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'94-95 Kamloops members recall back-to-back titles

by Adam Kimelman
Taylor Hall and his Windsor Spitfires teammates are poised to make history Sunday night. A win in the final of the Memorial Cup would give them back-to-back championships for the first time since the Kamloops Blazers in 1994-95.

Coached by Don Hay, the Blazers featured future NHL players Jarome Iginla, Darcy Tucker, Shane Doan, Jason Strudwick, Hnat Domenichelli, and Brad Lukowich.

"My rookie year was Iginla's rookie year, Lukowich's first year," Strudwick told "There were a lot of young guys and we got thrown into it."

Hopes were high for the 1993-94 season, but the Kamloops organization was more focused on 1994-95, when the Rockets would host the event and were guaranteed a spot. The 1993-94 season was supposed to be for seasoning young players.

"Portland was the team to beat, they had Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Wiemer," Strudwick said. "Up to Christmas we were up and down, and then we started rolling."

They rolled to the most points in the WHL, led by Tucker's 52 goals and 140 points, and Rod Stevens, who had 51 goals and 109 points. Defensively, Nolan Baumgartner had 13 goals and 55 points, and Jason Holland had 14 goals and 29 points. Rod Branch and Steve Passmore split time in net, combining for 50 wins.

After a first-round bye, the Rocket beat the Seattle Thunderbirds in six games in the second round, and the Deadmarsh-led Portland Winterhawks in six games in the league semifinals. In the league final, they beat the Saskatoon Blades in seven games to earn a spot in the Memorial Cup, which was being played in Laval, Que.

The Blazers went unbeaten in round-robin play, scoring five goals each against the host Laval Titan, OHL champion North Bay Centennials and QMJHL champion Chicoutimi Sagueneens. In the final, they again beat a Laval team featuring goalie Manny Fernandez, 5-3. Tucker, who had 6 goals and 9 points in four games, was named tournament MVP.

The Blazers enjoyed the win, which geared them up even more for the following season, when they would serve as host and had the automatic bid. That meant there could have been a bit of complacency, but Hay wouldn't allow it.

"The year that we won it for the first of the two we surprised doing it that year," Ryan Huska, a center on both title teams, told "We were a team that was built for the following year. After we won it we had a lot of confidence we could do it again. Our coach, Don Hay, kept us with the front-door mentality. We weren't going to go in as hosts we were going to win (the league). He got us zeroed in on winning our league and then going in through the front door.

"The second year was a lot harder," Strudwick said. "We were a team that knew we were good, but the second year was tougher, for sure."

They may have worn targets on their backs, but it didn't seem to affect them. Kamloops again rolled to the best record in the league, with Tucker totaling 64 goals and 137 points, and Domenichelli adding 52 goals and 114 points. Doan, who missed the WHL playoffs and Memorial Cup the previous season, had 37 goals and 94 points, and Iginla had 33 goals and 71 points. Baumgartner, who had 8 goals and 42 points, was named the league's best defenseman.

After a first-round bye, the Blazers beat Portland in five games, the Tri-City Americans in six games, and the Brandon Wheat Kings in six games in the league final.

That series, though, provided the biggest struggle for the Blazers, and winning it is something Huska, now the coach of the Rockets, still smiles about.

"We lost the first two games at home so the series went to Brandon for three games and we're up against it," Huska said. "We had nothing going in the third game, but Iginla beat an icing call, we kept in the zone and scored. And then we never really looked back. It was simply Jarome's work ethic that allowed us to keep it in the zone."

In the Memorial Cup, the Blazers again went undefeated in round-robin play, beating the QMJHL champion Hull Olympiques, which had Jose Theodore in net; the OHL champion Detroit Jr. Red Wings, a team coached by Paul Maurice and featuring Bryan Berard on defense; and a Brandon team led by WHL MVP Marty Murray and featuring Bryan McCabe and Wade Redden on the blue line.

In the championship game, Kamloops routed Detroit 8-2 to become the first repeat winners since the 1986-87 Medicine Hat Tigers. Doan was named tournament MVP after totaling 4 goals and 9 points in four games

As much fun as it was to win the first, taking the title at home left them with an even better feeling.

"The second time was special because we were in Kamloops and the whole town got behind us," Huska said. "Every game was solid white, like they used to have in Winnipeg (the Jets' whiteouts). Because it was hosted in Kamloops, it made it very special. Most guys would say that was the one that was a little more special."

Strudwick said the bonds built during those title runs are still there 15 years later.

"It's the friendships that were built at that point. We were all pretty young and developing not just as hockey players but as people. We had a lot of good character on that team. If you look around at what those players are doing, some are captains, long careers as professional hockey players and now they're coaching."
-- Jason Strudwick

"It's the friendships that were built at that point," he said. "We were all pretty young and developing not just as hockey players but as people. We had a lot of good character on that team. If you look around at what those players are doing, some are captains, long careers as professional hockey players and now they're coaching.

"We get together, we talk, but we don't talk about the Memorial Cup but we do have a close bond. That's true for any championship team."

Huska got a firsthand look at Windsor last year, when his Rockets lost to Windsor in last year's Memorial Cup championship game. He said he sees similarities between Windsor and his Kamloops teams

"They have a lot of depth, guys that fill multiple roles," he said. "They weren't expected to win, and this is the year they were geared for."

Strudwick, an Edmonton Oilers defenseman who just finished his 13th NHL season, didn't have a lot of advice for Windsor -- only that they should enjoy this moment, because championships don't come along all the time.

"Just enjoy it," he said. "I won back-to-back championships when I was 18 or 19 and now I've never been past the second round since then."

As special as it is to hold that moniker of last repeat Memorial Cup champion, Strudwick said he's hoping Windsor can do what his Blazers did and take home a second straight title.

"I think it would be great," said Strudwick. "I don't hold back and hope that no one does it. … I can't speak for the whole team but I don't feel that way. I hope those guys do it."

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