The Memorial Cup hosts return six weeks after their last loss

Sports | by Gregory Beatty

The Regina Pats last won the Memorial Cup in 1974. When they take the ice for the 100th anniversary edition of the fabled junior hockey tournament, which runs May 18–27 in Regina, that won’t be the only bit of history the team will be confronting. There’s also an eerie parallel between this season and the last time they hosted the tournament in 2001.

Both that season, and again this year, the Pats struggled early on, which forced them to make a bunch of moves at the trade deadline. Both times, they were also bounced from the playoffs in the first round, and faced a lengthy layoff before the tournament began.

In 2001, they still managed a respectable run, winning a tie-breaker against Ottawa 67s to advance to the semi-final, where they lost 5–4 in OT to the Val d’Or Foreurs, who subsequently lost 6–5 in OT in the title game to the Red Deer Rebels.

While the Pat’s opponents in the 2018 Memorial Cup are still to be determined [see sidebar], there’s no reason to expect the team, with a boisterous home crowd behind them, won’t be a contender again. To help set the stage, we spoke with Pats play-by-play announcer Phil Andrews.

Looking Back

“It was a tough first half, there’s no doubt,” says Andrews. “You look at the great season the Pats had in 2016–17 where they set a franchise record with 52 wins. In junior hockey, when you have a season like that, you’re obviously going to have some turnover in the roster. The Pats lost four of their top six forwards, and three of their top four defencemen.”

Heading into 2017–18, the Pats had hoped to get speedy winger Austin Wagner back from the Los Angeles Kings. But once he recovered from a shoulder injury, they elected to send him to their AHL affiliate. Adam Brooks (C), Sergey Zborovskiy (D), Filip Ahl (LW/RW) and Connor Hobbs (D) were also lost through graduation or advancement to the pro ranks.

To help fill those gaps, the Pats added Matt Bradley (C) from Medicine Hat and Cale Fleury (D) from Kootenay in the off-season. But in what turned out to be a hyper-competitive WHL East Division, with Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos ranked among the top junior teams in Canada, and the Brandon Wheat Kings also enjoying a strong start, the Pats found themselves sitting fourth in the division at Christmas with a .500 record.

Changes were obviously needed, and GM/coach John Paddock made several blockbuster trades ahead of the Jan. 10 deadline.

“I wouldn’t say there were any issues with the guys who were here, they just needed to add some more high end talent,” says Andrews. “They got Cameron Hebig (C) and Libor Hájek (D) from the Saskatoon Blades, and they were incredible down the stretch. Then they added Aaron Hyman and Brady Pouteau on the back end. [Defence] was a spot the Pats wanted to get better at, so those trades were big.”

It took the revamped Pats awhile to gel but once they did, they went on a tear, losing only five games in regulation the rest of the season, and making up considerable ground on the teams ahead of them in the standings. But Moose Jaw and Swift Current bulked up at the trade deadline too, so the Pats had to settle for third place. Their reward? A first round playoff match-up against the Broncos.

Playoff Heartbreak

The Pats gave Swift Current, who are currently battling Everett Silvertips for the WHL title, all they could handle, but ultimately lost the best of seven series four games to three.

“The Pats felt really good about the series, and probably feel like they deserved to win that last game on the road,” says Andrews. “They outshot Swift 14 to 4 in the third, but couldn’t get the tying goal to force overtime and ended up losing 3–2.”

Denied the opportunity to reach the Memorial Cup through the front door as WHL champs, the Pats have faced the challenge of trying to remain physically and mentally sharp as they gear up to play in the tournament as the host team.

“Nobody wants to lose in the first round then sit for 40 days, but it’s just how it happened,” says Andrews. “It’s been a grind, where they’ve got these training blocks going where they’re on the ice for four days and then have a day off, with internal competitions and games between team members. It’s unbelievable how much work the guys have put in to stay in shape and be ready for the tournament.”

Looking Ahead

Last season, the Pats were in the position Swift Current is this year. Ultimately, they lost the WHL championship in a hard-fought six game series to the Seattle Thunderbirds. Seattle went on to underperform at the Memorial Cup, losing all three round robin games, including blow-out losses to the Windsor Spitfires 7–1 and Saint John Sea Dogs 7–0.

Judging by their performance against the Pats, says Andrews, the Thunderbirds were probably best suited to wearing an opponent down in a seven game series. But in the Memorial Cup, teams are limited to a single game against each opponent.

“It does change the complexion of the game,” says Andrews. “With a series, you have some leeway, where maybe you’re not your best in game one but you can bounce back. Not all the time, but most of the time in a seven game series, I think the best team is going to win. But in a tournament format, on any given night anything can happen. So it’s a bit of a coin flip.”

The games can still have a physical dimension to them, but there’s probably a greater premium on pure skill than in a seven game series. Looking ahead to the Memorial Cup, Andrews expects Cameron Hebig and team captain Sam Steel to be key performers.

“In the playoffs, Cam was unbelievable. He scored six goals in seven games and had eight points. And once Sam came back from the world juniors, he really took off, too. He was the Pats best player in the second half, and together on the powerplay, those two were something special.”

If there is a question mark, it’s in goal, where John Paddock will have to choose between former Blades goalie Ryan Kubic, who also came over from Saskatoon in the Hebig deal, and Max Paddock, who backed up Tyler Brown in last year’s playoffs.

Both goalies have battled injuries, with Paddock suffering a freak hip injury in practice at season’s end that thrust Kubic into the starter’s role against Swift Current. Paddock is healthy now, but Kubic played well against Swift Current, so the Pats GM/Coach will have a tough decision to make, says Andrews.

“It’s tough to say, but I think had Max not got hurt he would’ve been the starter. Ryan got hurt in late January, and Max took the ball and ran with it. He beat Moose Jaw and Swift Current, and got up to the third best goals-against-average in the WHL. So we’ll see what happens once the tournament starts.”


The Contenders

The Pats open the Memorial Cup May 18 against the Ontario Hockey League champions. The Hamilton Bulldogs are currently playing the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for the OHL title. The Greyhounds were the top-ranked team in Canada for most of the season, and boast a potent offence (scoring 317 goals in 68 regular season games). But when we went to press on May 8, Hamilton was up two games to one in the series.

On May 20, the Pats play the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League representative. That league final pits the Acadie-Bathhurst Titan against the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. Both were top-10 ranked teams in the CHL this year and had similar goals-for and -against ratios (270 to 183 and 276 to 184, respectively). The Titan led two games to one.

The Pats play their final round robin game against the WHL champ on May 23. Goaltending is a strength for both Everett and Swift Current, says Andrews, with the Silvertips’ Carter Hart being especially impressive.

“The numbers he put up this year [1.6 goals against,.947 save percentage] were stupid. He was named player of the year in the WHL, and there’s no doubt he was the best player in the league, and maybe the CHL too.”

As of press time, the series was tied 1–1. /Gregory Beatty