The matches are set, the ice at the St. James Civic Centre is ready and six Manitoba high-school hockey squads are getting ready to battle for provincial bragging rights.
On Tuesday, the Manitoba High School Athletics Association formally introduced the competing teams at this weekend's Milk AAAA Provincial High School Hockey Championship: the John Taylor Pipers, Morden Thunder, Oak Park Raiders, Crocus Plainsmen, Stonewall Rams and the host River East Kodiaks.
In the midst of the buzz at a downtown press conference, Pipers coach Tyler Steeves blinked as a wall of cameras and microphones and notepads ringed him in tight. Questions started to fly: What's the secret for his team to win? And how did they make it this far?
His answers: a strong team defence; great goaltending by Brett Bigourdin, who notched five shutouts during the season and three in the playoffs; heart. It was sort of a blur, he laughed later. "I don't even know what I said," Steeves said. "I guess I'll find out tonight on the news."
You see, being at the centre of all those bright lights is not something Steeves has experienced much before. Most years, the spotlight shines on the St. Paul's Crusaders, who clinched the 2012 provincial championship and are usually favourites to win.
But this year, the Crusaders aren't there. They were knocked out in the quarter-finals in February after a stunning upset by the Stonewall Rams. Their absence is noted.
"I've been coaching (high school) for seven years, and that's the biggest upset I can recall," Oak Park Raiders coach Joel Nedecky said. "So with them not being here, it definitely has a different feel to it."
So, with the defending champions no longer able to defend, there's a new favourite to win the province's top high school hockey prize: The Pipers, who blazed through the Winnipeg High School Hockey League season with a 15-7-0-0 record and captured the city championship.
It's a pretty feat for a team from a smaller school. Only 600 students attend John Taylor and 21 tried out for the school's 17-man hockey squad this year. Compared to the potential talent pool other teams can draw from, that's not a ton.
On the other hand, they've been playing together a long, long time. Of the 13 Grade 12 students on the John Taylor squad, 12 have played hockey together since they were as young as 11 years old.
"In Grade 9, they were thinking of going to different (high) schools," Steeves said. "We found out about that, and the principal and I had a parent information night. Next thing you know, they all decided to stay here and play together. Two years later, they joined the team. Two years after that, here we are."
Now, the weekend tourney is one last hurrah and one last chance to bring a championship trophy home to a school that hasn't won in 22 years.
Pool A: John Taylor Pipers, Crocus Plains Plainsmen, Stonewall Rams
Pool B: Oak Park Raiders, Morden Thunder, River East Kodiaks
ROUND ROBIN -- FRIDAY
Morden Thunder vs. Oak Park Raiders, 9 a.m.
Crocus Plainsmen vs. John Taylor Pipers, 11 a.m.
River East Kodiaks vs. Morden Thunder, 1 p.m.
Stonewall Rams vs. Plainsmen, 3:15 p.m.
Raiders vs. Kodiaks, 5:30 p.m.
Pipers vs. Rams, 7:45 p.m.
SEMIFINALS -- SATURDAY
1st, Pool A vs. 2nd, Pool B, 4 p.m.
1st, Pool B vs. 2nd, Pool A, 6 p.m.
FINAL -- MONDAY
Two semifinal winners, 7:30 p.m.
All games at the St. James Civic Centre