HALIFAX — Not long ago, Prince Albert Raiders coach Marc Habscheid would lead his team out to a near empty building for a Western Hockey League game.
Sometimes his players were even ridiculed by the opposition simply for being part of the organization.
It can happen to a small-market franchise with a 34-year WHL championship drought.
"Maybe it was announced as 2,000 fans but some nights 1,200 people. Trainer and I would count and there'd be one or two people in a section," said Habscheid.
"But that's OK because we had to earn their respect back."
The Raiders haven't won a Memorial Cup since 1985 and will have to try again after bowing out of the four-team tournament on Wednesday with a 5-2 loss to the Ontario Hockey League champion Guelph Storm.
But a 2019 WHL title and a season mostly spent as the No. 1-ranked club in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League certainly changed the culture in Prince Albert, Sask., — a city of 35,000 about 140 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.
The Raiders' home arena, the Art Hauser Centre, has 2,591 seats, plus 708 standing-only spots. For a long time, only the most loyal fans would be in attendance.
Crowds grew this season, though, as the team kept winning.
By the time Prince Albert's Game 7 showdown against the Vancouver Giants for the WHL title had approached, fans were camping outside for tickets and running to get the best standing spots in the house. Attendance was announced at 3,289 for the Raiders' championship victory on home ice.
"You had to get milk crates and step ladders for people to see," said Habscheid.
Winning has been hard to come by since 1985 in Prince Albert, especially in the last 20 years. The Raiders' last division title was 1999. In the last 13 seasons, Prince Albert missed the playoffs seven times and was eliminated in the first round the other six times.
Habscheid is the 14th coach to be behind the bench since Terry Simpson led the Raiders to their only national championship.
"We're proud of what we accomplished back home, put a small-market team like Prince Albert back on the map again like they belong," said captain Brayden Pachal.
"We have banners in the rafters again."
Forward Sean Montgomery played five full seasons with the Raiders and ends his junior career as their leader in games played with 345 — a number that will likely never be broken.
"Two years ago almost dead last in the league, now we're (WHL) champions," said Montgomery. "It'll be pretty weird not putting (my jersey) on anymore."
Habscheid took over coaching duties in 2015-16 and grinded it out up to this point with a core six deep.
Goaltender Ian Scott, defenceman Zach Hayes and forwards Spencer Moe, Cole Fonstad, Parker Kelly and Montgomery were all there the first time the new coach came through the dressing room door.
"Just a bunch of guys that got laughed at three, four years ago, sand kicked in our face, our franchise was made fun (of), players were made fun (of) ... and our midget team was better than us," said Habscheid.
"We stuck together. I told them at that time if we lose, we lose with class. This year we told them if we win, we're gonna win with class too."
Prince Albert's best season in over three decades didn't come without adversity. Raiders director of player personnel Ron Gunville died in December and longtime executive Donn Clark succumbed to cancer in March, while Habscheid also dealt with the death of his own father.
The Raiders made it to the final four in the CHL despite having only four NHL drafted or signed players on their roster. In comparison, Guelph has 11.
Kelly (Ottawa), Fonstad (Montreal), Scott (Toronto) and Noah Gregor (San Jose) will spend the summer trying to reach their NHL ambitions, with pro just around the corner. Some players will return to the WHL or graduate to a Canadian university program, but some are done for good, with men's rec league potentially being their next destination.
"No one better look down on these guys because they're a hell of a group," said Habscheid.
"It's OK to be a Raider again and they did that for the organization."
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Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press