For alliteration fans, coach Evan Robinson's Vees' toughest competition will be the likely favourite, the Vernon Vipers and host Victoria Grizzlies at the May 2-10 RBC Cup Junior A national championship. It's a mere 4,800-km jaunt from Eastern Ontario.
The Grizzlies are owned by Tampa Bay Lightning co-owner Len Barrie (grrrrrrr, indeed) and coached by former NHLer Geoff Courtnall. The Summerside Western Capitals won the Eastern Canada title by beating Dieppe 3-2 in double OT on Sunday. Defending champion Humboldt broke the hearts of the Portage Terriers faithful with a Game 7 comeback on the road in the Western region, which stings for a certain someone who used to spend an unholy portion of his paycheque at the Portage Centennial Arena concession stand (and the bar at the curling club, don't forget).
Jarrett Burton got the game-winner for the Vees on Saturday 76 seconds into the third (with Jeff Blackburn assisting). Blackburn, whose mom Janet drove all the way from Newmarket to cheer on her son, scored himself three minutes later (with Burton assisting).
Below the jump, a look at the Vees' foes.
VERNON VIPERS (Pacific champions)
- Coach — Mark Ferner
- Team in a box — The Vipers have "by far the biggest and strongest six-man defence corps we've played against," according to Grande Prairie coach Mike Vandecamp, whose team was swept by the Vipers in the Pacific region championship (Vernon Morning Star, April 22). The Vipers have allowed only 34 goals across a 21-game playoff run, during which they have only lost twice in regulation time. They had a 2.40 team goals-against average in the regular season, tops in the 16-team BCHL, and are 45-1-1 this season when leading after two periods (it's an annoying stat, but it's true).
The back end is headed by aptly named Kyle Bigos, who's 6-foot-5, 230 lbs. and headed to Merrimack in the NCAA; Cameron Brodie is committed to Colgate, a good hockey school, while Cody Ikkala is going to West Point. Bigos and 6-2, 205-lb. d-man Kevin Kraus are both from California.
- Key guys — Twins Connor and Kellen Jones, who are both headed to Quinnipiac, have been among the team's top scorers all season long, although both seem to two-way forwards. One name that jumps out while scanning the roster is Sahir Gill, a 1992-birthdate forward with some offensive creativity, not unlike the Vees' Brock Higgs. Gill has 56 points in 71 games (not counting the series vs. Grande Prairie). They're pretty loaded.
- League track record — Teams from the B.C. league are 18-15 at the past 10 RBCs and all told, a team from the Pacific region (B.C. and Alberta) has made it to the final in 11-of-13 years since 1996.
- History at the RBC Cup — The Vipers are seeking to bring Vernon its fifth national championship in the past 20 years, which fairly qualifies the franchise as a powerhouse. They won in 1990, '91, '96 and '99.
- Face Kingston — May 7, 5 p.m. (Kingston's final round-robin game)
- External factors worth making a big deal out of — Their uniforms are styled along the lines of the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers. Bad things happen to teams which wear the kit of Bettman-era expansion teams (the Vees used to have similar uniforms to the Blue Jackets, but have returned a more traditional red, white and blue look and it's been all cake and ice cream since, not coincidentally).
- Coach — Geoff Courtnall, an example of the long-time NHLer who returns to his hometown to coach his puck-chasing progeny (son Justin Courtnall is on the team).
- Team in a box — The Grizzlies essentially took all of April off, since the host team was eliminated by Powell River in the BCHL semi-final series on March 31. The Grizzlies come off like the classic team that hits the ice with their owner's bankroll all over them. After being an also-ran last season, they brought in reinforcements, such as former North Dakota Fighting Sioux goalie Anthony Grieco, cut their goals-against by 30 and finished with a league-high 90 points before being bounced early in the playoffs.
- Key guys — Going by the numbers, the Grizzlies are a balanced team that keeps a tight lid on their own end (only 159 goals allowed in the regular season). They have a playmaking centre, Derek Lee (12 goals, but 47 assists), who's committed to play college hockey at Wisconsin. Justin Courtnall, who is the spitting image of his old man, is bound for NCAA champion Boston University next season; his 63 points (22 G-41A) in the regular season led the team. He's had only two goals in the playoffs, though.
Victoria also draws scoring punch from Trevor Hertz (36 goals, 72 points for two teams this season) and Jonathan Milhouse (42 points in 42 games), who was picked up in mid-season after beginning the year in the WHL. Their No. 1 defenceman, Lee Baldwin, had 54 points off the blue line. He's headed to Alaska-Anchorage in the WCHA, the top college hockey conference.
Kingston fans might remember Grieco playing for the Wellington Dukes in 2005-06, when Welly was Kingston's rival. He went to a big-time college team, North Dakota, then was in the OHL for a season with Mississauga before heading out west.
- League track record — See above.
- History at the RBC Cup — Like the Vees, they're first-timers at the tournament. Victoria was a WHL city until around 1990. They were a mid-pack team for the most part until this season.
- Face Kingston — May 3, 10 p.m.
- External factors worth making a big deal out of — Spring hockey in Victoria is something a novelty, according to the Times-Colonist's Cleve Dheenshaw. The ECHL's Salmon Kings made it to the second round of the playoffs last season, marking the first time a local team had played a game in May since 1981. Can anyone think of another university town in Canada with a lot of British architecture that has a similarly barren history? Can't think of one.
Geoff Courtnall is also pals with Pamela Anderson, who was on some TV show called Baywatch. Never heard of it.
- Coach — Kenny MacDougall
- Team in a box — Summerside won the Eastern Canada title with a double-overtime 3-2 win over Dieppe on Sunday, with overager Mike McIsaac, who'll be the oldest player at the tournament (he was a New Year's baby in 1988), scoring the winner.
Summerside was dominant at each end of the ice in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League regular season, finishing plus-100 in goal differential, then lost only one game during three playoff rounds. They lost to Dieppe in the regionals, but turned the tables in the final.
The Maritime league tends to be an overager's league. The Caps' five scorers, Brad Smith, Chad Locke, Brett Gallant, McIsaac and d-man Spencer Corcoran (58 assists in 52 reg.-season games), are all overagers. Five players had at least 200 penalty minutes during the regular season, which seems a little excessive.
- Key guys — The aforementioned veterans seem to lead the way. Goalie Alex Dupuis has played every minute in the post-season.
- League track record — Maritime Junior A Hockey League teams are 11-10 at the tournament in the past decade, but that includes the Halifax Oland Exports' 6-0 run back in 2002. No team from the league has even made it out of round-robin play since.
- History at the RBC Cup — The Caps are the cradle of erstwhile Columbus Blue Jackets coaches. They won the RBC back in 1997 when Gerard Gallant was behind the bench, and hosting the tournament in '89 when current Rogers Sportsnet and FAN 590 host Doug MacLean, Kinger's hero, was steering the ship.
- Face Kingston — Monday, May 4, 5 p.m.
- External factors worth making a big deal out of — The Western Capitals will be travelling more than 6,000 km for the tournament, which makes the Vees' roughly 4,800-km trip seem like a day trip by comparison. The current group of coaches, players and hangers-on are no doubt good Joes, but Kinger is not a big fan of MacLean's turn as a sports talk radio personality, which is enough reason to taunt and boo them until your throat is sore.
Also, remember Paul Dorsey, the goalie whom Kingston Frontenacs GM-for-life Larry Mavety burned a player card on back at Christmastime? He finished the season in Summerside, but hasn't played a minute in the playoffs. There's a story.
- Coach — Dean Brockman
- Team in a box — Defending national champions did it the hard way in the ANAVET Cup, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit vs. the Portage Terriers, with a four-goal comeback in Game 7 overtime win on the road. Portage was up three goals near the halfway point of the third period when the Terriers' Cory More got a five-minute major penalty for kneeing. Humboldt scored twice on the power play, forced OT on Scott Schroeder's goal (and fourth point of the night) with 47 seconds left before Nick Kalnicki scored just less than six minutes into the extra session for the 5-4 win. Point being, Humboldt had to be awfully good to pull off such hockey larceny.
Humboldt won more games (45) in the regular season than the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs have in the past two (41), winning the SJHL regular-season title by 15 points. Eleven players got on the scoresheet in the Portage series, so secondary scoring doesn't appear to be a huge problem.
- Key guys — Like Vernon, Humboldt boasts a set of twins up front in Schroeder (10 points in the ANAVET Cup series) and his brother, Steven Schroeder. Defenceman Brady Wacker, a Rafalski-lite type (5-foot-7, 155 lbs.) who's due to play at Bemidji State, which just went to the NCAA Frozen Four, also had 10 points in the seven games vs. Portage.
Matthew Kirzinger (Ferris State commit) has consistently been among the team's top scorers. He's also from Leroy, Sask., the namesake for Brent Butt's character on Corner Gas.
- League track record — No league's teams have played more games (53) at the nationals over the past 10 seasons, with squads from the "SJ" owning a 26-24 vs. outside competition (in 1999 and 2001, the league had two teams taking part, host and Western champion). Humboldt won 2003 and '08, sandwiched around the Weyburn Red Wings' victory in '05, while the Yorkton Terriers and Kindersley Klippers have each reached the final in recent years.
- History at the RBC Cup — Oddly enough, in each of Humboldt's run through the tournament, they went 2-2 in the round-robin before winning the Saturday semi-final and Sunday championship game, including a 1-0 win over Camrose last May in Cornwall.
- Face Kingston — May 6, 5 p.m.
- External factors worth making a big deal out of — The whole beating-out-Portage thing (two years in a row!) is going to be tough to work past, but let bygones be bygones.
Spare a thought for the Terriers, whose coach, Blake Spiller, is one of the best people who's ever breathed air.
I like to say those days at The Daily Graphic, from 2002-04, were a great time professionally, a subsequent stint at the Simcoe Reformer (2004-06) was a great time socially and Ottawa ... well, at least the money is better.