Finally a National Championship-Remembering May 8, 2011

Ben Reinhardt was out of breath.  He had played most of the first period and he and his teammates had been under assault by the heavily favoured Vernon Vipers who were trying to win their third consecutive national junior A hockey championship. Reinhardt told a national television audience on TSN that his team needed to “get pucks deep,” admitting that the Vipers had a great cycle going.

It was May 8, 2011 and Reinhardt’s last junior A game.  As the most successful player in Central Canada Hockey League history, the 20 year old captain of the Pembroke Lumber Kings had done what no player had ever accomplished, winning five consecutive league championships.  Now, trying to catch his breath and with sweat pouring from his forehead, he was thankful for the strong goaltending of his teammate Francis Dupuis, who had turned away 15 shots in the opening 20 minutes, many of them superb saves.

Reinhardt was a skilled stay at home defenceman.  Under the tutelage of head coach Sheldon Keefe, he had grown to become one of the top defenceman in the league, and in this game Keefe was going to rely on him and his defensive partner, Steven Farrell, to be his shutdown pairing. Reinhardt had been motivated by Keefe’s pre-game talk,. “I remember Sheldon saying were at a point now where it comes down to believing in yourself, believing in each other, and we can win this.”

Not everyone believed.  On Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry, didn’t give the Lumber Kings much of a chance, and a radio announcer in Camrose, Alberta, where the national championship tournament was being played, had also dismissed the Kings chances of making it to the final day of the tournament.

There was good reason to doubt the Lumber Kings.  Their performance at the national championship had been underwhelming.  Their only win in the round robin came in a 5-2 decision over Wellington.  They had fallen 5-2 to Portage La Prairie, 2-1 to Camrose and 5-3 to Vernon, but when both Wellington and Portage also finished the tournament with 1 and 3 records, the Lumber Kings squeezed their way into the semi-finals.  The Kings would have to play the host team, the Camrose Kodiaks.

Awakening from their pre-game nap, Reinhardt and Farrell turned on the television in their hotel room and listened as the announcer encouraged Kodiak fans to pick up their tickets for the championship game the following day, all but predicting Camrose would roll over Pembroke in the semi-finals. Reinhardt had the motivation he needed to get his teammates ready for the game.

“I’ll never forget it. I remember saying to Steve, Can you believe he just said that?”  Embracing the underdog role, the Kings battled with the Kodiaks in a tightly contested game that was decided late when Pembroke native Brandon Gagne scored with just over five minutes remaining in the third period.  When Mitch Gallant added an empty netter it sealed a 4-2 Lumber Kings win and positioned Pembroke to play for a prize that had eluded so many Lumber Kings teams before, the chance to be crowned as the top junior A team in Canada.

The first period of the championship game had made the pundits look like they were right. The Kings were on their heels. They escaped the opening frame in a scoreless tie, despite being outshot 15-5. The Lumber Kings settled down in the second period, but again neither team could get on the board.  The icebreaker would come in the third period with just over five minutes remaining in the game.

It was Mother’s Day.  Jackie Keefe had made the trip to Western Canada to support her husband and had brought along 8-month old Landon Keefe, who had been born on the first day of the Lumber Kings training camp in August. It was also Johnathan Milley’s birthday.  Acquired from the Smiths Falls Bears, the power forward had made it a habit to score big goals during the playoffs for the Kings.  On this day, he would provide both himself and Lumber Kings nation with a birthday celebration for the ages.

Milley would score arguably the biggest goal in Pembroke Lumber Kings history. It was a broken play, a blocked shot that sprung Milley on a breakaway. “Once I saw the puck go the other way, I don’t think I had skated that fast in a long time. It was a bang-bang play. I shot the puck, and it went in,” says Milley.

The Lumber Kings bench exploded.  Never had a Pembroke team been this close to winning a national championship.  With 1:25 remaining in the game, the Vipers pulled their goalie.  After a great save by Dupuis who made 40 stops in the game, Milley found a loose puck off a face off outside the Pembroke blue line, and shot it down the ice.  Bullseye!  With 14 seconds remaining on the clock, Milley had delivered the insurance goal that set off a celebration throughout the Ottawa Valley. The Pembroke Lumber Kings were about to win the first national title in their storied history.

As the buzzer sounded to end the game, Reinhardt and Dupuis embraced in the crease as their teammates piled on top of them.  After the game, Reinhardt needed help to take off his equipment.  He could give no more to the franchise that would retire his number 8 jersey a few months later.

In Pembroke, car horns honked and cell phones lit up with text messages as former players, fans, and proud Pembrokians spread the news that the long wait was over.  Finally, Pembroke was the best junior hockey team in the country.

In the days ahead, the team would be celebrated with a special parade and a civic rally outside the Pembroke Memorial Centre. It was magical and moving. Pembroke had waited so long to be on top of the junior hockey world. Now, the players and coaches were truly Kings! It’s a piece of Lumber Kings history that will never be forgotten.