By Derek Holtom
A few nights ago, while talking hockey with the Regina Leader Post’s Rob Vanstone via Twitter I started to recall one of my favourite hockey moments from back in the spring of 1996. Back then, I was an extremely young sports reporter with the Prince Albert Daily Herald, and was on the verge of the best seven-game hockey series I ever had the chance to cover.
In one corner, we had the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. With stars such as Chris Phillips, Steve Kelly, Brad Church and Curtis Brown, the Raiders were a team built to win it all.
In the other corner, the plucky Regina Pats, who rode net minder Chad Mercier tantalizingly close to a berth in the WHL’s East Final.
It’s the fifth game of the Pats-Raiders series that I (and many others) will never forget. The Pats, major underdogs heading into the second-round series (the Raiders finished with 24 more points than the Pats), rode the stellar net minding of Mercier to a 3-1 series lead, and had a chance to finish off the Raiders at home.
The Comuniplex was hopping for that game. Prince Albert needed a win and a fast start, but instead Raiders head coach Chris Stewart watched his team fall behind early and in danger of being eliminated.
What followed next was the most memorable incident of the series. Prince Albert’s fourth-line forward Garnet Jacobson raced for a puck in the corner at the same time Mercier was skating to play the puck. They arrived at almost the same time, collided, and Mercier went down in a heap.
Chaos followed. The Pats defended their all-star net minder and the Raiders defended Jacobson. The Pats, already leading, had a five-minute major and a glorious chance to put the Raiders away. Instead, the home team killed off the power-play, came back to win Game 5, and handily won the next two games.
The series turning point was clearly Jacobson’s hit on Mercier. (Full disclosure here, I grew up in Saskatoon literally across the street from Jacobson. He instantly recognized me the first time we saw each other at the rink, and I enjoyed chatting with him during his entire career with the Raiders and later Moose Jaw Warriors).
Jacobson faced the media after that game, and as I recall, he said he wasn’t put out there to “go after Mercier” who by all accounts was already playing somewhat injured. His hip problems, which prematurely ended what would have been an impressive professional career, was well known in hockey circles before, and especially after that hit. One has to wonder why a goalie with an injured hip would risk playing the puck so far from his crease, but hockey’s a game of instincts, and I doubt Mercier knew any other way to play.
The real fireworks, much of which wasn’t reported, took place after the cameras stopped running and the TV and radio guys were putting away their mics.
One of the Parkers, I believe it was Brent Parker, had an intense screaming match with Stewart after the game, accusing him of sending Jacobson out to injure Mercier, with Stewart firing right back. I was pretty green when this happened, and I didn’t report much if any of that exchange, something I wish I could go back and change as it was high drama.
I tried to see what Jacobson is up to these days, but he appears out of hockey after a few years in the minors. Mercier is still in hockey, serving as coach and general manager of the successful Bonneyville Pontiacs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The Parkers are obviously still with the Pats, and Stewart is with the Colorado Eagles of the East Coast Hockey League. Life goes on.
The 2012-13 Prince Albert Raiders have a similar vibe to them as the 1995-96 squad, and appear poised for another playoff run. Will they provide any classic memories, the way the 1995-96 squad did? That remains to be seen. But topping that Game 5 moment will be difficult indeed.
Derek Holtom is the former sports reporter of the Prince Albert Daily Herald and still covers hockey in Manitoba, and misses Friday‘s after work at the Minto Bowl.