away from the rink, but they soon got a hint of what the pandemic would bring.
"The whole school’s at your game and everyone's been waiting for this for two years with the amount of work that goes into it, it's definitely what you work for. Since I came to the program in Grade 10, we've always been going for a championship." – Alex Thor, Collège Béliveau captain
"There were some parents that had younger kids playing (that night) and they're coming back to this party at eight o'clock or so. What's happened is when they're playing triple-A or double-A and they go to their game and the kids are on the ice, ready to go, the game was called," says Glen Agar, father of Béliveau's Liam Agar. "So it was that tight to getting it in."
De Pau, voted the series MVP, had made certain there would be no miracle comebacks. He had finished with 22 saves and, despite not playing his best in the finale and still sick to his stomach, hosted a victory party at his house.
It was a good way to end the day.
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.