A trip to the Canadian men’s university basketball championship was the goal for the Winnipeg Wesmen in the early 1990s.
Head coach Bill Wedlake led the Wesmen to nationals three straight seasons – 1991-92, 1992-93 and 1993-94 – but a WP McGee Trophy celebration in Halifax was mentioned in each of his teams.
“The first time you’re out there, you’re not sure what this thing is. The second year, you have a little bit of confidence. The third year should be the culmination of that, and it didn’t necessarily work out,” Wendlake said by phone from his cottage in Noping Provincial Park.
Twenty-nine years after the Wesmen last competed in the eight-team national championship tournament, they are returning to Halifax.
And Wedlake, who spent 16 seasons coaching the men’s hoops team before becoming the school’s athletic director, is among those excited to see his old team back in the spotlight.
“I’m very, very happy. I know the coach, Mike Raimbault, very well and I’m happy for the team. I’m happy for the university. I’m happy for Mike,” Wedlake said.
He was in both of Winnipeg’s Canada West Conference playoff wins last month — a 87-84 win over the Brandon Bobcats in triple overtime on Feb. 18 and a nail 73-70 triumph over the Manitoba Bisons on February 25.
The Wesmen victory over their cross-town rivals earned them a conference title berth for the first time since joining the Canada West more than 20 years ago, and more importantly a spot at the U Sports nationals.
Winnipeg lost 95-80 to host University of Victoria Vikes last Friday, settling for Canada West silver.
“We did very well”
Like his former coach, former All-Canadian (one of the highest accolades for university athletes) and fellow Basketball Manitoba Hall of Famer Norm Froemel is looking forward to watching the Wesmen compete on the national stage again.
Froemel, 50, was an integral member of all three Winnipeg teams that played in the nationals in the early 1990s before venturing to Germany for seven years of professional hoops.
The seven-foot center was named a national tournament all-star in 1992, but the Wesmen fell short of the finals, losing 88-66 to the Saint Mary’s Huskies in the semifinals.
Winnipeg returned to nationals via a wild-card berth in 1993, but went 0-2.
The Wesmen punched a third straight ticket to nationals after knocking off both the Bisons and Bobcats in the GPAC playoffs.
“It was tough to compete for sure and when you win the right it’s definitely sweeter because you know there’s only one team that’s guaranteed,” Froemel said. “The way to do it, to go there, is through a winning opportunity, and when you got to Halifax it was a whole other level.”
Led by national player of the year and two-time All-Canadian Jeff Foreman, Winnipeg opened their 1994 national tournament with an 89-78 victory over the Cape Breton Capers. Foreman and guard Rob Derksen each scored 19 points, with Fromel leading the Wesmen with 24 points against the Capers.
The Wesmen got off to a cold start in the semifinal against the McMaster Marauders, mustering just 13 points in the opening 13 minutes.
Winnipeg cut to within three early in the second half, but couldn’t get any closer and lost 75-66.
Foreman finished with 22 points in the final game of his college career and Fromel was held to 13 points.
“You always wish you could have done better. There are always games you think about … but really there can only be one winner, unfortunately, and there are too many teams that don’t have that feeling,” Froemel said.
Despite falling short of a national championship, Froemel looks back and is proud of what he and his Wesmen teammates have accomplished.
“It’s the sense of accomplishment of making it that far, which is always the best thing you can think of at the time. You’re never happy and years later you realize, hey, we did pretty well,” Froemel said.
He says he keeps in touch with members of that 1993-94 season, including Wedlake and forwards Chris Chartier and Steve Newton, all three of whom were in Winnipeg’s semifinal win over Manitoba.
“The older you get, the more we want to do [hang out], and we talk about memories and we talk about all kinds of things. Basketball games are a great reason to go and get out there and watch some basketball and talk about old times as well,” Froemel said.
The Wesmen men will try to do what the Wesmen women’s team did last year — reach the national final.
Winnipeg’s quest for a first national championship in program history begins Friday at noon with a quarterfinal game against the University of Ontario champion Ottawa Gee-Gees at the Scotiabank Centre.
Ottawa defeated Winnipeg 70-61 in the Wesmen Classic final on December 30.
Every game from Halifax will be streamed live on CBCSports.ca, the CBC Sports app and CBC Gem.