If the last two games at the Yellowhead Centre have been any indication, Manitoba Junior Hockey League fans in Neepawa have been hungry to watch playoff hockey in their community.
Through the first 29 regular-season games this year, the Natives’ average attendance was just under 386 people. Game 30 put it over 400.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher: A head-to-head showdown with the Swan Valley Stampeders with the winner securing the final playoff spot and the loser’s season done. And the people responded with 982 spectators coming to the game, although that could partially be due to a sponsor buying all the tickets and making it free admission for all fans. The previous season-high was 615 when the Virden Oil Capitals were in town on Oct. 26.
The Natives won the season finale 6-3 and on Sunday evening they hosted their first playoff game in seven years. Once again, the community responded, with 1,126 taking in a 3-2 loss to the Steinbach Pistons. Those in the stands are trying to make the Yellowhead Centre live up to its reputation as the Madhouse on Mountain again.
Although there may not have been too much to cheer about until late in Sunday’s contest, the crowd support has not gone unnoticed.
"The last regular-season game and this first playoff game, the atmosphere has been amazing," said Natives goaltender Tyler Gutenberg, a Brandon product in his second year with the club. "We only average a couple hundred fans per game and then to have a thousand or so, it’s just unreal. I can’t explain it. The boys really rally when the fans get into it big. We were in Steinbach on Friday and our fans were probably just as loud as Steinbach and we only had about a quarter (of the fans in the stands). The fan support has been tremendous. It’s really nice."
"Last year you didn’t really get noticed in the community," Gutenberg continued. "Now if you go out for breakfast, guys will come out and say ‘Good job’ and stuff. It’s nice."
Sunday’s game epitomized how the crowd sparks the players and the players spark the crowd.
Fans were raucous during player introductions, at the opening faceoff and started riding the visiting Pistons when Riley Bruce took cross-checking and roughing minor penalties on the same play just three minutes into the game. However, the Natives, who won the opener in the best-of-seven series against the best team in the league, struggled to get any quality opportunities and the atmosphere started to drop off.
A pair of goals in the second period, including one with less a second left in the frame, sucked the air out, and a Steinbach power-play goal midway through the third period didn’t make it any better.
The final four minutes were a different story. Reigan Buchanan’s goal got the place excited again with fans shouting and cheering. It just got louder after Skyler Thorsteinson got Neepawa within one with 48 seconds remaining to play, but the comeback came up short.
The team knows if it can get the fans going early, then the Natives will be that much more difficult to play at home during this playoff run.
"Any time you can get some momentum outside of the series to fire you up and give you some extra life, maybe a bump or a bruise doesn’t hurt as bad when you’ve got the crowd behind you," said Neepawa head coach Dustin Howden. "You just work hard and you enjoy the moment."
The Natives organization has endured a lot in the last while. Not only had the team not made the playoffs since the 2009-10 season, but it sat last in the standings from 2011-12 until climbing into eighth this year. This year’s 21-33-6 record marked the first time the team had won more than 15 games since 2010-11 when the squad won 24 must missed the playoffs.
Neepawa also endured and recovered from a hazing scandal in 2011 and Howden is the fifth head coach since the 2011-12 campaign.
Making the playoffs, and winning a game, is a sign that things are turning around and the recent attendance figures show the community is ready to support the team. That is fantastic to see, especially in a year in which OCN almost withdrew from the 11-team junior A circuit.
Howden would love to win Game 3 tonight and return home on Friday with a chance to go up 3-1 in the series, but he knows his team will have to play structured and disciplined hockey to do so.
Regardless of what happens today, there’s nothing more he’d like to see than the crowd be even bigger for Game 4 back in Neepawa. There was still lots of space left in the stands despite having more than 1,000 people in the arena on Sunday.
Gutenberg would love to see it packed and have the crowd help try to push his team past the regular-season champs.
"It would be nice to see around 1,500 for a game, but we’ll have to keep playing to find out if we can," he said.
Meanwhile, the Virden Oil Capitals continue to get strong fan support. They drew 935 fans for their 4-1 loss in Game 2 of their quarter-final series against the Winkler Flyers. Virden, which trails the series 2-0, will host Game 4 at Tundra Oil and Gas on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
The Oil Capitals also have a deal in which people can save up to 40 per cent on season tickets for next year if they renew or purchase them while the team is still in the playoffs this season.
SHOUTOUTS: Congratulations to Carberry product Dori Vince on securing a berth to next season’s provincial junior women’s curling championship. Vince throws second stones for Alex Friesen’s team from Winnipeg and they won a junior berth bonspiel on the weekend in the provincial capital.
Also, anyone who wants to wish Murray Warren’s team well ahead of the Canadian senior curling championships in Fredericton can do so at the Brandon Curling Club on Wednesday. A sendoff for the team will be held there at 7 p.m. Terry Ursel’s team from Arden and Lansdowne are also heading to nationals. Good luck to both foursomes.
And a pat on the back to the Brandon Wheat Kings for securing a Western Hockey League playoff berth on the weekend. They can’t move out of a wildcard spot and will likely face the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first round. Games 3 and 4 for that series will be in Dauphin. Hopefully, people, either Westmanites travelling or Dauphinites wanting to watch major junior hockey, will come out to watch them and create a great atmosphere at Credit Union Place.
NATIVES ATTENDANCE FIGURES
Date Opponent Attendance
Fri. Sept. 23 Winkler 531
Fri. Sept. 30 Selkirk 365
Sun. Oct. 9 Wayway 331
Fri. Oct. 14 Winkler 307
Wed. Oct. 19 Virden 322
Fri. Oct. 21 Wayway 441
Wed. Oct. 26 Virden 615
Fri. Nov. 4 Portage 437
Sun. Nov. 6 Winnipeg 450
Sat. Nov. 19 OCN 425
Sun. Nov. 20 OCN 427
Wed. Nov. 23 Steinbach 378
Fri. Nov. 25 Virden 382
Sat. Dec. 3 Steinbach 287
Tues. Dec. 13 OCN 250
Fri. Dec. 16 Selkirk 304
Fri. Dec. 30 Swan Valley 422
Fri. Jan. 13 Dauphin 429
Wed. Jan. 25 Winnipeg 225
Sat. Jan. 28 Selkirk 512
Sun. Jan. 29 Winkler 457
Wed. Feb. 8 Swan Valley 219
Fri. Feb. 10 Portage 306
Sun. Feb. 12 Winnipeg 323
Wed. Feb. 15 Dauphin 297
Wed. Feb. 22 Wayway 339
Fri. Feb. 24 Portage 537
Wed. March 1 Steinbach 312
Fri. March 3 Dauphin 563
Sun. March 5 Swan Valley 982
2016-17 TOTAL ATTENDANCE 12,175
2016-17 AVERAGE 405.83
Sun, March 12 Steinbach 1,126