Once the fans had left and the arena was quiet, Rayce Miller sat alone on the bench and stared out onto the ice.
The Leafs captain, who came to Nelson from his hometown of Gilbert, Ariz., thought about his final year of junior hockey, and the three seasons he said changed his life.
And when it was over, it hurt.
Miller left the ice heartbroken and needed to be consoled by teammate Eamonn Miller after the Leafs were swept out of the KIJHL playoffs with a 1-0 loss to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Saturday.
It was an end Rayce Miller knew was a possibility, but one he still didn’t believe in.
“I was pretty optimistic that we were going to win and we almost pulled through,” he said. “I’m really proud of everybody on the team. Not one person left anything behind. We all left it out on the ice. It was great to see. It was a great team this year.”
It was also a team that had to struggle from opening night in September right to the final buzzer on a February night at the Nelson and District Community Complex.
Nothing was handed to the Leafs this season. A revolving door of players, a head coach in David McLellan who resigned in December, a roster so rife with injuries it was sometimes difficult to put a full team together for games. The campaign often seemed a lost cause well before the playoffs began.
But that didn’t make the conclusion any easier for the Leafs.
Brendan Smith, who, like Miller, also played his final game in Nelson, broke down as he skated off the ice. Smith is a defenceman but his hustle during the series convinced head coach Mario DiBella to swap him with centre Jordan Davie as a way of spurring the offence.
Smith said he thought the Leafs were fighting an uphill battle during the season but tried to stay optimistic. As the anthem played Saturday he told Miller to soak it all in. But that stoic attitude deserted him in the dying seconds of the game.
“I think it was just hard to know that that was the last buzzer I was going to hear on this ice, and the last time I was going to wear this jersey,” said Smith. “It just hit me right away.”
The Leafs entered the game with a do-or-die attitude, and it showed on the ice. But Nitehawks goaltender Tallon Kramer, who was sensational since he started in Game 2, had Nelson’s players shaking their heads with several terrific saves in the first period.
Kramer finished with 31 saves and Kyle Hope had the game’s lone goal in the second period when he elected to shoot on a 2-on-1 and beat Nelson goaltender Josh Williams over the shoulder.
The Leafs pressed, to no avail. Kramer was too good and Beaver Valley too in control. The Nitehawks, who finished first in the Neil Murdoch Division, will next face either the Castlegar Rebels or the Grand Forks Border Bruins. Williams, meanwhile, stopped 25 shots.
When the game was over, DiBella told his team he was proud of what they accomplished. Getting complete-game efforts from the Leafs was a headache for DiBella after he started his second tenure with the team, but he had no such complaints Saturday.
“You couldn’t look down the bench and say that there was a player who didn’t give his absolute all,” he said.
There’s no decision yet on whether or not DiBella will return next season, although Leafs president John Dooley has said he was pleased with the job DiBella and his staff did following McLellan’s departure.
The future and all its unknowns weighed heavily on everyone after the loss.
Some, like Rayce Miller, are going on to play university hockey. Others, like Blair Andrews, flinched at the question. Andrews said he woke up Saturday believing Nelson would win, and that they would be on a bus to Fruitvale for Game 5 on Monday.
Now he needs some time to think about his life now that his junior career is over. “I didn’t want this one to end so early,” he said.
Davie was all smiles after the game. He’s made his peace with the end of his hockey career, and said, “I’m done,” as he left the ice with no small amount of finality in his voice.
Davie finished the season as the team’s scoring leader, but his thoughts were with the several affiliate players – such as Brendan Makay and Riley Swiscoski – who suited up when Nelson needed help filling its lineup cards.
“We were such a young team,” said Davie. “I’ve never seen a team with this many rookies, and they went through that much shit in one year. This can only make them stronger, whether they stay on this team or move on to different teams.”
The Leafs gathered for an impromptu team photo after they had collected themselves in the locker-room. Some had to be coaxed, but most lingered afterward.
They embraced each other, shared quiet conversation and said goodbye to the place they’ve called home.
“All these guys are my brothers,” said Miller, “and I’m going to remember them for the rest of my life.”
(Dave Andrews photo)