The Winkler Flyers are Manitoba Junior Hockey League champions for the first time since 1998.

The 26-year drought came to an end in dramatic fashion Friday night in front of a full-house at the Centennial Arena.

Zach Nicolas scored the most memorable goal of his junior career during a two-man advantage 4:59 into overtime to lift Winkler past the Steinbach Pistons 5-4.

The Flyers swept the best-of-seven final and instantly sent their 1,200 fans into celebration mode.

“It was incredible,” said Winkler captain Trent Penner who received the Turnbull Cup from MJHL commissioner Kevin Saurette. “It didn’t really feel real when we scored that overtime winner. We worked so hard all year and it’s so awesome to be able to do this with this great group of guys we got.”


It took just 13 seconds after puck drop for the home team to get on the board as Dalton Andrew potted his fourth of the playoffs.

The Pistons got the equalizer as Connor Paronuzzi scored before the two-and-a-half-minute mark of the opening period.

The defending champions grabbed a 2-1 lead when Jackson Kostiuk scored midway through the opening frame.

That lead didn't last long as Brody Beauchemin drew the Flyers even 15 seconds later.

Jayce Legaarden’s shorthanded breakaway goal with 14 seconds remaining in the period gave Winkler a 3-2 lead after 20 minutes.

Avery Anderson scored the only goal of the second period which extended the Flyers lead to 4-2.

The Pistons comeback started when James Fuchs found the back of the net at 9:42 of the third period.

Then with goaltender Cole Plowman on the bench for an extra attacker, Steinbach defenseman Parker Jasper scored with 39 seconds left in regulation and evened the score at 4-4.

“You know to be honest, having that game get tied up was probably good for us,” noted Winkler head coach Justin Falk. “We were awfully nervous and a bit passive in our forecheck structure. We were on our heels in a barn of 1,300 knowing what’s at stake but we’ve known time-after-time our approach and how we can stay with our game when it leads to overtime, and we were able to be resilient and push through again.”

Pistons defenseman Spencer Penner received a slashing minor at 3:57 of overtime and then fellow blueliner David Cote was assessed a high sticking penalty 16 seconds later.

Steinbach’s reign as MJHL champions came to an end just before the five-minute mark of OT.

“It’s still a huge shock,” replied Zach Nicolas when asked about his game four winner during the on-ice celebration. “I can’t believe it. It just popped right in front of the net, and I was able to get it in. I’m still shocked.”

It was back-to-back overtime victories for the Flyers.

Lucas Ens potted the winner in game three Tuesday night in Niverville.

Pistons netminder Cole Plowman made 25 saves while Malachi Klassen stopped 31 shots in net for Winkler.

“It’s incredible especially being from here with two fellow Winkler boys in Trent Penner and Lucas Ens,” said Klassen who was named the playoff MVP. “It’s special with all these fans here in the last game in this building probably ever. For them to show up like that and our team to get the job done, it couldn’t have ended any better. I’m so proud of the guys. That’s incredible.”

Steinbach swept the Niverville Nighthawks in four straight in round one of the playoffs and then went the distance in round two against the OCN Blizzard in the semifinals.

The Pistons played 11 games in 22 days in April after eliminating the Nighthawks.

“We just felt like we weren’t the best version of us,” said Steinbach head coach Paul Dyck. “Not to take away anything from what Winkler did, I think they came in a very desperate team. They learned from last year's playoff loss to us, and I thought they were the hungrier team for the series. I think for our guys it’s a great learning lesson. It’s a painful one right now. For the young guys this is going to be very beneficial moving forward. It’s a very close group in there and I think that’s the one thing that they’ll always have is the relationships that come out of this year.”

“It certainly stings right now,” added coach Dyck. “Going into it they felt like they were going to be in Oakville at some point. I think maybe not everybody fully comprehended how difficult that is. The game changes once you get to the playoffs and I don’t think we fully adjusted.”

“What a grind,” said coach Falk. “The first round versus Blake (coach Spiller) and the Portage Terriers – a big physical team with some of the top defensemen in the league that we had to break through and make adjustments. We transition into Virden and that series. A grind of being down 2-1 with double overtimes, quad overtimes and having to change our game and adjust versus a more skill speed team and now to transition towards Paul’s group in Steinbach which he’s got an incredible standard that he holds day-in and day-out, year-after-year. We knew it would be a tough match-up. A few bounces our way in some games and it could go different ways at different moments. Just proud of our group.”

The Flyers will represent the Manitoba Junior Hockey League at the 2024 Centennial Cup National Junior A Hockey Championship from May 9th-19th in Oakville, Ontario.

“What an exciting moment for these guys,” remarked Falk. “I remember back in my junior days, when I was in the Western Hockey League we actually swept the finals as well too and you got a long period of time here now where you got to manage your bodies and manage your emotions and stay within your detail and structure because before you know it we get there and we probably play four games in six days and it can happen fast. This is a mature, resilient group that seems to be for the most part handling every obstacle that gets thrown their way. We’re excited about the week ahead of us but we’re going to enjoy this moment of the next 24-48 hours.”