The BeNeLiga a joint Belgian/Dutch league that started in 2015/16 and this season had 12 teams participating (5 Belgian and 7 Dutch teams). Contrary to the year before Eindhoven Kemphanen and Den Bosch Red Eagles were forced to withdraw but the league saw a new face with Belgian first division team Mechelen Golden Sharks making the jump to the top level of hockey in these neighbouring countries.
The Flyers Heerenveen have been a traditional powerhouse having reached the BeNeLiga final in each of the last four seasons. This season’s finale was a repeat of the inaugural edition and once again Herentals came out on top.
The Belgian giants lost the first game of the series which was decided on penalty shots; 2-1. Veteran forward Ronald Wurm converted to give Heerenveen the lead in a game dominated by both goaltenders. Sjoerd Idzenga for Heerenveen and Kevin van Looveren of Herentals.
The goaltender duel continued in Game 2, with both goalies performing heroics until the 36th minute when Herentals imports player Preston Shupe broke the deadlock. From then on the momentum shifted and just over one minute later, Herentals had run out to a comfortable 3-0 lead thanks to goals of Vincent and Mitch Morgan.
Heerenveen switched gears in the final period scoring two goals but eventually had to swallow an empty net goal of Vincent Morgan in a 5-2 loss.
33-Year old Vincent Morgan has been instrumental in this season’s success for Herentals. The older brother of team mate Mitch Morgan resumed his career after taking a one-year hiatus due to personal reasons but showed he is still one of Belgium’s best players. A veteran of 12 World Championships, Morgan recorded 56 points in 20 regular season games and led his team in goals (8) during the playoffs.
With the series tied in the best-of-five, Game 3 in Heerenveen would decide who would be gaining the first match point. Similar to Game 2, it was Herentals who struck with venom scoring three unanswered goals within the first seven minutes of the game.
Once again Heerenveen was forced to play catch-up hockey and they did so admirably but even despite a brace from Jasper Nordemann, the team never was able to overcome the three-goal deficit.
Preston Shupe broke Dutch hearts when his power play goal made it 3-5 close before the end of the second period. Herentals continued to put pressure on the Heerenveen net and ran out to 3-8 lead before Marco Postma capped the scoring 4-8.
With the title up for grabs, Herentals nostalgic Bloso Centrum Netepark (outdoor rink with a distinct netted roof) was packed with 1,525 spectators.
Once again Vincent Morgan came up big, scoring the first goal midway the first period. He added a second five seconds before the buzzer putting Herentals in pole position for their second BeNeLiga title.
Youngster Ben Coolen extended the lead before any of Heerenveen’s hopes of a comeback were dashed when Adam Bezak saw his penalty shot saved by Kevin van Looveren.
With the crowd roaring, Vincent Morgan delivered the icing on the cake converting on an empty net opportunity to complete his hat trick and make it 4-0.
“Herentals deserved the victory and the title,” Flyers Heerenveen coach Mike Nason commented afterwards. “In this series we lacked firepower up front, something we’ve been struggled with this season.”
Despite the lack of firepower, Heerenveen did win a regular season that was more competitive than ever before. The first four teams were just five points apart from each other with HIJS Hokij The Hague and Nijmegen Devils not far behind it giving the league a genuine top-6 for the first time in history.
It made up for an exciting playoff run for both finalists. The quarter-finals proved no problem with both Heerenveen and Herentals completing the best-of-three in two games. Heerenveen overpowered the Zoetermeer Panters by a combined score of 14-2, whilst Herentals took out a pesky Chiefs Leuven side with a combined 9-2 score.
Tougher opposition was coming in the semi-finals. Heerenveen faced fourth seed Bulldogs Liege and had their experience count for them. Ronald Wurm scored twice in a 4-2 home victory while Marco Postma was instrumental with two assists in a 3-5 away win.
Herentals needed three games to get to the final playing against an enthusiastic Eaters Geleen team that had made a name for itself to be streaky.
Game 1 turned out to be an emotional roller coaster game in which Herentals took the lead twice before the Eaters Geleen took over but eventually were unable to defend a lead of their own three times. When the dust had settled, Herentals travelled with a 6-7 victory after an Emiel Goris overtime winner.
The Eaters Geleen were not mentally devastated by the sorry loss in game 1 and came up strong again the next day in game 2 in Herentals. This time it were the Belgians who squandered a lead three times before Nick Verschuren restored parity with an overtime goal to force an all-decisive third goal.
It was playoff hockey at its best in Game 3, something the BeNeLiga has been lacking for a long time.
Herentals ran out to a convincing 3-0 lead after the first period, but Geleen were not giving up yet and when Nick Verschuren scored a power play goal to make it 5-4 with just under three minutes left to play, the game was setting up for yet another grand finale.
Despite pulling their goalie, Herentals withstood the pressure and Vincent Morgan, him again, stuck the dagger in Geleen’s heart with an empty net goal with 15 seconds left to play.
One of the pillars underneath Herentals’ successful 2018/19 season has been their roster consistency together with sticking to the policy that was set up after winning their first BeNeLiga title.
This year’s roster is virtually identical to last year’s with the only changes being a change of imports – Preston Shupe (39 goals and 75 points) and Kyle Brothers (58 assists and 94 points) both proved to be gems while veteran Peter Bartek replaced Trevor Hunt who left for Heerenveen. The roster was further rejuvenated by an influx of youth players who took full advantage of the return of “mentor” Vincent Morgan and made significant strides in their development.
Despite the success, he does not see any reason to change the strategy. “We will continue to focus on youth and still see plenty of room for improvement of the current set of rookies that were doing so well this season. Therefore we will not consider moving to the German league like the Tilburg Trappers have done. We remain a semi-professionally run team.“
The fact that the U16 team of Herentals won the Belgian championship this season proves that the future is looking bright for them.
Aside from the BeNeLiga, both countries also have several domestic competitions namely the domestic championship (Final Four style) and the domestic cup championship.
In Belgium Herentals was a class of their own. The Belgian Cup final against Bulldogs Liege was decided by a late third goal of Preston Shupe that broke a scoreless game.
The Belgian championship saw both teams meet in the final again but this time Herentals had less trouble finding the net, defeating their rivals 8-2.
North of the border, the Nijmegen Devils resurged back to front winning both the Dutch Cup and Dutch Championship. The former stronghold has come off a number of mediocre seasons and even had to operate on the second level due to financial challenges. With their victories they gave a signal of life and with the already announced new player acquisitions for next year expect to be challenging for the prizes in the near future.
With the season concluded the attention will shift to the upcoming IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship events for both countries.
Belgium will be looking to secure their spot in the Division IIA, travelling to Serbia with a young roster, half of which being 20 years of age. They will face Croatia, Australia, China, Serbia and Spain as of April 9.
Dutch head coach Doug Mason will be anxiously following the German Oberliga playoff series in which Tilburg Trappers reached the semi-finals. A potential finals appearance could mean the Tilburg players would not be available in time for when the Netherlands start their Division IB return in Estonia and would severely impact the selection options for Mason.
No less than 15 players that captured the gold medal in Division IIA last year are playing for the Tilburg Trappers, which means Mason will need to prepare for two scenario’s ahead of the tournament that starts 28th April and will see the Dutch try to avoid immediately relegation back to Division IIA against Estonia, Poland, Japan, Ukraine and Romania.