Today is a day the Brandon Wheat Kings have been looking forward to for the last year and a half.
Since being awarded the right to host the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup on Oct. 15, 2008, the Wheat Kings have been busy building a team capable of capturing major junior hockey’s legendary championship trophy in front of a home crowd.
“It’s starting to get pretty crazy around here,” said Brandon co-captain Matt Calvert in the days leading up to the tournament. “It’s been close to two years since we found out we’d be hosting, and we’ve seen it all come together.”
Calvert, a Brandon native, is one of 12 Manitobans on the Wheat Kings roster. Now a 20-year-old veteran, Calvert was so keen on being a part of Brandon’s Memorial Cup run that he declined an offer to sign a National Hockey League contract and turn pro in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ system this season.
Having been one of the key performers for the Wheat Kings over the last three seasons, Calvert says it’s been an experience to see just how well everything has come together and fallen into place for the team, the city of Brandon, and the organizers and volunteers who have worked so hard to make sure the tournament is a success.
“Just the other day, we all walked through and checked out the whole event grounds – with the village, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and all the attractions – and you realize just how much work is put into this thing until you see it firsthand,” said Calvert. “I know the fans and the community are very excited about the next 10 days, and everyone’s ready for the puck drop on Friday night.”
Being the host team, expectations were sky-high for the Wheat Kings to not only build a competitive team, but one capable of being the best. With a core of talent that included Calvert, first-round NHL draft picks Brayden Schenn and Scott Glennie, and NHL prospects Colby Robak, Alex Urbom and Travis Hamonic on the blue line, the Wheat Kings enjoyed a tremendous 2009-10 regular season in the Western Hockey League, winning the East division and finishing second overall in the WHL standings.
Yet, the Wheat Kings fell short of their goal of getting to the tournament through the ‘front door’ by winning the 2010 WHL Championship after getting eliminated by the eventual champion Calgary Hitmen in the Eastern Conference final. Still, that doesn’t mean the Wheat Kings can be counted out for the Memorial Cup.
“Unfortunately, things didn’t go our way in the WHL playoffs, and we were eliminated in the third round, but we know we have a second chance to win,” said Robak, a Florida Panthers prospect who recently signed an NHL entry-level contract with the team. “With our team, we know we can compete with every team in the tournament. Guys are rested and focused, we have an exciting and talented team, and we are ready to take advantage of the opportunity we have to compete in this tournament.”
With the Hitmen having earned a berth in the tournament by virtue of winning the WHL Championship, the Wheat Kings know they will have a shot at redemption. Yet, they’ll have to wait for the final day of round-robin action to get another crack at their WHL rival.
First, though, they’ll have to face two unknown teams – the Ontario Hockey League champion Windsor Spitfires and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Moncton Wildcats.
Up first is a date with the powerful Spitfires, who also happen to be the defending Memorial Cup champions.
“All we know is that those two teams are champions in their leagues,” said Robak regarding their competition. “The Spitfires are the defending champions, and there will be no easy opponents in this thing.”
Calvert also knows what the Wheat Kings are up against. Yet, like the rest of his teammates, he has plenty of confidence that his squad boasts enough talent and determination to come out on top.
“We’ve been practicing hard for the last couple weeks, we’ve been getting ready for what’s to come, and we’re getting excited to get this thing going,” said Calvert. “We know the Spitfires are a talented team and are the reigning champions, but we are going to go out there and play our style, stay focused and it’ll be some good quality hockey.”
The WHL Champion Hitmen open their round-robin schedule on Saturday versus the Moncton Wildcats.
The entire tournament can be seen live on Rogers Sportsnet.