May 19, 2012
Can Edmonton stop WHL skid?
By Terry Jones, QMI Agency
SHAWINIGAN, QUE. – It's long been the magnum opus, or, as they might say around here, the pièce de résistance of the Western Hockey League.
'The Dub' has long been able to boast they've won more Memorial Cups than the other two major junior leagues combined.
The WHL's ultimate calling card, however, is suddenly at stake. And it's up to the Edmonton Oil Kings to do something about it.
Standings since the Memorial Cup became a four-team tournament involving a host team in 1983:
• WHL 15
• OHL 9
• QMJHL 5.
Or the Memorial Cup standings scored another way:
• Western Hockey League 15
• Other Hockey Leagues 14.
What we're dealing with here isn't just a stat, it's the fact the WHL has come home empty from the last three trips to the Memorial Cup as a result of Taylor Hall's back-to-back MVP championship double by the Windsor Spitfires and last year's crown captured by the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Not once in all 29 years has the WHL ever gone more than three years between titles before.
And the last two years the WHL team hasn't made it to the final as the Calgary Hitmen and Kootenay Ice both went home early.
Not once has it extended to three.
Something appears to be slipping here. And it's up to the Oil Kings, with a team projected to get here next year not this year, to make the WHL kings again.
“There's pressure now that we're representing the WHL,” admits coach Derek Laxdal.
“We've gone from playing for the WHL championship to representing the WHL,” added the coach who won the Memorial Cup as a player with the 1982-83 Portland Winter Hawks.
“First and foremost we're playing for each other and the Oil Kings, but we know we're playing for the WHL, too. Our goal is to get to that final and we know that's not going to be easy. People have already seen that there are four good hockey teams here,” he said.
“It's a little extra motivation,” said captain Mark Pysyk, the Sherwood Park product in his last year in the league who was the first bantam draft pick of the team in the first year of the rebirth of the franchise which represented Western Canada in seven straight best-of-seven Memorial Cups series in the '60s.
“Obviously we take a lot of pride in being here to represent the WHL,” said Rhett Rachinski, the Edmontonian who played 244 games for the expansion team which hadn't won a playoff game in it's modern day recreation until this year.
“When you win the league, you want to represent the league well. I think all the other teams in the league are hoping we're successful. We don't want to let them down.”
Curtis Lazar, the 16-year-old future superstar who led the Oil Kings in points in the playoffs, said that's the thing.
“It could just as easily have been Portland,” he said of winning the WHL final in seven games. “I know if it had been Portland I'd have been cheering for them at the Memorial Cup.”
With Griffin Reinhart it's more of a Memorial Cup appropriate “to you from failing hands we pass the torch” thing.
His brothers Max and Sam came to the Memorial Cup last year with the Kootenay Ice and lost the semi-final.
“They weren't very happy. There's definitely an opportunity in front of us and I want to make the best of it,” said the son of former Flame Paul Reinhart.
At least the Oil Kings won the first game here Friday, even if it was a wobbly 4-3 win over the host Shawinigan Cataractes. Last year Kootenay lost the opener 5-0 to the Owen Sound Attack and chased the tournament the rest of the way.
“It's huge. Talking to other guys who have brought teams here to represent the WHL, there's a lot more pressure in that first game than any other game. It's such a short tournament, if you lose the first game suddenly you worry about being out of it on Tuesday night. If you win it you know you'll get a playoff game on Thursday,” said general manager Bob Green.
“I think our team was really feeling it a little bit. I think we were more nervous in the first period than in any other game this year, including Game 7 against Portland.”
Lately, if you're representing the WHL at the Memorial Cup, it's no place for a nervous hockey team.