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Wheat Kings tough & talented

Brandon overdue for a title that beloved Wheaties could provide

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In a world where it sometimes now seems like everyone is a victim of something or someone, it can also seem like everyone these days is on a quest for some kind of redemption.

This is particularly true in the world of sports, a place of built-in second chances where there is always next year. Whether it's the wayward cornerback caught violating the league substance policy or the hard-luck defenceman caught up ice for the Game 7 overtime winner, the redemptive quest is all the rage nowadays.

And so the operative cliché heading into tonight's start of the MasterCard Memorial Cup in Brandon would go something like this:

A hard-luck hockey town that has been losing hockey championships for more than a century now -- all the way back to the 1904 Stanley Cup final -- finally gets its chance at redemption, on home ice but on a national stage.

Carrying the colours are the beloved local Wheat Kings, a tough but talented squad led by a coach and a defenceman who both would appear to have reasonsw of their own to be on their own personal quests for redemption.

The coach, Kelly McCrimmon, was a player 31 years ago on the now iconic 1978-79 Wheat Kings club that broke WHL records that stand to this day, generated future NHL stars Brad McCrimmon, Laurie Boschman and Brian Propp and won everything they could possibly win that storied winter except the Memorial Cup, denied them in a stunning 2-1 overtime defeat to the Peterborough Petes in the Cup final that year.

The loss in the final still hangs like a shroud over a community that stands unique in all of Canadian hockey for having competed in a Stanley Cup final (1904), an Allan Cup final (1921) and two Memorial Cup finals (1949 and 1979) -- and having lost all four times.

"Anytime you get to a Memorial Cup final, you can't look back at it unhappily," says McCrimmon. "But it was disappointing, especially at the time and especially for it to happen in overtime like it did."

And then there is the defenceman, Travis Hamonic, who had his coming out party last Christmas in a breakout tournament for Canada at the world juniors, but is probably best known to Canadians for the one game he didn't play -- the last one, the gold one, the one Canada lost, like McCrimmon's 1979 Wheat Kings, in overtime.

Hamonic calls sitting on the bench for that final game of the 2010 world juniors against the Americans, out with a shoulder injury sustained in a dirty hit late in Canada's semifinal romp over Switzerland, the "hardest thing I've ever had to do."

"It's such a helpless feeling to just be sitting there watching," says Hamonic. "It was so nerve-wracking. And then, the way it ended..."

The injury forced Hamonic out of WHL action too. But when he returned, he found himself traded by Moose Jaw to the Wheat Kings and was suddenly the owner of an automatic berth into another championship tournament.

And so put it all together and this little four-team get together over the next 10 days at the Keystone Centre would seem to drip with redemptive properties. Except both Hamonic and McCrimmon say it doesn't, that the other things -- the one final win that would have put the exclamation point on one of the greatest teams Manitoba has ever produced, the one extra goal that would have given Canada its sixth straight World Juniors gold -- have nothing to do with this thing right here right now.

"Is it going to right all the wrongs and make everything all better?" asked Hamonic. "No. But it will leave me with a better taste in my mouth coming out of this season... Winning a Memorial Cup has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I watched the WHL pretty closely."

And McCrimmon? What happened in 1979 stays in 1979, no matter how heartbreaking it might have been back then.

"That doesn't have anything to do with this," he says. "This will be an experience to last a lifetime, playing in front of our own fans, no matter what happens."

And if what happens is that long awaited hockey championship for a long suffering town of hockey diehards -- well, redemption by another name will still taste just as sweet.

Windsor Spitfires

 OHL champion

 Regular season: 50-12-1-5

Synopsis: The defending Memorial Cup champions come into this event as the favourites to repeat, but they seem to play their best hockey as the underdog. Windsor lost its first two games at last year's Memorial Cup only to rattle off three straight wins to capture the title. And then in this year's OHL conference final, Windsor fell behind the Kitchener Rangers 3-0 only to rattle off four straight victories to win the conference. A susequent four-game sweep of the Barrie Colts brings the defending champs into Brandon riding an eight-game winning streak.

Players to watch: F Taylor Hall, D Ryan Ellis, F Greg Nemisz, F Adam Henrique all won a Memorial Cup with this team last season and all played for Canada at the World Juniors this winter, while D Cam Fowler played for the Americans. Hall was the Memorial Cup MVP last year and is expected by many to go first overall in next month's NHL entry draft, while Fowler won't likely be far behind.

Quote: "This group in here, you can knock 'em down, but you can't keep 'em down." --Spitfires' Harry Young

Moncton Wildcats

 QMJHL champions

 Regular season: 48-14-2-4

Synopsis: The Wildcats have lost just five times in 21 playoff games this spring, rattling off 4-1 series wins over Cape Breton, Rouyn-Noranda and Drummondville to advance to the Q-final and then beating Saint John 4-2 in an all New Brunswick affair. The Cats are led by head coach Danny Flynn, who has NHL experience as an assistant with the New York Islanders and has tasted from the Memorial Cup trophy as an assistant with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1993. They are without top scorer Nicolas Deschamps, who was injured in the third round and is doubtful for this week.

Players to watch: Forwards Kelsey Tessier (14-16-30) and Gabriel Bourque (10-19-29) have had monstrous playoff performances for Moncton, while defenceman Mark Barberio (5-17-22) has quarterbacked the offence and special teams from the blue-line.

Quote: "We're not going to be as high-powered or as explosive as the other three teams, so the key for us is to try and be as good a two-way team as we can be." -- Flynn


Calgary Hitmen

 WHL champions

 Regular season: 52-17-1-2

Synopsis: The Hitmen were the best team in the Western Hockey League all season long, leading the league in points with 106. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit to outlast the Moose Jaw Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs, beat Medicine Hast 4-2 and were decisive 4-1 series winners over the Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference final last month and then the Tri-City Americans in the league final.

Players to Watch: F Brandon Kozun led the entire WHL in scoring with 107 points in the regular season and 30 points in the playoffs and looks like he was a steal for the Los Angeles Kings, who picked him up in the sixth round of last summer's NHL entry draft. G Martin Jones was named the top goaltender in the WHL, while D Michael Stone was named the top defenceman in the WHL's Eastern Conference.

Quote: "We wanted to prove everybody wrong and (show) we were here to stay and we were going to be a contender no matter what people thought." -- Hitmen co-captain Ian Schultz on what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Calgary

Brandon Wheat Kings


 Regular season: 50-18-1-3

Synopsis: The Wheaties were second only to the Hitmen in the WHL regular season, finishing just three points behind the league leaders. They were also second best to Calgary in the league conference final and will open the tournament tonight against the Windsor Spitfires in what will be the first game for Brandon in 20 days. They are seeking to become the third host city since 2004 to win the Memorial Cup without first winning a league title.

Players to watch: Sniper Brayden Schenn (34-65-99) was a first-rounder -- and fifth overall -- by the Los Angeles Kings last summer, while forward Scott Glennie (32-57-89) went eighth overall to Dallas in the 2009 NHL entry draft. D Travis Hamonic came over from the Moose Jaw Warriors at the trading deadline and was a point-a-game man for the Wheaties in the playoffs.

Quote: "I think this is going to prove to be a very evenly matched tournament." --Head coach Kelly McCrimmon


-- with files from the Brandon Sun


The schedule

-- Today: Windsor vs. Brandon,

7 p.m.

-- Saturday: Calgary vs. Moncton,

2 p.m.

-- Sunday: Brandon vs. Moncton,

2 p.m.

-- Monday: Calgary vs. Windsor,

7 p.m.

-- Tuesday: Moncton vs. Windsor,

7 p.m.

-- Wednesday: Brandon vs. Calgary,

7 p.m.

-- Thursday: Tiebreaker (if necessary),

7 p.m.

-- Friday, May 21: semifinal, 7


-- Sunday, May 23: final, 2 p.m.


A handful of single-game tickets

will go on sale this morning.


All the games will be broadcast

coast-to-coast on Rogers Sportsnet.




Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2010 C3

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