Overall, Memorial Cup Tournament Was Huge Success
The bar has been reset.
From the hockey competition to the flurry of off-ice activities, the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup was a blast, referred to by more than one experienced visiting fan of the annual tournament as ‘the best ever.’
That would be difficult to confirm, but from the arrival of the coveted trophy in downtown Red Deer — via military helicopter, no less — on May 19 to Matthew Tkachuk’s overtime goal in Sunday’s final and the closure of the Molson Hockey House and Fan Fest later that evening, the event was a smash hit all the way.
“It was awesome. As far as the whole event . . . it was probably better than even what my expectations were,” said Red Deer Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “You just never know going into something for the first time . . . something new.”
As the host team, the Rebels finished with a very respectable 2-2 record, opening with a 6-2 loss to the eventual champion London Knights, then posting 5-2 and 2-1 (OT) round-robin wins over the Noranda-Rouyn Huskies and Brandon Wheat Kings before dropping a 3-1 semifinal decision to the Quebec champion Huskies.
“There was some very, very good hockey played,” said Sutter. “From our standpoint it was unfortunate that we couldn’t have got to the (championship) game Sunday.
“But our team played hard, we played well, especially in the last two games. We got into a semifinal game against the No. 1 ranked team (Huskies) in the country and if we could have capitalized on some opportunities we would have had a chance to win the game. But their goaltender (Chase Marchand) played very well. Credit to their goaltender and to (the Huskies). They were a good hockey team.”
The championship match between Rouyn-Noranda and London was a fast-paced, entertaining affair that featured exceptional goaltending at both ends and culminated with the Knights getting the extra-time winner from Tkachuk.
“That was a heck of a game. There was some fantastic hockey played the whole tournament,” said Sutter.
“And then the events surrounding the games were amazing.”
Indeed, there was plenty happening in the Westerner buildings adjoined to the Centrium and reminders of the tournament were abundant throughout the city. And each game was attended by a crowd of 7,000-plus, many of whom were on hand for the accompanying activities.
“The attendance we had come through here was astonishing,” said Sutter. “There was lot of excitement about the event coming to Red Deer and Central Alberta and it was supported in every way, shape and form.”
And for that, the Rebels owner credited his son Merrick — the team’s senior vice president — and Ron LaRiviere for co-chairing the event.
“Merrick knew I didn’t have time to be part of the organization (of the event) so he and Ron took it over,” said Sutter. “Ron was a perfect fit. They found chairs to oversea each volunteer group. There were over 500 volunteers and everyone should get credit for running the tournament as well as it was.
“From the people I talked to, and not just people from Central Alberta, but from elsewhere in Canada, the United States and overseas . . . there wasn’t one negative thing said. They thought it was an amazing, very well run event.”
With the exception of their first game, the Rebels just so happened to play their best hockey of the season in the tournament, which to Sutter was welcome but also bittersweet.
“We probably played two of the best games that we played all year, and yet in our exit meetings I said to the kids ‘why did we wait until May to do it’?
“There were inconsistencies throughout the year with individuals not totally dialled in and committed day to day as far as getting better and our team getting better.
“At times there was a mindset among individuals that we were playing in May no matter what. To get them past that way of thinking was a very difficult challenge. Truly, it was a long year for myself and the coaching staff trying to keep them focused and staying within the day.
“It’s a natural feeling, you understand that. But I felt throughout the season that we could have been better with the type of group that we had. I know we went through some injuries, and to some top-end players, but at times our attitude wasn’t where it needed to be.
“To be honest, I was probably more of a psychologist than a coach this year in a lot of ways. It made for a long year.”
The Rebels were off for three weeks after losing to Brandon in the WHL Eastern Conference final and spent much of the time with early morning off-ice workouts and afternoon practices.
“We knew going into the Memorial Cup that the other three teams were (league) champions,” said Sutter of his club’s underdog status in the tournament.
“But we felt that those three weeks of training were huge for us. Plus we had a full lineup with Bleacks (Conner Bleackley) coming back (from injury). Ivan (Nikolishin) was healthier, too. He was about 80 per cent and with those two we had a deeper lineup and a better lineup.
“We went into the tournament believing we could win it.”
In the end, the favoured Knights won the Memorial Cup for the second time in 11 years.
“There was some great hockey played, there really was,” said Sutter. “I like to think the fans got an opportunity to see some fantastic hockey and I believe they really did.”
Now it’s time to turn the page, with the most pressing issue being the club’s prospects camp this weekend at the Penhold Regional Multiplex.
The 2016-17 Rebels will have a different look, particularly on the back end where Kayle Doetzel has graduated and Memorial Cup all-star Haydn Fleury (Carolina Hurricanes) and Nelson Nogier (who signed Wednesday with the Winnipeg Jets) will almost certainly turn pro.
Colton Bobyk will likely return to the Red Deer blueline as a 20-year-old and will be joined by fellow veterans Josh Mahura, Austin Strand and possibly Austin Shmoorkoff. The back end could feature three rookies in Carson Sass, Ethan Sakowich and 2014 first-round bantam draft pick Jacob Herauf.
Up front, the Rebels will have as many as 11 returnees — barring an off-season deal or two — including 20-year-old Evan Polei, Jeff de Wit, Austin Pratt, Grayson Pawlenchuk, Brandon Hagel, Adam Musil, Michael Spacek, Taden Rattie, Braden Purtill, Reese Johnson and possibly Bleackley, who wasn’t signed by the Arizona Coyotes at the Wednesday deadline and will re-enter the NHL draft later this month.
Nikolishin, like Bleackley, could also return as a 20-year-old forward, although with Spacek already on the 2016-17 roster and Sutter planning on selecting a player in this year’s CHL import draft, is probably a long-shot to be back.
Forward Akash Bains will be a full-time player next season and Sutter will consider signing one or more listed players who will participate in this weekend’s prospects camp.
If the season started tomorrow, Rylan Toth would be the Rebels No. 1 goaltender. Red Deer native Dawson Weatherill will be in the mix for the back-up spot since the team will almost certainly not keep two 20-year-olds in Toth and Trevor Martin.
“We have a good core coming back,” said Sutter. “Our defence will be young but we’ll weather through that with some quality players, and our goaltending will be good.
“With adding some players to the mix, we’re going to be fine up front. We’re not going to fall flat on our faces coming out of this season. I truly believe the focus and the attitude will be better.
“Our leadership group will be older next year and they’re all excited to take the torch and run with it. We won’t have the attitudes we had in the dressing room at some points through the season, and to be honest, the guys coming back aren’t the guys who had the attitudes.
“The guys (including forwards Jake DeBrusk, Adam Helewka and Luke Philp) we’re losing are talented players, they’re very good, yet I like our returning players.”
And of course, all the returnees will be better for the experience of competing — or at least being on board as a healthy scratch — in the Memorial Cup tournament.
“That holds true for the players moving on, as well,” said Sutter. “Haydn played great down the (regular-season) stretch and in the playoffs and was awesome in the Memorial Cup.
“Doetzel and Nogier were very good leaders for us, as was Luke (Philp).”
Sutter said forwards DeBrusk and Helewka were up-and-down after joining the club prior to and at the WHL trade deadline.
“Adam and Jake were the elite players on their respective teams (Spoke and Swift Current) and had to come in and play a better team game,” said Sutter. “I thought they had a tough time with that at different times and that’s natural. They came from teams where they were the best players and they weren’t the best players here every night.
“There was more of an adjustment for those two.”
The Rebels boss gave Bleackley credit for battling back from wrist surgery to rejoin the club for the tournament.
“Getting him back was huge. He came back for the Memorial Cup and played very well. It was a tough year for him in terms of injuries and hopefully he’ll be a better player for it.”
• The Rebels prospects camp starts Friday at Penhold with a 3-5 p.m. on-ice session. The 27 players — mostly from the last two bantam drafts plus a handful who have been listed — will be back on the ice Saturday from 3:45 to 5:45 p.m. and Sunday from 9-11:30 a.m.