Locker clear out is the most melancholy day for all but one team — the champion.
The graduating Victoria Royals said their goodbyes, and the returnees looked ahead, on Friday morning following the completion of the second-round sweep by the Vancouver Giants the night before in the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Griffen Outhouse, who leaves as No. 7 on the all-time WHL list for career victories by a goaltender, soaked in his final few moments in a dressing room he has known as home the last four seasons.
“It’s weird thinking that it’s all over,” said the native of Likely, B.C.
“I’ve grown up into a man here. It’s been a great experience. The only thing I will not miss about Victoria are the ferry rides.”
None of the Royals’ three graduating 20-year-olds — Outhouse, defenceman Ralph Jarratt or forward Kody McDonald — was drafted by an NHL team or yet been signed to a free-agent pro contract.
“I want to play at the highest level possible,” said Outhouse, of his future path.
But that’s for tomorrow. This was more a time of reflection.
“Lots of memories, lots of friendships,” said fifth-year Royals blue-liner Jarratt, who practically willed himself to return from injury to play in Thursday’s elimination Game 4 against the Giants.
Jarratt said he only wishes he could have helped extend the series so McDonald, sitting out the last game of a six-game suspension, could have ended his junior career on the ice instead of watching from the press box.
“It’s not how you want your [junior] career to end and there was a lot of high emotion,” said McDonald, obtained in January from Prince Albert in the trade that sent veteran Royals forward Dante Hannoun to the Raiders.
“But what happened [suspension] happened and you have to move on.”
With 15 to 16 Royals players eligible to return, there are high hopes for next season after placing second in the B.C. Division this season.
“We made the second round of the playoffs in four of my five seasons in Victoria and I’m proud of that,” said Jarratt.
“We don’t believe in rebuilds. Dave [former Victoria head coach Dave Lowry] said that when I first got here. There is a good core group coming back next season.”
Jarratt won’t be part of it but wishes the returnees well.
“I believe we are going to be a team to beat next season,” said returning forward Carson Miller, who broke out with five goals in 10 playoff games.
Danish import forward Phillip Schultz led the Royals in playoff scoring after regular-season leading scorer Kaid Oliver missed the playoffs to continue an injury refrain to key players that has haunted the Royals in recent post-seasons.
“I developed as a player and am excited for next season,” said Schultz.
Much rests on the status of blue-line standout Scott Walford, an unsigned third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens. If he returns next season as a 20-year-old, the Royals look to be set.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen. But if I am returned to junior, I would be OK with that. This is going to be a good group next season,” said Walford.
But if this is it for his junior career, it’s been a great ride, he added: “These have been the best four years of my life.”
Royals GM Cam Hope confirmed that head coach Dan Price will be returning for a third season.
“Everybody thought we would be retooling this season, but this turned into an interesting and special group,” said Hope.
But one that again hit the wall in the second round. The B.C. Division and Western Conference regular-season champion Giants finished 29 points ahead of the Royals and it showed, even though two of the games in the series went to overtime.
The Giants, who won a playoff series for the first time in nine years after dispatching Seattle 4-2 in the first round, have advanced to the Conference final for the first time since 2009-10. Vancouver missed the playoffs four times since 2010. That gives teams high bantam draft picks but the Giants missed a cycle when the Tyler Benson era didn’t pan out for them. But now the Bowen Byram era has, and in a big way.
“There are people who believe in [major-junior hockey] that you have to tank and then rebuild, but we don’t,” said Hope.
The Royals’ mantra under seven seasons of Hope has been to be competitive every year.
“We’ll saddle up and try it again,” he said.
The Royals, who bested the B.C. third-seed Kamloops Blazers 4-2 in the first round, have made the playoffs each year and advanced to the second round five times since the franchise moved to the Island in 2011-12. Victoria, however, kept alive its streak of going no further and are 0-9 in second-round playoff games dating back to Game 7 against the Kelowna Rockets in 2017.