By Nick Patterson Herald writer
EVERETT — Had it been submitted to a Hollywood director as a script, it would have been promptly rejected as too implausible.
The movie industry is littered with films about the plucky underdog overcoming enormous odds to end up on top. It’s the type of a story that’s spanned all generations and genres, from David and Goliath to The Little Engine That Could.
But even by those standards, what the Everett Silvertips achieved in 2003-04, their inaugural season, is difficult to believe: the most victories by a Western Hockey League expansion club, a division title and an amazing playoff run that led to a conference title and a berth in the WHL championship series.
As the Tips prepare to embark upon their landmark 10th season, it’s impossible not to harken back to their storybook first. And for those involved first-hand on that wild ride, the memory is one which will be cherished forever.
“That first year is etched in my mind as the funnest year, both on and off the ice, I’ve had as a hockey player,” said Mitch Love, who was an inspirational defenseman on that 2003-04 team and is an assistant coach now. “I think a lot of the guys from that first year, in talking to them during the (August) alumni weekend and through the years, have said it doesn’t get much more fun that it was that year.”
Said star goaltender Jeff Harvey: “It’s funny, because when Mitch and I were playing in Shreveport last year and a couple nights we’d have a couple beers and throw on the old highlight tape that (then assistant coach) Jay Varady made for us. I still reminisce and talk about it like it’s yesterday. It doesn’t feel like 10 years, I still feel like I’m 21 and we still play here. It was a special year.”
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. In 2003, Everett was a location no player in the WHL could have found on a map. It was an anonymous American city in a Canadian league, and the Tips seemed destined for the same kind of forgettable first season each of the league’s previous expansion teams experienced.
The Tips were populated with players acquired in the expansion draft — those who were generally considered surplus to their previous teams’ needs. Talk before the season was that Everett would be lucky to match the 13 wins that Vancouver totaled as the previous expansion team in 2001-02.
“I still remember the first ride into Everett,” Riley Armstrong, who tied as the team’s leading scorer, said. “The rink wasn’t even built yet. We came to town, I hadn’t met anybody, we all met in the airport and jumped in a shuttle bus. We came to the hotel, we got a tour of the city, looked around and came back for training camp. I really didn’t expect anything going into the season.”
But Kevin Constantine had other plans. Constantine was Everett’s first true star, a fire-breathing former NHL coach who had instant legitimacy with his players. Constantine had never been involved in the WHL before, but his mastery of Xs and Os proved transformative to the league.
“Kevin is just a genius when it comes to systems,” said defenseman Bryan Nathe, the team’s captain. “I credit a lot of it to him and his systems.”
After a slow start, the Tips gradually began to get results. Using Constantine’s defensive style, which was designed to give the modestly-skilled Tips a chance in low-scoring games, Everett gradually climbed the U.S. Division standings until, on the second-to-last day of the regular season, Everett clinched the division title with a 2-1 victory at Tri-City. It’s an achievement no other expansion team came close to before or since.
And that was just the warmup. What followed was a playoff run no one could have anticipated. The Tips swept Spokane in the first round, then knocked off Vancouver in six games in the second. Even the coaches were surprised. Assistant coach John Becanic’s scheduled flight home to Pittsburgh following the season had long passed.
Conventional wisdom after the upstart Silvertips beat Spokane and Vancouver had Everett’s storybook run ending in the Conference finals against big, bad Kelowna. The Rockets were defending league champions and owners of the league’s best regular-season record. Surely, the Tips would be crushed.
For much of the series that’s what happened. The shot totals and puck possession were obscenely one-sided and Everett trailed the best-of-seven series three games to one heading back to Kelowna for Game 5.
“I remember before Game 5, Kevin Constantine told us, ‘Guys, you come in here and win Game 5, you know you’re going to win at home. I guarantee we come back and you guys will win Game 7,’” Harvey said. “We all kind of held those words true. We kind of knew it was our time.”
What followed was a moment that defied belief.
Everett somehow got Game 5 into overtime and in OT was hanging on for dear life. After yet another shift of being pinned in their own zone, the Tips finally got out and Nathe dumped the puck into the Kelowna zone to get a line change. Kelowna goaltender Kelly Guard went to play the puck, but it rolled up his stick, over his shoulder and into the net for the game-winning goal, sending the series back to Everett.
The victory was the first of a three-game stretch permeated by a feeling of destiny. Each of the final three games were controlled by Kelowna. Each of the three still ended up in overtime. And each of the three was won by Everett, the last thanks to a deflected goal.
In Game 7, Everett’s Barry Horman flipped the puck toward goal. Teammate Jeff Schmidt was in front of the goal getting knocked to the ice when the puck deflected off his leg and into the net, sending the Tips to the WHL championship series.
The magic ended there. The exhausted Silvertips were swept by Medicine Hat in the title series. But it couldn’t damper what was an unprecedented first season.
“I remember we were in Kelowna and after Game 5, which we won in OT, and I just thought it was never going to end,” Mark Kress, a key defensive forward, said. “That was my thing: ‘We’re never going to end, we are a Cindarella team.’ And even though we didn’t win in the finals, our final was Kelowna in a way. They were the undisputed champions and we were the far-gone underdogs. So, for us to come back like that was something special.”
The memorable season wasn’t just defined by what happened on the ice. The players — and the fans — knew how to have fun.
There was the advent of the cowbell, which to this day is still a symbol of being a true Everett Silvertips fan. There was the singing and dancing to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” in the locker room after victories. Then there was the hard hat, a yellow construction helmet that was awarded after wins to the player the coaches thought had the most workmanlike effort.
The team also was full of characters and personalities, from the fiery Love’s ability to excite the crowd to Harvey’s dig at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum when he compared it to a library.
“What I remember most would be the camaraderie with the guys, the fun we had,” Nathe said. “We never had too many cliques, with people going this way and that way. Then the fans, for sure. Having (Comcast Arena) packed every night was easy to play in front of. They got you up and ready to play.
“I tell everybody we were kind of like the Bad News Bears,” Nathe added. “No one in the league wanted us — we got thrown together and ended up going all the way to the finals. Yeah, we lost four straight to Med Hat, but I think the better team won that series.”
No, the Silvertips may not have won the ultimate prize. However, they did something far greater. Not only did they make history, they began a tradition that brought the franchise to this point, where we can all celebrate a decade of hockey in Everett.