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The longest game
Jason La Rose
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May 18, 2019

On May 12, 2007, the Prince George Spruce Kings and Camrose Kodiaks faced off in the second semifinal at the RBC Royal Bank Cup, with a spot in the championship game against the Aurora Tigers on the line.

On May 13, the Spruce Kings earned the spot.

It finished as the longest game in tournament history, with the game-winning goal from Jason Yuel coming at 6:01 of the fifth overtime, shortly after 1 a.m. PT – more than six hours after the puck first dropped.

Twelve years later, the game remains a highlight for anyone who was at the CN Centre that night.

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THE ROAD TO PRINCE GEORGE

The host team in 2007, the Spruce Kings found themselves on the sidelines early in the B.C. Hockey League playoffs, out in seven games in the first round at the hands of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. That meant 52 days off before the national championship began.

JASON YUEL, SPRUCE KINGS FORWARD: The competition in the BCHL at that time was incredible. I think [Salmon Arm] had three NHL draft picks that year. We lost in seven games, and it was a really close series. If we had won that series, we could have gone all the way for sure.

TYLER HELFRICH, SPRUCE KINGS FORWARD: At that age you’re devastated and you want to keep playing and you want to keep going. At the same time, once everything settled and you had a couple of days to get over it, it’s almost like you have that feeling of a second life, which not too many hockey players get.

YUEL: We all went home for a while, I think about 30 days or so, maybe three weeks. I remember getting back to Prince George, and we were doing two skates a day. We were two a days for quite a while. We had a couple exhibition games where we were able to kind of get the bugs out and play against come good competition as well.

Meanwhile, the Kodiaks – who had made national appearances in 2001, 2003 and 2005 – were rolling through the postseason, beating Olds, Grande Prairie and Fort Saskatchewan to claim the AJHL title, and downing Nanaimo in five games to win the Doyle Cup as Pacific champions.

BORIS RYBALKA, KODIAKS HEAD COACH: Each time you’re successful that group has to be a special group, and that one was. From day one the mindset and the work ethic and understanding of what it will take to get where you want, to reach your goals, that group understood it. From the goaltending, to the defence, to the forwards, they just all knew from day one that they had a common goal, and it was getting to the nationals.

BRADY COOK, KODIAKS CAPTAIN: I believe in Alberta we might have had the youngest team, but the amount of talent that we had, the skills, with Joe Colborne, Mike Connolly, Evan Oberg and Allen York … there is a list of people up and down the roster that were incredible talents, and a lot of guys who have had success both with hockey and outside of hockey.

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THE PRELIMINARY ROUND

The Spruce Kings opened with a win over the Pembroke Lumber Kings, and closed by beating the Selkirk Steelers to clinch a semifinal spot at 2-2. Camrose outscored Prince George, Pembroke and Selkirk 10-3 before falling to Aurora in a showdown for first place.

HELFRICH: The first four games were a lot of fun. It was belief, and knowing that the town was behind you and just seeing the turnout, knowing that we can compete and we deserve to be here.

JORDAN WHITE, PRINCE GEORGE GOALTENDER: We were quick, which made us quite effective against [bigger teams]. I remember we also were able to divide up our scoring. We didn't really rely on our Tyler Helfrichs or Jason Yuels or Alain Joanettes all the time. We had some guys who would chip in quite often.

ALLEN YORK, KODIAKS GOALTENDER: We knew we could beat anyone there. We had a ton of belief.

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THE GAME

Prince George struck first when Yuel and Helfrich set up Joanette in the first period, and Vinny Muchalla made it 2-0 early in the second. Colborne, who would be a first-round NHL pick of the Boston Bruins a year later, got the Kodiaks within one before the end of the middle frame, and Jesse Todd scored with 1:51 left to tie the game.

YORK: Jesse scored so many big goals for us that year. I was actually looking for the bench when we scored. I watched him driving wide on the guy, and then I looked over at the bench and I looked back as the puck went in. You're in that mode where it's like 'Okay, we've got to tie this.' You're kind of panicking a little bit. And then you tie it. So we were extremely high going into that first OT.

WHITE: It was just devastating because there was only two minutes left. We were outshot by them for most of the game? We were not hanging on but you could definitely tell that they were pressing quite hard. It was a little bit deflating to let in a goal that late.

HELFRICH: We had thought we had played a pretty good game at that point, and we deserved a good outcome. We believed we could win that game, and it was going to take everyone, but we didn’t see it going as long as it did.

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ON TO OVERTIME

The first overtime ended without a goal. So did the second. So did the third. When the third extra period hit the 16:55 mark, it became the longest game in tournament history, surpassing the Weyburn-Hawkesbury semifinal in 2005.

YUEL: You get into overtime and you have a chance to reset [after the late Camrose goal] and think about what’s coming up. By the time you’re in the first overtime, there wasn’t really any momentum either way; it was kind of a brand new game. You’re just going back and forth for another five hours or so that night.

KEVIN PARNELL, PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER: You get a sense with these things, anyone who has watched hockey, you kind of get a sense with these long overtime games that ‘Oh my, we’re locked into something here.’ And you could just tell that the goalies, it was almost like magic, the way they were keeping the pucks out of the net and it was going to take something incredible to end it. I remember thinking ‘This is just incredible, I’ll never be involved in a game like this ever again.’

PAT SMITH, REFEREE: I remember looking over at the bench and see both coaches just kind of look at each other and smile. Both of them were just like ‘This is crazy.’ I think that was the fourth overtime. It was just this moment of ‘Oh wow, we’re part of something special.’ And I think the coaches realized that.

PARNELL: The concessions had closed in the third period. I remember below the broadcast booth, people had ordered pizza in because it didn’t end until after 1 a.m., so you had people in the stands getting pizza delivered to them.

The pizza was also making its way into the dressing room, along with whatever else the players (and officials) could get into them to keep them going through the marathon night.

YUEL: You get into the third and fourth overtime and you’re hoping someone will just end this thing. You’re eating fruit in the dressing room, you’re getting protein bars and different things to eat while you’re playing, you’re trying to stay hydrated, but you’ve just kind of got to keep going and stay mentally strong because you never know when the game might end.

SMITH: The hosts in Prince George were awesome. They were getting us food and snacks and Gatorades and waters. We were just making sure that we’re getting lots of food into us, lots of water, lots of Gatorade because you’re losing so many electrolytes. And then just mentally focusing too, that’s a big part of it. Making sure that we are going out and treating every minute like it is what it is, sudden-death overtime, and giving it the care and attention that that it needs.

YORK: It's getting to the point where you've played almost six, seven hours of hockey. It's kind of ridiculous. I know for me, the only thing that was really bothering me were my feet. I had newer skates. I think they were only three or four weeks old. So my feet were incredibly sore. You're just in constant survival mode once it gets past that second, third OT.

RYBALKA: We said ‘Enjoy this. You guys are going to remember this, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’ And as the overtimes kept on going, it was positive. It was ‘I’m proud of you. Get that goal. Get that puck, put it on net. Somebody in this room you know it’s there, but don’t sit back.’ That’s all it was. There were no systems because at that time they’re mentally drained and physically drained,

HELFRICH: Towards the end it was just kind of like, ‘Let’s end this here so we can get home and get some rest for tomorrow.’ It was always kind of that positive, optimistic approach that we’re going to win this thing, but let’s do it sooner rather than later.

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THE GOAL

Early in the fifth overtime, Camrose forward Owen Chatwin was whistled for hooking.

SMITH: It was a partial break, and it was lost scoring opportunity. It was one of those ones that, to me, took away a scoring opportunity and that’s why I called it.

RYBALKA: I remember the penalty happening, and it was a strange gut feeling. It’s one of those where when the penalty happened, I remember [assistant coach] Miles [Walsh] coming to me and just kind of said ‘This isn’t good.’ And sure enough, he was correct.

HELFRICH: I remember the breakout and getting the puck on the wall. I was never really a guy to drive defencemen wide, my strength was trying to suck guys in and slow them down to my speed and make plays. I delayed a bit just inside the blue-line and I saw Yuel cutting through, and I just wanted to put it into his area.

YUEL: Tyler Helfrich had done a really good job of getting the puck up the ice on his own through the neutral zone, and then stopped up and was working the half-wall. I was on the opposite side of the ice. The seam just came through the box and he just put an absolute beautiful pass that I was able to deflect kind of on my backhand right up and under the bar. And then it was pandemonium after that.

YORK: I was probably like a quarter second late to react to the save. As a goalie you realize when a puck is going in when it's past you, and it was just a horrible feeling.

YUEL: It was sheer excitement. Not at any point did you think about how tired you were or ‘Holy this is over.’ You weren’t even thinking about tomorrow yet, it’s just like ‘This is unbelievable.’

WHITE: You almost don't notice the crowd. The noise you hear is your own teammates yelling at you in excitement so the crowd is almost like a secondary effect until you are about to step off the ice and you go through the tunnel and then you look up and see everyone there giving you that little bit of applause and you can see smiles on people's faces.

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THE AFTERMATH

Final shots on goal favoured the Kodiaks 93-77. Not surprisingly, both goaltenders earned Player of the Game honours.

WHITE: Just for fun [I was watching the shot clock] because it shows the pace of the game and who's kind of taking control at different times. I swear if we re-watch that game I bet myself and York, we would probably say that each of us probably had about 15 or 20 more shots than what was actually listed.

YUEL: Both goalies were insane. It wasn’t like there wasn’t chances, there was chances in every period and just nothing was going in.

HELFRICH: [White] was unbelievable. He was so good for us that tournament. I do remember that Camrose had a lot of great chances in those overtimes and like any good goalie, you make those timely saves regardless of what you do throughout the game and you give your team an opportunity to win,

RYBALKA: What is it called, your coming-out party? That’s what I remember about York, and I was so proud of him. He was so relaxed; it was just like ‘Guys go out and do it, and I’m going to make the save.’ That was the day that I knew it was there, that he was going to play pro.

The Spruce Kings left the CN Centre around 2 a.m., 17 hours before the championship game was scheduled to start. So where does a team go celebrate the most important win in franchise history?

YUEL: You go to Denny’s because it’s the only place open. That’s what we did.

Down the hall, the Kodiaks were faced with the reality of the season ending, and with it the junior careers of Cook and a handful of other players.

YORK: All of a sudden it's over. Instantly all of your twenty-year-old, nineteen-year-old teammates are crying, and you're just like ‘Oh my God, it's actually done.’ The worst part for me was the feeling of ‘What the hell just happened?’

RYBALKA: The most difficult part for me as a coach was to see the players. The tough look in their eyes, the sadness in them, where they’re down and you can see the tears, that’s the tough part. We lost, but for me it’s seeing those poor young men where they’re devastated, that’s the tough thing.

The Spruce Kings had to regroup and face Aurora in the national final. Despite the adrenaline from their semifinal success and a hometown crowd of more than 3,300, Prince George was no match for a Tigers juggernaut that finished the 2006-07 season with 77 wins in 88 games – Aurora claimed its second national championship with a 3-1 victory.

YUEL: It was ok at the beginning of the game, because you’re going off adrenaline and feeding off the crowd, but once that dies down and the flow of the game started, it was really, really tough to get the legs going. Your head’s in it, but the body wouldn’t listen to what the mind was trying to tell it.

HELFRICH: I vividly remember talking about how important that first goal was, and we didn’t get that one. When they went up 1-0, on the bench there was just that feeling of ‘We’ve got to do this and play from behind now?’ Even though it’s only one goal, and it might sound crazy, but I’ll never forget that feeling. You could just feel it on the bench. And the rest of that game it just turned into ‘OK, we’ve got to grind and come back,’ and that was a lot after what we had been through the night before.

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It has been over a decade since the game, and those were part of that night (and morning) have gone to do different things in and out of the game, but May 12, 2007 remains front-of-mind for many.

RYBALKA: I still talk about it. The players [today] are blown away and will go and Google it and check it out because I don’t think some of them believe that you play five overtime periods in an national game, and then they find out that yeah, they did. They played five overtime periods and the guys were still going 100 per cent.

SMITH: I’ve had the opportunity to referee gold medal games at the World Juniors and Memorial Cup championship games, and it’s right up there. It’s really special.

WHITE: Every couple years or so just with some of the guys that I'll play rec league with we'll be having a beer or two and somehow something will come up about hockey and a story will get asked about a game we played in and someone will say, ‘Hey, our goalie played in many more overtimes than the one we're watching on TV.’

COOK: I still am very, very close with guys that were on the team, and I if I saw any of them tomorrow it would be like we were in the dressing room together, like it was yesterday. The game is special, and the bond is forever.