Turns out Mike Williamson wasn’t the only one with no idea what to expect.
After being hired as the Calgary Hitmen head coach last summer, the incoming bench boss called a handful of old friends for an assessment of the WHL squad he’d be skipping this season.
The results? Call it a mixed bag.
“I did my homework on the team, and some people said there was a strong enough core coming back that the team could have a lot of success, and some people thought there was a such a strong group leaving the team from the year before that it would be tough,” Williamson said.
“So I didn’t know until early in the year. But this team has been one that has just found ways to win games all year, right from the beginning of the season. Even when we weren’t playing the way we needed to, it was a team that expected to win every night and found a way to win most nights.
“We knew that we had such a strong core at all positions — goaltending, defence and forwards — and that if we continued to build and get better, that we should be one of the top teams.”
Make that the top team.
With Friday’s 4-1 victory over the visiting Tri-City Americans at the Saddledome, the Hitmen claimed their second Western Hockey League title and booked a ticket to the Memorial Cup in Brandon, where they’ll try to win the first national championship in franchise history.
Williamson has been to the Memorial Cup once before, helping guide the Portland Winterhawks to a Canadian Hockey League crown as an assistant coach in 1998.
His more recent playoff history isn’t nearly as impressive.
Before bringing his belongings to the Dome, Williamson had won just three post-season series as a head coach — and just one in his past five seasons behind the bench.
Until now, that is.
And he wasn’t the only member of the Hitmen organization with something to prove.
When Dave Lowry accepted an assistant coaching job with the Flames last June, Williamson inherited a talent-laden squad, led by the likes of snipers Brandon Kozun and Joel Broda, co-captains Ian Schultz and Michael Stone and stalwart netminder Martin Jones.
Perhaps just as important, Williamson was tasked with leading a group of guys still steamed about losing to the Kelowna Rockets in last year’s WHL championship series and hell-bent on hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
They did it, but Williamson insisted they’re not satisfied just yet.
“We’re starting to look ahead, and we need to get our focus changed and make sure that our mindset isn’t that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do,” Williamson said. “The ultimate goal is to be the team that wins the last game at the end of the year.
“We’re excited and proud of what the players have accomplished in winning the Western Hockey league title, but the Memorial Cup is what we set our sights on at the beginning of the year.”