The Memorial Cup is the ultimate prize in Major Junior Hockey and one of the most difficult to win once, let alone repeat. As the players are only able to be part of a Junior Club from 16-20 years of age, time is short for them to have a chance at the cup. Sixty teams comprise the Canadian Hockey League and of that, only 7 are based in the US (5 in the Western Hockey League [WHL]) and 2 in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).The Memorial Cup is held in a "host city" each year, which rotates between the three leagues. Saskatoon is the host city this season.
There are four teams who will compete in the tournament and here is a breakdown on them and how they got there.
Saskatoon Blades - Western Hockey League. Last hosted the Memorial Cup in 1989. Saskatoon started the season poorly and many wondered if they would actually relinquish hosting the cup. They rebounded during the second half of the season to take top spot in the Eastern Division. Next season will be a rebuilding year as they have 15 players aged 19 and older, and can only hold 3 of those players that are currently 19. Backed by goaltender Andrey Makarov, the Blades ended 44-22-2-4 for 94 points and overall 3rd place in the Eastern Conference. They lasted one round in the WHL playoffs, losing to the Red Deer Rebels in four games. They have had nearly 2 months off in waiting to host the Memorial Cup.
Portland Winterhawks - Western Hockey League. Ed Chynoweth Cup Champions 57-12-1-2. Have won the Memorial Cup twice, 1983 and 1998. The Portland Winterhawks started in disarray in 2007-08 with their worst ever record of just 11 wins. Part way through the 2008-09 season, the entire team was shaken up. The team was sold to Calgary, Alberta billionaire Bill Gallacher, who assembled a strong coaching and conditioning staff and office staff. The team finished with just 17 wins that season, but would make many changes in the offseason. The 2009-10 season saw them jump to 43 wins, and then 50 plus wins the past two seasons including a franchise record 57 wins in 2012-13 for 117 points. That put them 28 points ahead of their closest US Division rival and 9 points better than the second place Edmonton Oil Kings for the overall WHL lead, which gave Portland the Scotty Munro trophy. With just 7 players aged 19 and older, the Hawks are a very young team. They won series against Everett in 6 games, Spokane in 4 games, Kamloops in 5 games and Edmonton in 6 games to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL Champions. The Hawks did this without General Manager and Coach Mike Johnston for the majority of the season after he was suspended from November through the Winterhawks playoff run, along with a $200,000 fine for player benefit violations. Assistant GM and Coach Travis Green ran the bench this year using Johnston's strategies. Dozens of records were broken by various Winterhawks players during the regular season and playoffs. The Hawks hold the projected number one pick in the upcoming NHL Draft in Seth Jones. Goaltender Mac Carruth in 21 games has a 1.63 GAA and a .937 save percentage with 5 shutouts.
Halifax Mooseheads - Quebec Major Hockey League. President's Cup Champions (QMJHL). In 68 regular season games, the Mooseheads lost only 6 in regulation and a total of 10 games. They had a 27 point lead over the second place team. Eleven players aged 19 and older make up the Mooseheads, who are led by NHL draft eligible players Nate MacKinnon and Johnathan Drouin, who are expected in the top 5 of the draft. The battle between MacKinnon and Seth Jones of Portland for the top draft ranking spot has been the talk of every sports jock and writer, with MacKinnon ceding to Jones in the final draft rankings list. The Quebec League is a hybrid, fast paced league known for high scoring contests and not as much emphasis on defense and goaltending; hence their goaltender, Zachary Fucale, has a goals against average of 3.16 and a .892 save percentage. The Mooseheads waltzed through the playoffs, losing only 1 game out of the 17 they played. The top three scorers for Halifax, MacKinnon, Drouin and Mark Frk, combined for 101 points in 17 games, but have three others who averaged better than a point per game in the playoffs. Fucale, who played all 17 playoff games, ended with a 2.02 GAA and a .918 save percentage
London Knights - Ontario Hockey League. J Ross Robertson Champions (OHL). In 68 games, they won 50. They, like the Portland Winterhawks, have just 7 players 19 years of age and older, meaning they will be a force in the next couple of years. They were led by Max Domi, Alex Broadhurst and Seth Griffith, who combined for 231 points this year. They ran through the first rounds of the playoffs, losing just 2 games, but nearly missed out on the Memorial Cup trip. Down 3-1 in the final series to the Barrie Colts, the Knights dug down and tied the series for game 7. The final game was a see-saw battle which they saw tied closing in on the end of the third period. With just 0.1 seconds left on the clock, they scored, but it went to review for what seemed an eternity. The goal was declared good and London makes its way to the Memorial Cup as the least rested team. They will have just 2 days off until their first game. They have just received noticed they will host the 2014 Memorial Cup which will mean they will have played for the cup in three straight years.
The schedule will pit the London Knights vs. the Saskatoon Blades in the first game, followed by the Halifax Mooseheads vs. the Portland Winterhawks. This should set the stage as to where the teams will end up in the round robin tournament. Portland has the stingiest defense, Halifax the most potent offense and if Portland weathers the Moosehead's storm, they ultimately should come home Memorial Cup champions.
Stuart Kemp is the President of the Portland Winterhawks Booster Club a 501(c)(3) registered charity.