The door to the locker room was shut tight, but it didn’t stop the frustration from leaking out.
Inside, you could hear shouting, cussing, disappointment and frustration ringing in every word, every breath.
The Las Vegas Wranglers had just lost the opening game of the Western Conference Finals on home ice, to their most bitter of rivals – the reigning Kelly Cup champion Alaska Aces. And what’s more, with the impending four straight games in Anchorage awaiting them, the Wranglers were in a bit of a tough spot.
It was clear at that moment what needed to happen – something had to change, and quick.
Inside that locker room, behind those closed doors, a conscious decision was made from skater 1-18, top to bottom – the guys who were dressing, and the guys who weren’t.
The decision was this – the way the Wranglers played in Game 1 was unacceptable. It was unacceptable, and wouldn’t be allowed any longer.
If the Wranglers wanted to bring a Kelly Cup back to the city of Las Vegas, it wouldn’t be tolerated.
And with that, each Las Vegas Wrangler headed home with one thought in their mind – bring it tomorrow, like it’s your last game.
And that’s exactly what they did.
In Game 2, in front of thousands of their loudest fans, the boys in black and white followed their head coach – their general – onto the ice, pushing not one but two pucks past Alaska Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman in the first five minutes of the game.
The Wranglers would add another before the first intermission, taking a 3-0 lead into the dressing room after the opening 20 minutes – the same dressing room they sat in just one night before, contemplating their Game 1 effort.
This was a different effort, and that 3-0 lead was one this Wrangler team wouldn’t look back from, going on to win Game 2 by that same score.
With the win, the Wranglers had tied the Western Conference Finals at one game apiece. But more importantly, a statement had been made. The way the Wranglers played for those 60 minutes would forever change the tide of the Western Conference Finals.
The war was far from over, however, as with the series knotted at one, the Western Conference Finals had been whittled down to a best of five series – a race to three wins with the winner moving on to the Kelly Cup Finals.
But because of the 2-4-1 series format, the next four games would be played up in Anchorage, on the Aces’ Olympic-sized ice – the ECHL’s version of the Death Star – a place Alaska had only lost five times all season.
What happened next was something that will live on in Wranglers folklore for years, as the team of boys from the desert – a place where ice hockey had long been an afterthought before their arrival – went up to the land of the ice and snow, and took three straight from the Aces in their own building.
It was the first time since 2007 a team had lost three straight games at home in the ECHL playoffs. It was also the second time this postseason the Wranglers had beaten an adversary three times in a row.
In any sport – at any level – it’s difficult to beat a good team three straight times, but the reigning Kelly Cup Champs? In their own building? It’s quite an amazing feat.
I remember even when I was younger, playing in little league baseball in our regional finals, we started the series on the road up in New Hampshire, and were dismantled both times. But at home, trailing the series 2-0, we rattled off three straight wins to hoist the trophy.
Something about playing at home – in front of your own fans – just lifts you to that next level and makes you feel unbeatable.
But that’s exactly what this Wrangler team did. They beat the unbeatable, on their own home ice, inside a building that had seen 29 wins this year compared to just five regulation losses.
They’re a team loaded with NHL-level talent, including their goaltender Gerald Coleman and forward Brian Swanson, who have a combined 72 games of National Hockey League experience under their belt. Let’s not forget Wes Goldie, either, the ECHL’s all-time scoring leader and former league MVP.
The Alaska Aces – a team that just last season, seemed miles ahead of their competition, sweeping both their first and second round of their Kelly Cup run, losing just once all postseason long.
But this year, in 2012, they had been bested.
Scratch that – they had been vaulted – pummeled into the ground, four games to one, losing the last three on their own home ice, by a group of guys from the desert.
A group of boys from Las Vegas. Our group of boys. Our town – our team.
The old saying goes, “To be the best, you have to beat the best.” In just five games of hockey, the Wranglers did exactly that – dethroned the ECHL’s reigning champions, leaving their castle in ruins, their crown bloodied and destroyed.
For their efforts, they are rewarded with the ultimate prize – the chance to compete for the ECHL’s highest honors – the Kelly Cup.
But they’re not done yet. Perhaps their greatest challenge awaits.
After Game 5, that locker room door was closed tight once again. But the mood inside was different – far more upbeat than it was four games ago. Cheers and smiles filled the room as pictures of the Bruce Taylor Trophy were being snapped, number-one fingers pointing to the sky.
For now, they enjoy the small victory, but they know a bigger stage awaits. The real challenge is ahead of them, the chance to deliver something to the city of Las Vegas that it has never seen before.
Vince Lombardi, the most highly decorated of winners – the man after whom the NFL Super Bowl trophy was named – once said the following:
“I firmly believe that a man’s finest hour – his greatest fulfillment to all he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”
For 72 regular season games and 13 postseason battles, the Las Vegas Wranglers have worked their hearts out in a good cause.
Behind their general they have marched, all season long. And behind them we’ve watched – intently, as something special happened right before our eyes.
85 games have been played. Seven more games remain.
And with four more wins, not only will the Las Vegas Wranglers celebrate exhausted on their icy field of battle –they’ll also celebrate as champions.