BRANDON, Man. - In a city where the storefronts have been decorated with the painted images of the Brandon Wheat Kings, where the fans have spent a lifetime suspended in hope, defenceman Travis Hamonic was correct to describe Friday night as "one of the biggest games in Brandon Wheat Kings history."
That was in the morning. And in the evening, after Hamonic and his teammates had met their date with history, thousands of grateful fans serenaded the Wheat Kings with one more request: "We want the Cup! We want the Cup!"
An overtime goal from Jay Fehr lifted the team to within a win of capturing the first MasterCard Memorial Cup in franchise history, leading the tournament's host team to a wildly entertaining 5-4 semifinal win over the Calgary Hitmen.
"That's going to be a memory for the rest of my life," said Hamonic, who helped Brandon rally with a key goal late in the second period. "That's something that's planted in your mind, in your brain, and it was a special moment. But the championship wasn't won here."
Brayden Schenn had three assists for the Wheat Kings, who will face the defending champion Windsor Spitfires in the championship final on Sunday. This is Brandon's fifth appearance at the tournament, and its first as sole host.
Alexander Urbom, Matt Calvert and Colby Robak also scored for Brandon.
Joel Broda, Ian Schultz, Tyler Fiddler and Misha Fisenko replied for Calgary.
Brandon had lost each of its previous five games against Calgary, including a third-round WHL playoff series last month. The Hitmen threatened to extend that streak with a two-goal lead in the first period on Friday, but spent most of the third period hanging on by a thread, and by the will of goaltender Martin Jones, who finished with 43 saves.
"They're a good hockey club," Jones said. "We just weren't at our best."
Fehr scored at the 3:16 mark of the first overtime period.
"It's definitely not the way we wanted this to end," Hitmen captain Schultz said. "It breaks a lot of hearts in there to have to go home right now. We felt like we could do a lot of good things if we made it to the finals."
Calgary picked up where it had left off in the round robin, with its 5-1 win over Brandon. Broda was left all alone in front of Brandon goaltender Jacob De Serres in the first period, pocketing the first goal of the game with his own rebound.
The Hitmen scored again nine seconds later, on a goal by Schultz, and seemed to be well on their way to a coveted rematch with the Spitfires. Calgary had been able to develop a run of post-season dominance over Brandon, eliminating the Wheat Kings from the WHL playoffs in three of the last six seasons.
Brandon finished second to Calgary in the regular season standings and led the league in goals (321), but had been stonewalled by Jones. The 20-year-old Los Angeles Kings prospect carried a shutout streak of more than 76 minutes into the second period of the semifinal.
His run ended 95 seconds after the first intermission, when Wheat Kings defenceman Urbom fired a high shot over the goaltender's shoulder. It seemed like a blip on the road back to the final, anyway, after Fiddler broke in and beat De Serres low stick-side for a 3-1 lead and a potentially back-breaking goal.
Instead, the Wheat Kings did something they had been unable to do throughout the round robin: They rallied.
Calvert scored his second of the tournament midway through the second period to cut the Calgary lead to 3-2, creating a palpable rise in the crowd. The fans, whom had been so eager to cheer all week, needed no excuse to erupt in the moments leading into the second intermission.
With Jones screened by what seemed like 1,000 sticks, skates and legs, Hamonic fired a blast from the point that found an open patch of mesh to tie the game at 3-3 with only 11 seconds left on the clock.
Robak gave the Wheat Kings a 4-3 lead, only to have the game pulled back to level with a goal by Fisenko with five minutes to play in regulation.
"We seized up a little bit at times," Hitmen coach Mike Williamson said. "It certainly wasn't a matter of not wanting to work hard or do the right things. I think we had a lot of guys standing around and watching a little bit, and maybe with a false sense of security with where the score was."