Abbandonato, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies beat Halifax Mooseheads for Memorial Cup

Members of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies celebrate defeating the Halifax Mooseheads to win the Memorial Cup championship in Halifax on Sunday, May 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

When the Kelowna Rockets lost in the 2005 Memorial Cup final, it kick-started an unprecedented 13-game losing streak for Western Hockey League champions at the Memorial Cup.

Yes, that’s right: 0-for-13.

That number certainly caught my attention. My brother-in-law told his dad, and the three of us marvelled at just how far the mighty have fallen.

That’s my litmus test for great sports stories. If Kirk and Derek are talking about it, probably everyone else is talking about it, too.

Here’s the problem: it’s terribly misleading and, dare I say it, fake news. Don’t blame the Turvey boys; plenty of folks were fooled (me, also).

The Canadian Press cherry picked that 0-for-13 stat after the Prince Albert Raiders went winless in three games this year in Halifax.

At first glance, it’s easy to get suckered: P.A., the Swift Current Broncos (2018), Seattle Thunderbirds (2017) and the Brandon Wheat Kings (2016) have two overtime losses between them to show for their efforts.

The cherry picking comes because as hosts, the Regina Pats and Red Deer Rebels did OK in their tournaments. Regina lost last year’s final to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. The Rebels were 2-1-1, but lost at home in the 2016 semifinal.

Yes, WHL champions have been woefully under-performing of late.

As hosts, however, WHL clubs are holding their own, thank you kindly.

That bodes well for Bruce Hamilton’s Kelowna Rockets as hosts of the 2020 tournament.

But it doesn’t mean WHL higher-ups aren’t talking about their teams, Hamilton said.

“I would say there’s going to be a little bit of pressure on us,” Hamilton admitted this week.

He said WHL owners, general managers, and coaches will talk about the issue at next month’s annual general meeting.

Part of the problem might be scheduling. The Raiders beat the Vancouver Giants 4-3 in overtime on May 13 to earn the right to represent the west. Four days later, they were in Halifax.

“Going forward, we’ve got to be a little more cognizant of that,” said Hamilton, chairman of the WHL board of governors.

Halifax could give schedule-makers the first star against P.A.

The Raiders — still recovering from an emotional and physical roller-coaster ride against Vancouver — waltzed into Scotiabank Centre only to be greeted by 9,926 Haligonians wearing moose antlers and chanting “We want the cup!”

Heck, the team shares its nickname with a local beer!

Some debut.

Needless to say, P.A. lost 4-2.

Raiders’ general manager Curtis Hunt is taking the high road in all this. He told me on Tuesday that while he’d support a more forgiving schedule (even an extra day to travel), you would go bonkers searching for why someone wins and the other guys lose.

“This is a short tournament,” Hunt said. “The margin of error in these things is so small.”

A broken stick, a bouncing puck or a misaligned pane of glass can all sabotage your night, and your tournament.

Hunt said he never thought his club was overwhelmed on the ice, and that’s all that matters now.

“I don’t think it tarnishes anything we did,” he said.

It brings about an interesting question about what’s more important.

Would you rather host, and win, Game 7 of the WHL championship against some big-city interlopers from far-off B.C.?

Or would you like to win half way across the country in a 10-day tournament against teams you’ve never seen before?

Well, yeah, a national championship would do wonders for any franchise, especially a small-market team like Prince Albert (I was baptized just outside Prince Albert; even then I could tell the place needed some excitement).

But how many people were inside Art Hauser Centre for Game 7? (3,289, to be exact)

How many kids will remember the atmosphere as Prince Albert won its first WHL trophy since 1985?

In overtime no less.

That story will be passed down for generations, and that’s what Hunt will remember best about the 2019 playoffs.

“The way we won it, it’s such euphoria to win your league,” he said.

It’s a feeling Rockets fans remember well from 2004. Hamilton’s club is one of the few that’s won as host team.

It’s the best of both worlds.

But there are no guarantees, either.

Hamilton said he would not—in good faith—mortgage his future for a quick fix. He will not sell the farm.

It’s a tremendous dilemma. While it’s not uncommon for hockey teams to load up on talent before the season, and at the trade deadline, it’s not Kelowna’s way.

You might even catch a few GMs rolling over for a host club in a trade so the league will be well represented.

Hamilton can’t understand why.

The Ontario league champion Guelph Storm has 15 players who won’t be back next season. Fifteen! What will the next decade look like in Guelph?

“I’m not prepared to do that,” Hamilton said.

You can bet if the Rockets hoist another Memorial Cup at Prospera Place next May, they will have earned it the hard way.

It’s the message Hamilton wants Rockets fans to hear.

“We’re not in it to host it,” he said, “we’re in it to win it.”

Dave Trifunov is a journalist at The Daily Courier and the author of three books for middle-grade readers. Email dave.trifunov@ok.bc.ca.

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