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Pontiacs celebrate the "year of firsts"

A three-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs. The first season where a team made the Canadian Junior Hockey League's top 20 rankings. And an Alberta Junior Hockey League defenceman of the year award.

A three-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs. The first season where a team made the Canadian Junior Hockey League's top 20 rankings. And an Alberta Junior Hockey League defenceman of the year award. Those were just some of the things that were recognized and celebrated during Saturday's Bonnyville Jr. “A” Pontiacs banquet.

Even with a quarter of the roster missing in action for a number of different reasons, Saturday's awards banquet recognizing the accomplishments of the Pontiacs remained an event to highlight the highs and lows of this season. It was also a chance to recognize other aspects to the organization's success, from the billets and media right to the volunteers.

“We have very special people that take care of the players, give them nice warm homes, and feed them during their tenure here in Bonnyville, and we would like to recognize them,” said Pontiacs president Don Sydora on the billets.

For the families that hosted the team's players, the players showed their appreciation by providing the billets with a corsage and a player picture from the season. This year's faithful volunteers were the recipients of team photos.

Along with giving the president's message, Sydora was also the developer of the slideshow that attendees got to enjoy. Highlighted in the presentation were some of the finer moments to the season, from the goals and saves during the season to the fundraiser for the Bonnyville Health Foundation and the Pontiacs “Classic,” where the team had their practice on the Fort Kent outdoor rink.

“As you can see, we had a great group of individuals that entertained us from game one to 60,” said Sydora. “We enjoyed your play, integrity, and efforts.”

The slideshow ended with a tribute to the late Matt Cook, who was playing for the Pontiacs during the 2005-2006 season before being diagnosed with bone cancer. It was complete with the song Forever Young by Jay Z, which Cook requested prior to his death.

Sydora concluded his president's message by addressing the individuals responsible for the hockey operations. Showing appreciation to how coaches Chad Mercier and Ryan Pollock worked “like clockwork,” he said they are a major reason why the development of the team during a season is successful. Sydora also gave mentions to team trainer Kim Sydora, board members, corporate partners, and medical personnel.

In reflecting over the season, Mercier's main point was in the form of a question that gets asked within the organization constantly: ‘what is success?'

“I think we all build and put the effort in to be where Spruce Grove is one day: playing for a Doyle Cup championship. I don't think you can take one giant leap and get there, but because we're not, I have to ask the question,” explained Mercier. “It's our players, board, billets, volunteers, and corporate sponsors…I think we have to take pride in the work that we put in to raise the expectations by everyone involved to eventually bring a championship to Bonnyville.”

In discussing the team's successes this season, he included the fourth visit to the second round of the AJHL playoffs in franchise history, which came thanks to a 3-0 series win over Sherwood Park. On the road to that sweep, the Pontiacs were at one point ranked sixth nationally. And during the season, the fine play by Matthew Register made him the first defenceman in franchise history to receive the league's top defenceman award.

Within the community itself the Pontiacs have been heavily involved, from helping with the C-School program at the Centennial Centre to providing anti-bullying and drug presentations and manning Bonnyville's intersections to ensure a safe Halloween night for trick-or-treaters. Through a jersey auction, the Pontiacs were able to make $10,000 for the Bonnyville Health Foundation.

In terms of players pursuing education, this last season there were two full-time college students and others were preparing for the standardized achievement tests for National Collegiate Athletic Association entry.

Six players are leaving the Pontiacs organization this year – five are at graduating age and one is going to school with one year of eligibility left. All the graduates received a framed photo from their junior hockey days.

Dane Lindskog (not in attendance) arrived to Bonnyville at the trade deadline this season after playing most of the junior career in Humboldt. Alias Kalinsky returned to the Pontiacs after being traded two seasons ago. Shawn Bates, Ross Herzog and Register all spent more than two seasons with the franchise, and team captain and Lucas Isley finished his fifth season.

“One thing we talk to the players about is when you leave the program, what kind of legacy you're leaving,” said Mercier. “For these players, there are things players no players coming through this program have done before. You guys have accomplished more than any other Bonnyville Pontiac has ever done…What you have done is raised the bar for us so we can get better.”

Coining this season the “year of firsts,” Mercier said that more firsts are wanted starting next year.

A total of 11 awards were presented to eight of this season's players. Three awards were presented to Register, including top scorer, top defenceman, and the most game stars. Goaltender Julien Laplante was the recipient of the two most valuable player awards, which encompassed both the regular season and post season.

Dubbed the wrecking ball by radio commentator Robb Hunter, Kevin Carthy was considered this season's most improved player, and was also a co-recipient of the rookie of the year award with Dante Borelli. A new recipient was crowned the most gentlemanly player this year in Tyler Henry, and the defensive forward award was presented to Devon Kalinski. Rookie Jake Towriss received the Matt Cook Unsung Hero designation, and the president's award was given to Lucas Isley.

The last award presented annually is the Ma Hebert award, which is presented to the best supporter of the Pontiacs. This year, the recipient was not just a board member for the Pontiacs, but was also a coach at the minor hockey level. For being involved in every aspect of the Pontiacs organization at some point during her time of involvement, Shirley Hordal was this year's recipient.