HELENA — The 2023 NA3HL Fraser Cup championship began Wednesday with two exciting round-robin games as the Helena Bighorns brought home a hard-fought victory.
“We were down two and we just kept with the gameplan, and then scored one, and then scored another one. Boys just didn't give up at all so, we came back and obviously got the win,” remarked Bighorns' left-wing Braden Cunningham.
The Fraser Cup runs through Sunday at the St. Peters Rec Plex in St. Peters, Missouri. Six teams have advanced to the season-ending event, which annually crowns the NA3HL playoff champion.
“Honestly, I would argue with anybody, we’re probably one of the most prepared teams if not the most prepared team in the entire league, I keep telling them, we’ve done our job, we just got to go out there and finish it,” said coach Scott Cunningham.
Against the Oregon Tradesmen, Helena fell down 2-0 in the first period. During the second period, the Bighorns stormed back to tie the game at 2-2 as Tyler Alldredge and Camden Cunningham rang the bell. In the third period, the Bighorns took their first lead of the night after a Luc Corbin goal.
“We feel real well, I mean, it was really good to come in and get the first win here, that set us up real good for the rest of the Tournament. Boys got some confidence going into the next game, if we could get another Win on Friday, I think we’ll be in a really good spot. Should get us going for the weekend,” stated center Harlan Wojtusik.
Oregon tied the game late in regulation with their goalie pulled as Parker Murn scored on a difficult shot from the point. After a completely scoreless overtime, the Bighorns came away with the win in the shootout as East Helena’s Tyler Bloom netted the shootout winner.
“Well, we just stuck to the gameplan, tried to play the body early in the game, wear them down a little bit. Seemed like we came out a little bit slow, but once we got our feet going and started playing the body a little bit those guys kind of backed off, and that’s when we stepped up and started putting some goals in,” said Wojtusik.
“It wasn't how we wrote it up but we had a little sketchy start for sure, but you know what, the guys stuck with it. We battled back. We actually had a decent second half of the first period and then in the second period we played pretty well and that's kind of just been us all year. Nothing has come easy for these guys, they have to work for everything and we battled back in the second. Got it tied up, and then the rest is history,” said Scott Cunningham.
He chuckled, “I’ve probably been a part of, I mean, I don't even know, probably 30 shootouts over the years and I don't think I’ve ever gone that far in a shootout so it was a nail-biter for sure,” he proclaimed.
Bighorns goalie Keaton French stopped 20 of the 23 shots on him in the win, while Tradesmen goalie Tyler Fromolz made 24 saves in the loss.
“Ty Moore went down, I'm guessing, but he was maybe our seventh or eighth shooter, he goes down and Ty can skate but one thing about Ty, He can shoot it. And he let a hard wrist shot go top left corner and then obviously they had one more opportunity to get it tied back up in the shootout. They missed. Keaton French made a big save and uh, gave us the two points,” said Cunningham.
A round-robin format with two pools has been implemented, with the top two teams in each pool advancing to the Semi-Finals, where they will then cross over to play the other top two teams from the other pool. The winners of the Semi-Finals will advance to the Fraser Cup Championship Game.
The six teams that advanced to the Fraser Cup Championship Tournament were seeded 1-5 based on their division’s performance against other divisions at the NA3HL Showcase. The sixth-seeded Granite City Lumberjacks were awarded the wild card this year.
“100% this is a team effort, Damon Hansen was a player that played for me years ago with the Helena Bighorns. Damon coached this team last year, he brought them to this same championship tournament, and a lot of the credit goes to him last year and a lot of the credit should go to him this year, he’s done a great job and its pretty cool for him to be back, in back to back years,” Cunningham said.
When asked about his team’s success, assistant head coach Damon Hanson said, “They’re the ones that go out and execute the plays and work extremely hard but it's Scott and I’s job to keep them in line and make sure they understand that there's a bigger picture, we’re just focusing on one game at a time.”
Hanson, who has coached the Helena Bighorns since 2018, reestablished how the Bighorns are able to bring so much positivity and success to Helena.
“Scott and I are never satisfied…we want to win but it's one game at a time. Each win is a success, obviously, you need to win Hockey games but as soon as you win, you have to let it go. It's just short-term memory in the playoffs and just let it go and move on to the next day, next game,” remarked Hanson. “We didn't want to put our faith in somebody else’s hands, we just wanted to go in and we wanted to win the series,” he said.
“If we win, we play in the semi-finals and that's all we're telling our group, we have to go out there and win another Hockey game to stay alive. So, day off today, game tomorrow, and we’ll move forward with that, uh, we want to be here Sunday at 3 o'clock," proclaimed Hanson.
“We want a ring so, we're hoping to bring back the Fraser Cup to Helena, we have been going for it the whole year, and hopefully we can make that happen,” Wojtusik said.
The Bighorns will rest Thursday before facing the Northeast Generals at 6 p.m. on Friday. All games can be seen on HockeyTV.