BRENDAN LEIPSIC and his Portland Winterhawks are ready for their crack at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
As in, really ready.
That's because the Western Hockey League champions know how hard it is to just get the opportunity. They've been to three straight WHL finals. In the first two, they came in second but finally broke through in the third, polishing off the Edmonton Oil Kings last Sunday.
"It's a long time coming, thinking about those last two opportunities to close it out in the finals and we didn't," Leipsic said via phone from Saskatoon, where his Winterhawks were practising on Thursday in preparation for their first game of the tournament on Saturday against the QMJHL champion Halifax Mooseheads.
'We have a really good team this year and got over the hump and we are ready for this first taste of a Memorial Cup'
-- Brendan Leipsic
"But we have a really good team this year and got over the hump and we are ready for this first taste of a Memorial Cup."
The Winterhawks were the WHL's top-ranked team in 2012-13, piling up 117 points on the basis of a 57-12-1-2 record.
That was an improvement of 12 points on the team's fine 2011-12 and don't discount the motivation enhanced by twice coming close to the title.
"I think we were better from the adversity, that taste of losing," Leipsic said. "We didn't want to have it happen in again. We have a core group of guys who had that feeling and we're an experienced team and thinking about those (prior) teams make this much sweeter."
Also sweet is the story authored by Leipsic this season. The 18-year-old from Winnipeg (he turns 19 on Sunday) bounced from 58 points in his second WHL year to 120 this season to share the league's Bob Clarke Trophy as scoring champion with linemate Nicolas Petan.
The third member of the Winterhawks top forward unit, Ty Rattie, finished third in the scoring race with 110 points.
"My first years in the league I never really got too much attention on my offensive numbers, really," Leipsic said. "But this, with my linemates, we had a lot of success. We were always matched up against top defencemen and checking lines but we didn't really focus on that.
"People tried to get under our skin but we were a pretty focused line. We just tried to play our game, and play it with speed and it worked out for our team."
There has been plenty of talk about Portland's journey to this Memorial Cup, and we're not talking about Wednesday's plane ride.
In November, the WHL punished the organization with stiff sanctions for "player benefit violations," including forcing the team to remove coach and GM Mike Johnston for the rest of the season.
"Everybody was in shock, obviously, but we moved on from it and we kept Mike in the back of our heads for how much time and effort he put into this organization," Leipsic said. "We kind of wanted to do it for him, too."
Johnston's assistant, former NHLer Travis Green, took over the job behind the bench.
"He's done an awesome job," Leipsic said. "We didn't miss a beat."
When the tournament is done, Leipsic -- drafted by the NHL's Nashville Predators last June in the third round -- also has something to look forward to this summer.
That would be bragging rights with his good buddy, Winnipegger Michael St. Croix of the Oil Kings.
"We grew up on the same street when we were five and six and we're still good buddies, still playing some beer-league hockey in the summer," Leipsic laughed. "We hang out together lots. The series (the WHL final) wasn't too bad; we just don't look at each other as friends on the ice. He won it last year and had the bragging rights for a whole year."