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Whistler Winterhawks Lions Gate League champions

A new banner is proudly hanging from the rafters of the Meadow Park Sports Centre arena, courtesy of the Whistler’s Atom Winterhawks – this year’s Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association’s (PCAHA) Lions Gate League playoff champi

A new banner is proudly hanging from the rafters of the Meadow Park Sports Centre arena, courtesy of the Whistler’s Atom Winterhawks – this year’s Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association’s (PCAHA) Lions Gate League playoff champions.

The team, sponsored by the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, has been strong all season. Although there were many close battles, they hadn’t lost a game since November 11, and finished the regular season tied for second place. In the championship final, the Hollyburn Huskies gave the Winterhawks their best game of the playoffs, and the two teams were tied 3-3 heading into overtime in the final and deciding game of the championship.

Although the team of 10 and 11 year olds was exhausted, the Winterhawks came out hard at the buzzer and 19 seconds later Troy Stager put it in.

"It was quite a celebration," said coach Sean O’Neail. "The whole team was out there running around on the ice and yelling at the top of their lungs. This was just an amazing moment for everybody. It was a total team effort."

O’Neail credits the team’s success to a balanced attack, and the team’s ability to pick up skills that older teams can have trouble with – like passing and cycling the puck from the corners to the point to catch the goalie out of position. The defense was stingy, the goaltending was excellent, and every player could handle and shoot the puck.

"When Aaron (Oberson) scored from the point in one game on a one-timer, the puck was still going up when it hit the back of the net," says O’Neail. "There aren’t a lot of kids that age who can make that kind of shot."

With both the forwards and defence putting points on the board, and Nic Chabot in net, the Winterhawks put double-digits on the board on more than one occasion.

Right Winger Shane McConkey (freeskier Shane McConkey’s nephew) says the team was nervous heading into the tournament and into the finals.

"You never know what’s going to happen – they (Hollyburn) are a pretty good team with a good defence. We are all good players, and we knew we could win if we worked hard."

Jordan Gabriel, another player with a strong shot from the point, says the number of practices helped and that everyone on the team stepped up at one time or another to win games. Some games were offensive victories, some games were won by the defence, and in other games it was all up to the goalie.

"There was a game before Christmas that we didn’t deserve to win, but our goalie kept us in it by stopping every shot, and we eventually got a goal to win it," he said.

The whole season was such a convincing team effort that, following the playoff tournament, Hockey Night In Canada picked the Whistler Atom Winterhawks as their minor hockey "team of the week" following the tournament, based on the number of e-mail nominations they received.

The team’s Mount Currie players and their families hosted a fundraising dance and helped buy the whole tickets to watch the Vancouver Canucks. They wore their jerseys to the game and made the big screen at least three different times.

"They’re a fun bunch of kids and always make a big impression when they play," says O’Neail. "We won the extra point for sportsmanship almost every game of the regular season we played in this year."

The Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association has had the sportsmanship point system in place for several years now, awarding teams that complete the game without exceeding three minor penalties an extra point. The points can add up over the season and have an impact on standings and the playoff picture.

With 23 teams in the Lions Gate League, which stretches form D’Arcy to Vancouver’s Second Narrows bridge, O’Neail says picking up those extra points made a huge difference. By the end of the regular season the Winterhawks had an average of less than one penalty per game.

"This is a magical group of kids," says O’Neail. "The amazing thing about this year is that we never intentionally made a run at the championships. We set the goal, at the beginning of the season, to win the sportsmanship point in every game, give 100 per cent on the ice, and try our hardes to play heads-up hockey.

"The kids played a selfless style of hockey all year, passing out of our end and back to the point, opting to make the assist rather than take the shot, racing back to help our defence and playing good clean hockey. In the entire season I never heard a single word of criticism from one player or another."

There are seventeen players on the Winterhawks Atom house team representing Whistler, Pemberton and Mount Currie.