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Rachac Column: Bulls were success story on ice in 2002-03
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Following Game 4 of the Borne Cup finals at Metra, I approached Billings Bulls' defenseman Dan Knapp outside the team's dressing room seeking a quick interview and some wise words.

I reached out my right hand to Knapp, offering a shake after the Bulls' 2-1 loss in that game which evened the America West Hockey League championship series with the Bismarck Bobcats.

Curiously, Knapp did not return his. It's not that Knapp wouldn't shake my hand. After taking a hard slash to the hand at some point during the game, he simply couldn't.

But Knapp's comments that day were ones of a true captain, laced with optimism and a promise for harder work ahead.

That moment seemed to sum up the entire Bulls' season in a nutshell. There were adverse moments, but when it all came down the team had enough toughness and character to meet almost any challenge head on.

They didn't win the Borne Cup and they didn't win the Junior A national title. So what? In 2002-03, the Bulls were a success story from start to finish.

At the beginning of the season, the Bulls set three team goals - to win the AWHL's regular season title, to claim the Borne Cup playoff championship and to win the Gold Cup Junior A national tournament.

Only one of those goals, the regular season championship, came to pass. But hey, one out of three isn't bad. And at a level where winning is certainly not everything, the Bulls did so much more.

They sent players on the Division I college level, developed others into some of the best in the league and along the way made personnel decisions unmatched by any other team in the AWHL.

"We had a very successful year," Billings head coach and GM Mike Aikens said recently. "To keep it together the way we did for seven months was just phenomenal."

Right now, Aikens is just wrapping up coaching and scouting duties at the Rocky Mountain District camp in Phoenix, Ariz., already beginning the process of putting together the blueprint for next year's team.

But looking back on the season that was, Aikens is absolutely right, and all those associated with Bulls hockey have to feel the same way.

The Bulls enhanced their reputation as the AWHL's top organization. They won the regular season championship in dramatic fashion on home ice with a win over Bismarck in the final game of the season, guaranteeing them a spot at the national tournament.

They marched through the first round of the playoffs, won a Game 7 blowout against upstart Helena in the second round and were in great shape to beat Bismarck in the finals. As for winning the Borne Cup, the opportunity was there.

And despite squandering a golden chance to take a stranglehold in the finals series they eventually lost, the Bulls kept battling.

A week after the finals, the team entered the Gold Cup tournament in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., with hopes of winning it all. A tough, 3-2 overtime loss to eventual-champion Pittsburgh in the opening game could have derailed the team. But the next day Billings topped Bismarck in the third-place game in overtime when John Stockler buried a rebound in overtime.

Revenge was theirs in a fitting ending to the final game of the season.

Let's focus on some other things the organization did well during the season. Skilled two-way forward Brian Reese, who came to the Bulls after a stint in the USHL, signed to play at Air Force midway through the season. Treye Kettwick, named the league's goaltender of the year, committed to play at Army.

And most recently Knapp, probably the best all-around defenseman in the AWHL, has been offered a D-I scholarship to play at Nebraska-Omaha of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, which he is strongly considering.

Improving the team on the fly is something else Aikens and assistant coaches Derek Eisler and Al Bloomer were able to do. Don't forget - the Bulls started the season without their top-scoring forward, Steve Canter.

But early on in the year, Aikens made the wise decision to give Canter a roster spot back after Canter failed to meet the coach's expectations a season before.

What Canter gave in return was a 30-goal season, an MVP performance in the playoffs (15 goals, 9 assists) and a recommitment to a physical style of play that brought out the best in his game.

At the January trading deadline, Aikens made other additions that gave the team more toughness and leadership. One was the pickup of power forward Joel Gasper from the USHL's Lincoln Stars. Gasper gave Billings more size and grit and another threat to put the puck in the net. Also brought over were solid, stay-at-home defensemen Matt Palmer and Brett Fox, who helped turn an essentially thin defense into a deep one.

And Dan McNabb was brought over from Bozeman in a trade for puck-moving defenseman Clay Rehm and rugged forward Andy Blaszak. McNabb, a guy Aikens dubbed a "godsend," became the locker room presence the Bulls lacked, and also supplied a knack for being the ultimate agitator, getting under the opponents' skin all while doing the little things that help his team win.

These acquisitions helped make up for losses of other players like forwards Kevin Smith and Joe Eichstadt, who left the team at different points during the year.

"You look at it, and we had lost some pretty good players," said Aikens, who had coveted McNabb for a long time. "People questioned our trades last year (most notably the Tarik Yumusaklar-for-Justin Huth deal). And whether or not people thought those trades worked out, you have to look at the moves we made this year."

Very true.

As for next season, the future looks bright already. Players like Stockler, Gasper, the team's rookie of the year Matt Charbonneau, Brett Watson, D.J. Yarber and Tyler Truax, among others, could potentially all return. Aikens, a defensive-minded coach who demands the best from his players, also has pledged to be back.

And next year's goals will be the same as always for the Bulls - to hang banners from the Metra rafters. Based on what we've seen over the years, you can bet the team will be right there at the end, meeting any challenge head on.

Greg Rachac is a Gazette sports writer. can be reached at 657-1291 or