This year, they’re chasing after the Calder Cup, the American Hockey League’s most coveted trophy. But for those players who have passed through the Canadian major junior hockey ranks, it wasn’t that long ago that they were in pursuit of an equally sought-after trophy: the Memorial Cup.
Long a symbol of junior hockey supremacy, the Memorial Cup may be second only to the Stanley Cup in prestige among many Canadians. The Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights have players and a coach who have hoisted junior hockey’s prized chalice. They’re hoping to tap into that championship vein again in the AHL.
Forward Brandon Prust is one of the most recently anointed Memorial Cup champions. Last season, he and his teammates with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League steamrolled their way to the regular season championship. They posted a 32-game unbeaten streak on their way to a 59-7-2-0 record and 120 points, 30 points better than their closest pursuer.
When the Knights went to the Memorial Cup, they didn’t have to go far. The tournament was held in London, Ont., which is also Prust’s hometown. The added attention of being Memorial Cup favorites didn’t faze Prust or his teammates.
“We got used to the attention right from the start of the season when we went on the 32-game unbeaten streak, so all the media wasn’t a big change for us,” said Prust. “We were ready for it and had pretty much been trained for it the whole year. We were also expecting a lot because Sidney Crosby was in it with us, and the NHL was [locked out]. So a lot of focus was on junior hockey, and all of Canada was watching us.”
Crosby and his Rimouski Oceanic teammates were indeed there in the championship game, but they were quickly vanquished by the Knights, who scored four minutes into the game en route to a 4-0 win and one of the most dominating season-long performances in Canadian junior history.
Just a year prior, another Ak-Sar-Ben Knight had a chance to hoist the Cup. Defenseman Brett Palin was in his fourth year with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League during the 2003-04 season. Since joining the WHL in 1995, the Rockets had never developed a reputation as a powerhouse, but that began to change before and during Palin’s tenure. It was cemented when the Rockets won the Memorial Cup in front of a hometown crowd.
“We actually lost to Everett in the [WHL’s] Western Conference finals and the only reason we got to go is because we had a bye (for being the host team),” said Palin. “We had two weeks off while all the other teams in the tournament were playing in the finals of their leagues, so we got a chance to rest up.
“In the final game, we got to play against Gatineau, and it was a tough game,” he recalled. “They scored with about 10 minutes to go in the third period to go up 1-0 and fortunately, we scored two goals to win 2-1.”
Omaha head coach Ryan McGill has been a Memorial Cup champion both as a player and coach. In 1988, he and the Medicine Hat Tigers became one of only a handful of teams to win back-to-back Cups.
McGill says that team’s championship mettle, forged under the tutelage of coach Barry Melrose, came about during late December of that season. The Tigers had lost several of their top players to the World Junior Championships. Seemingly compounding their troubles was the fact that the Tigers hadn’t been playing well prior to the roster changes. But the team promptly got hot, running off a six-game win streak.
“The younger guys who had never been through it before kind of understood that, ‘Hey, we’re an important part of this team and when these guys get back, we’re going to do our best,’” McGill remembers.
“From January first, we kind of took off again,” he said. “It’s very hard to repeat as champion, but I think that we had enough guys who weren’t there the year before who didn’t dwell too much on that pressure.”
In the final game, Medicine Hat fell behind 3-0 before the game was 12 minutes old but rallied to beat the Windsor Spitfires, 7-6.
“It says a lot about the character of that team,” McGill said. “It was a very close-knit team and to this day, I still talk to and am very good friends with a lot of them.”
In 2002, McGill was behind the bench of the Kootenay Ice. Two years before, he had led his team to the Memorial Cup tournament in Halifax, N.S., where it went 0-3. The Ice made the most of their return, hoisting the Cup with a 6-3 win over Victoriaville. Fourteen years after winning the Memorial Cup with Medicine Hat, McGill had a different perspective on his second win.
“Winning as a player is special, but you never really realize what kind of work goes into it,” he said. “As a player, you just play, and you don’t think about those things. As a coach, it’s that much sweeter because you know what kind of an effort goes into preparing.
“To get there, you start out with 59 teams in all three leagues. To be down to the top two teams at the end of the day, it’s pretty special.”
It’s a position McGill and his team hopes to be in at the end of this AHL season.