When the stands were empty and the rink quiet, Sam Weber and Dale Howell skated off on their own as their teammates watched from a respectful distance.
One last moment for reflection. One last memory in a Nelson Leafs jersey.
“I don’t want to take it off, to be honest,” said Weber. “I don’t want to get off the ice either.”
Weber was emotional after the Leafs’ season, and his junior hockey career, ended Saturday. The 20-year-old Kaslo native was often the smallest player on the ice during his three seasons with the Leafs, but he was also in many ways its heart.
It was Weber whose speed always seemed to startle defenders. It was Weber who harassed goalies on the forecheck. It was Weber who, without fail, rose to his feet after being hit by players who towered over him.
So while several players on the Leafs will be too old to remain in junior hockey next year, it was Weber who the team appeared to instinctively turn to after a 4-1 loss to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in Game 4 that eliminated Nelson from the playoffs.
“We got swept but honestly when you look at the series it doesn’t reflect how the games went,” said Weber. “Pretty proud of everyone on the team, pretty special how everyone battled.”
In retrospect, that battle began from September’s season opener.
Nothing was easy for the Leafs. Injuries and suspensions culminated in a crippling autumn stretch where they won just twice in 13 games. The roster went through a major overhaul at the trade deadline as the team’s coaching staff tried to turn the tide. And for a time it worked, but Nelson ended up scrambling to secure third place on the final day of the regular season.
Then came the playoffs. The Leafs looked like clear underdogs heading into the first round against the Castlegar Rebels. But Devin Allen, who took over for an injured Gorn midway through January, discovered his form against the Rebels and was spectacular in net. In the end it was the Leafs who survived a gruelling series featuring one quadruple-overtime finish and a total of 27 periods played through six games.
Beating the Nitehawks, who led the KIJHL during the regular season and had already swept through their first series, was always going to be a difficult peak to climb. Howell, who played his last game as well Saturday, said the team proved something to themselves during the tumultuous campaign.
“We really picked it up from what we were in November,” said Howell. “We knew that wasn’t going to define us. It’s not the ending we wanted, but can’t be more happy with what these guys proved to everyone.”
The Leafs looked like they’d finally run out of steam when the puck dropped on Game 4. They didn’t record a shot until midway through the opening period, and often had difficulty getting out of their own zone.
Tyler Ghiradosi, Tyler Hartman, Nolan Percival, and Jaxen Gemmell scored for the Nitehawks, with Tallon Kramer stopping just nine shots.
Alex Meeker had the lone goal for the Leafs. Billy Gorn, the Leafs goaltender making his first appearance since Jan. 11 and also his last as a junior player, had a shaky start by allowing his first goal on only the third shot of the game. He finished with 20 saves.
Beaver Valley’s Dylan Heppler showed terrific speed as he outskated Leafs defenders and found Ghiradosi on the other side of Gorn’s crease. Gorn blocked the first shot but reacted too slowly to the rebound as the Nitehawks went up 1-0.
Hartman then stunned the Leafs with a wrist shot off a faceoff that beat Gorn blocker side to go in for a 2-0 lead at 3:43.
Still, the Leafs managed to squeeze a goal in before the first intermission. Mitch Foyle was serving a four-minute minor for spearing when Meeker rushed Kramer on a rebound and banged in a shot before crashing into the net with 37 seconds left.
Nelson looked to have the equalizer shortly after the break. Several shots had Kramer scrambling until one beat him, but the goal was waved off for kicking.
The season slipped a little further away with another Nitehawks goal. Percival turned and fired a wrist shot that was too hot for Gorn, and suddenly the Beaver Valley advantage was two goals.
The metaphorical nail was driven in with Gemmell’s goal, which came with three minutes left in the second period. Leafs defenders were unable to get a stick on the puck as it bounced into their zone, leaving space for Gemmell to drive in and score.
The Leafs played for pride in the third. Their best chance was courtesy of Nicholas Wihak, who made a slick move to get on Kramer’s doorstep but no further.
“I’m very proud of how the team played,” said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella after his first full season with the team since joining midway through the 2015-16 campaign.
“They battled through 27 periods of hockey against Castlegar. The bottom line is we came out of that series tired and full of bumps and bruises, and they continued to compete. We played a very good Beaver Valley team that could have been down 3-0 as easily as they were up 3-0.”
Now Beaver Valley will play either the Creston Valley Thunder Cats or Kimberley Dynamiters in the conference final. The Leafs, meanwhile, have a future to mull over.
Howell, who finished the season second in scoring behind captain Sawyer Hunt, said he’ll consider going to university. Andy Fitzpatrick is eligible to play another year, but he’s been accepted to a school in Calgary and is torn on what to do.
“I have an amazing family here,” said Fitzpatrick. “My billets, they pamper me. It definitely makes or breaks the experience and I’ve had nothing but good times with them. They have taken care of me, they’ve taken me in as their own child pretty much. The coaching staff, everyone who works with us, they care for us and it’s noticeable.
“It’s hard. It’s real hard.”
Hunt is also eligible to play another year. He initially thought this would be his last season before moving onto school — he’s already started course work at Selkirk College — but he’s reconsidering after Saturday’s game.
“All year we had guys coming and going and we had suspensions,” said Hunt. “All this kind of adversity we had to battle through. I think in the end that made us stronger and it us more of a cohesive unit when everyone was there after the trade deadline. I’m just super proud of everyone and how well we did.”
And then, of course, there’s Weber.
For years, playing for the Leafs was Weber’s lone focus. He doesn’t know what he’ll do next, only that he plans to find a new passion outside of hockey.
“It’s kind of like the end of the book,” he said. “Start of something new now.”