Memorial Cup should be, well, memorable

I know that what I’m about to write has a very distinct chance of suffering from the “Punkari Kiss of Death” in rather short order, but there is a possibility this year’s Memorial Cup could be one of the best in the tournament’s 94-year history.
The annual major junior hockey showcase, which gets underway Friday evening in Saskatoon, has a bevy of storylines throughout the four-team field, which includes the top three squads in the country.
Leading the way as the tournament favourite are the QMJHL champion Halifax Mooseheads, the top-ranked team in the entire CHL at the end of the regular season and losers of just one game in the entire playoffs en route to their first league crown in franchise history.
The Mooseheads are led by the dynamic duo of forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, who both donned the maple leaf at this year’s world juniors and seem destined to both be picked among the top three of next month’s NHL draft.
While those two get most of the headlines, this team is stacked from top to bottom, with goalie Zachary Fucale expected to be a first-round pick in June and forwards Stephen MacAulay and Martin Frk both having won a Memorial Cup with the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2011.
Over in the WHL, the league champion Portland Winterhawks have had an interesting journey to get to this point for a variety of reasons.
Arguably one of the best teams in all of junior hockey in both 2011 and 2012, the Winterhawks ended up falling at the final hurdle on both occasions when they were beaten out by the Kootenay Ice and Edmonton Oil Kings in consecutive seasons.
Overshadowing all of that, though, was when the WHL announced in late November that Portland was being sanctioned for a series of player benefit violations that had occurred over the last four years.
The punishment handed down was one of the most severe in CHL history. The Winterhawks were barred from drafting any players in the first five rounds of this year’s WHL draft, lost their first-round picks from the 2014-17 drafts, were fined $200,000, and saw their general manager and head coach Mike Johnston suspended for the remainder of the 2012-13 season.
While that type of incident would devastate many organizations, the Winterhawks just kept on winning—finishing second in the final CHL rankings and capturing the league title for the first time since 1998.
Although the Winterhawks possess two top NHL prospects in forward Ty Rattie (St. Louis) and blueliner Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh), all eyes will be on first-year defenceman Seth Jones.
The highly-touted 16-year-old from Plano, Tex. has been very impressive in his first year in major junior hockey. In fact, his performances for the Winterhawks and for the U.S. at the world juniors has led many to peg Jones as the first overall pick by the Colorado Avalanche in a month’s time.
With Jones, MacKinnon, and Drouin all competing in the same tournament, the number of NHL scouts who will be in Saskatoon will be something to behold, and the hype around all three players during the next week might match what it was like in 2005 when Sidney Crosby played for the Rimouski Oceanic.
Rounding out the three top teams in the country that made it to the Memorial Cup are the OHL’s London Knights, who won their second-straight league title in dramatic fashion Monday night.
Having forced a Game 7 with the Barrie Colts after trailing the series 3-1, the two squads seemed destined for overtime after the Colts had tied the game at 2-2 with only a couple of minutes to go.
But Knights’ forward Bo Horvat slid the puck into the back of the net with just 0.1 seconds left on the clock, sending the home crowd at the Budweiser Gardens into a frenzy after his game-winning marker was confirmed via video review.
While the Knights were expected to be a strong team once again this season, many felt it would be a little bit tougher for them to return to the Memorial Cup in 2013 because they lost a number of talented players from last year’s squad that fell in the championship game to the Shawinigan Cataractes.
The Knights removed any doubts of a slump, however, with their strong play throughout the season, which included a 24-game winning streak midway through the regular season that saw contributions from all over the lineup.
Rounding out the field are the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, who might be the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team to ever host the Memorial Cup.
Despite having a talented roster, the Blades struggled during the start of the campaign, and it looked as if they might even miss out on getting into the playoffs as the season reached the halfway point.
Late in the year, though, things turned around as the Blades rattled off 18-straight wins to race up the standings and finish in second place in the Eastern Conference.
But once the playoffs started, things went south in a hurry as the Blades were swept by the Medicate Hat Tigers in four-straight games, which means they haven’t played a meaningful game since March.
It’s hard to see the Blades knocking off the top squads in the country, but I felt that same way about Shawinigan a year ago and was proven wrong in a massive way.