KAMLOOPS — It’s as if the players could sense it was an opportunity to be a part of a historic night.
After a less-than-stellar opening 20 minutes, the Kamloops Blazers scored four unanswered goals in the final 40 minutes to win their fifth game in a row, and secure head coach Don Hay’s historic 743rd win in the Western Hockey League. The victory gives Hay sole possession of the record for most wins as a coach, just one night after he tied former Portland head coach Ken Hodge’s record of 742 wins.
“It feels good, Hay told the media after the game. “When you start coaching, you’re kind of hoping you coach for a year.”
Hay’s coaching career has spanned 33 seasons, 24 of those in the WHL, including six as an assistant with the Blazers and six as their head coach. Getting win number 743 on home ice, in the city, he was born and raised was a special experience for the three-time Memorial Cup-winning coach.
“It means a lot. My two girls were here, and they were here in 1995 when we won the Memorial Cup in [the Sandman Centre],” Hay said. “To have the grandchildren here now, and my wife, who supported me through a lot of different areas and different move along the way, it was very special to have them in the building.”
Early in the contest, it looked as though the Blazers might not be celebrating their coach’s big night. Portland scored short-handed, less than five minutes into the game. Blazers netminder Dylan Ferguson poked the puck right onto Skylar McKenzie’s stick in front, and McKenzie ripped it up past Ferguson’s ear on the glove side for a 1-0 Winterhawks lead.
Less than 8 minutes later, Ryan Hughes intercepted a lazy cross-ice pass from Joe Gatenby and tried to dance between two Blazers defenders. He was stripped of the puck, but Jake Gricius was there to pick up the loose biscuit and deposit the backhand in the net, giving Portland a 2-0 advantage after the first period.
Kamloops would respond 5:37 into the second frame. After turning up the pressure on the previous shifts, Connor Zary would win the offensive zone face-off to Orrin Centazzo, who fed Montana Onyebuchi at the right point. Onyebuchi’s point shot would be tipped by Zary past Winterhawks goalie Shane Farkas to cut the Portland lead in half.
Less than six minutes later, with each side down a man, Luc Smith would walk off the left wing half-boards into the slot and snipe one past Farkas from 18 feet out. Smith’s 13th goal of the year would knot the game at two, heading into the final frame.
The Blazers would come out firing in the third period, needing just 43 seconds to take the lead. Nolan Kneen would chip the puck to Jackson Shepard, who would find a streaking Quinn Benjafield wide open on the right side. Benjafield would take two strides before unloading a quick wrist shot just past Farkas’ glove hand to give the Blazers a 3-2 lead.
Smith, who would add an empty net goal to seal the 4-2 victory for the Blazers, said the team really wanted to get the record win for their coach on home ice.
“We went out in the third and said ‘Let’s do this one for Don, here,” Smith told media after the game. “This is his chance to break a record, let’s do it in front of our home crowd, in the town that he grew up in. It’s pretty special.”
Ferguson, who stopped 32 of 34 shots for Kamloops picked up the puck and delivered it to his coach immediately following the final horn.
“It’s a great feeling for me, I can’t image how he’s feeling right now,” Ferguson said. “I was lucky enough to give him the puck after the game, and that was a special thing for me. I read a little article about how he's always been a Kamloops guy, and for him to win it here would be great.”
The Blazers didn’t have too much time to savour the special win, as they jumped on their bus and headed south to Portland, where these two teams will square off for the third time in three days on Sunday evening.
Kamloops’ next home game is Wednesday night at the Sandman Centre, as they take on the Medicine Hat Tigers.
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