Pistons hoping for taste of national success
The Steinbach Pistons will be facing off against some familiar competition at this year’s Centennial Cup in Portage la Prairie.
The 10-team tournament will feature a preliminary round with two groups of five teams, a change from the last time the team made the national championships.
Steinbach is in a group with the Collingwood Blues (Ontario Junior Hockey League), Battlefords North Stars (Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League), Kam River Fighting Walleye (Superior International Junior Hockey League) and host Portage Terriers.
The RBC Cup in 2018, Steinbach’s only previous time at a national junior A championship, featured just five teams. Post-COVID-19 pandemic, 10 teams qualify for the national championship. The Pistons finished 0-2-2 in Chilliwack in 2018, failing to make the playoff round.
Steinbach head coach and general manager Paul Dyck, who has been behind the bench for every nationals or westerns appearance in the franchise’s history, likes the new format.
“I was able to attend the event last year in Estevan, and I thought it was a success, and had a real good feel with each province being represented,” Dyck said before leaving for Portage.
“It really had a feel of truly being a national championship.”
Dyck said he felt like the team has over-prepared in previous championships, focusing too much on game-planning for their opponents, instead of playing their own game.
“We have to bring our A-game, and our A-effort,” he said.
“The teams that get here are not only good, but they’re hard-working teams. The pace is going to be very high. We’re going to have to manage our emotions and play with composure.”
The B.C. Hockey League has not played in the Centennial Cup in recent years as the league has left the CJHL, and is set to leave Hockey Canada altogether beginning next season.
Collingwood put together a an impressive post-season in Ontario, going 16-2 including two sweeps, defeating Trenton in the finals 4-1. Throughout the playoffs, the Blues only conceded 25 goals.
“There’s a lot of good teams in our division,” Dyck said.
“(Collingwood) is one of the best defensive teams in the country. They play with great structure, they’re very disciplined in what they do, and play with a lot of speed. That’s going to be a great test right out of the gate.”
It’s Collingwood’s first trip to the Centennial Cup. The team started the season as the number one ranked team in the country, and never dropped below eighth. The Blues managed to avoid the Toronto Jr. Canadiens in the post-season, which were ranked fourth in the final Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) rankings in early March.
Steinbach plays Collingwood on the opening day, May 11 at 7:30 p.m.
Pistons fans should be familiar with the Portage Terriers, as the two teams seemed destined to face off in the MJHL finals this season. With Virden upsetting the Terriers in the league semi-finals, that match-up will come at the Centennial Cup. Portage had been dealing with a locker-room illness during the semi-finals, only dressing 18 players in two of their losses.
Portage held the advantage this season during the regular season, winning four of the six games the two franchises played against each other, although the final match-up had nothing on the line for either team in the standings.
“I know Blake (Spiller) is going to have them ready,” Dyck said, referring to Portage’s head coach and general manager.
“The game against Portage is going to be exciting. The two teams from our league, playing in their building, they’re going to be up for it, no question.”
Battlefords tore through the SJHL this season, and were consistently ranked as one of the best two teams in the national rankings. They didn’t lose a game in regulation until Jan. 14, and plowed through the playoffs, posting a 12-1 record and cruising to a league title.
The only game the North Stars lost in the post-season came in game one of their first series, a 3-2 loss to Weyburn before they rattled off 12 consecutive victories, including sweeping the Flin Flon Bombers in the league final.
The North Stars featured Saskatchewan’s top four point-scorers in Kian Bell, Holden Doell, Jake Southgate and Steve Kesslering. It’s Battlefords first trip to the Centennial Cup since 2000.
The Kam River Fighting Walleye have only played at the junior A level for three seasons, as they moved up from the junior B ranks starting during the cancelled 2020 season. In the two seasons since, they’ve lost in the league final, and won it, defeating the Thunder Bay North Stars for the Bill Salonen Cup this year to earn their spot at the Centennial Cup.
Both teams are based out of Thunder Bay, and the final CJHL rankings had Kam River ranked 18th.
“There’s no games at this stage that are more important than the other once you get in it,” Dyck said.
“Your goal is to get into that next round of the tournament.”
Hosts for the 2024 and 2025 Centennial Cup tournaments have also been announced, with Okotoks, Alta, and Oakville, Ont. set to host the best junior A teams from around the country in the next two years.
The Pistons will be looking for their first win at a national tournament, as they went 0-4 at the Western Canada Cup when they qualified in 2013.
The championship game in Portage will be broadcast on TSN. Preliminary games will be shown on the Hockey Canada website, and Pistons’ broadcaster Dave Anthony will be providing audio play-by-play on dabroadcasting.mixlr.com.