The track to the RBC Championship

The 2005-06 Burnaby Express national championship season was one with its share of ups and downs.

First of all, the team relocated from Coquitlam to Burnaby as the home rink of the Express in Coquitlam began a massive renovation project.

The previous season the team had gone through some changes with Rick Lanz taking over behind the bench from the only coach the franchise had known in Sean Crowther. That year the team finished below .500 but built a 3-1 series lead in the first round of the playoffs vs. the Chilliwack Chiefs only to lose the series in seven games.

It was the third straight year the Express had lost to Chilliwack in seven and fourth consecutive series loss to Chilliwack in four seasons of existence for the Express.

There was optimism coming into the 2005-06 season. Forward Geoff Irwin was acquired in an off-season trade from Victoria for defenceman Chad Betts. And there was a young, fresh faced 16-year-old from New Westminster by the name of Kyle Turris. They would be surrounded by a talented core including Paul Crowder, Tyler McNeely, and Keith Seabrook.The early optimism didn’t translate to success on the ice though. A 2-1 start had turned into a six game losing streak and 4-9-0-1 record by the middle of October. That weekend was highlighted by the team losing its two goaltenders in a span of 24 hours. Bryce Luker in Surrey suffered a serious cut to his leg on a collision. Another collision the next night took out Brian Mahoney-Wilson in Chilliwack.

The injuries left call-up Matthew Gordon to tend the fort. And by this time Paul Crowder had gone down long term following shoulder surgery.

Early season trades add sandpaper

The team was in need of a shake-up. The defense was altered with the acquisitions of Jeff Orban from Alberni Valley and skilled blueliner Alan Mazur was sent to Merritt for Dave Simoes. The deals made the backend that much harder to play against. Mark Santorelli was picked up from Salmon Arm to help fill Crowder’s absence.

It was at this point the results on the ice began to improve. A six game winning streak had the team five games above .500 by early December.

Over the Christmas break, a familiar face returned with Mark Soares coming back from Bemidji State. He was the team’s most popular player as voted on by the fans in each of the previous four seasons. And the epitome of “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” type of player.

As the calendar had turned over to 2006, the team was nipping on the heels of the Chilliwack Chiefs for first place in the Mainland Division. But a pair of losses in a home-and-home series against the Chiefs delivered a blow to those chances.

A rare four games in four nights Island Division road trip in the middle of January tested the mettle of the group. It started with losses in Nanaimo and Alberni Valley, who were neck and neck for the Island Division and overall BCHL regular season crowns.

The trip went down to Victoria where veteran forward Irwin was healthy scratched in his hometown. The game resulted in a controversial 3-on-3 overtime penalty shot loss.

Frustrations of the loss had boiled over, Lanz was ultimately suspended for an on-ice tirade and joined this author in the broadcast booth for a few occasions. The road trip concluded with another frustrating overtime loss in Cowichan Valley.

It was then up to the northern interior of BC where the team scraped five out of six points in Prince George, Quesnel, and Williams Lake.

Chilliwack loss serves as a wake-up call

The 2006 Burnaby Express came to a pivotal moment in their season on a Sunday afternoon at home to Chilliwack. It was still possible for Burnaby to finish in first place, but the Express’ nemesis made the trip to Burnaby and laid an 8-0 whipping on the team.

The loss did not sit well with the humbled group. And the players endured their punishment in practice the next few days.

But it would be the tonic that would eventually snap this talented group to attention and get them to play to the potential that they had.

Following the loss, the team finished with six straight wins to end the regular season. Irwin eventually would finish third overall in BCHL scoring, Turris had 36 goals and 72 points in his rookie season.

The team finished in second place in the Mainland Division after a 34 win season. They would draw the Langley Hornets in the first round.

Luker recovered well from his injury earlier in the season and opened the playoffs with a shutout. By the time the third period of game four was two minutes old, the Express had a 3-0 series lead and 6-1 lead in the game and appeared to be in good shape to advance in a sweep.

Langley fought back and made it 6-5 with just over a minute to play. The Express eventually held on for the 7-5 win and won a playoff series for the first time in team history.

Box score from game four vs. Langley

Up next was the long-time nemesis from Chilliwack, but this time things would be different. Crowder returned from his shoulder injury in game one and was put on a line with McNeely and Irwin. When all was said and done, the Chiefs had no idea what hit them.

Hometown boy McNeely takes over

McNeely played overtime hero in game one. After opening up a 3-0 series lead, the Express had rolled to a 13 game winning streak, which date