Thursday, April 28, 2011

Exciting Time In Hockey

The first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are in the books and eight teams now move on, one step closer to the holy grail of hockey. Just as exciting is the buzz around the start of the 2011 RBC Royal Bank Cup. This year in Camrose Alberta, the National Tournament to identify the Junior A Champion of Canada will feature five teams in a round robin format.

Starting in the West ... or actually the Pacific Region ... the Vernon Vipers have made the long journey back to the RBC Royal Bank Cup for an astounding third consecutive year and will be there as the two-time defending champions. The Vipers earned the right after going through the BCHL Playoffs and coming out League Champions and then taking seven games to dispatch their Alberta counterparts in the Doyle Cup Championship.

To make it all the way and win it just once is tough enough, but to make it there twice and win it in back to back seasons is the stuff legends are built on. To make it there three consecutive times is to flirt with the notion of a dynasty. Especially when you consider that the average duration of a Junior A player is two seasons with the same team. Between attrition, graduation and age restrictions, having a championship calibre team three years in a row is not something that just happens.

The Vernon Vipers started the season and even the playoffs as underdogs to make it to the end. Now they enter the RBC Royal Bank Cup as heavy favourites up against four strong teams from across the country. If it can be said that they quietly made it through the BCHL playoffs, their arrival to the RBC Royal Bank Cup has drawn lots of media attention and is making lots of noise across the country.

After receiving a first round bye in the BCHL Playoffs, the Vernon Vipers spotted both of their next two opponents early series leads before answering back and dispatching them in six games each. They did better than that in the League Finals, sweeping the hands-down best team in the BCHL and a top ranked team in Canada in four games.

The Vipers required all seven games in the Doyle Cup against the Spruce Grove Saints and had to win three of four games in unfamiliar surroundings in the Grant Fuhr Arena in Spruce Grove. The Spruce Grove Saints were ranked at the top of the list among Junior A teams in Canada and had only lost two games in regulation time at home all season. They had swept their first two post season opponents and in the league championship only lost one game.

The Doyle Cup games were low scoring and close with the Vernon Vipers outscoring the Saints 17-16 in those seven games. After the Vipers opened the series with a win, the Saints won the next two and brought the series home leading 2-1. The Vernon Vipers took back the lead going up 3-2 in the series but could not dispatch the Saints in game six. Game seven was a different story with the Vernon Vipers getting an early lead and never let go.

One of the teams that the Vernon Vipers will face is the host team; the Camrose Kodiaks were the only team to register a win against the Spruce Grove Saints during the AJHL post season. The Kodiaks have been to the RBC Royal Bank Cup five times before and have hoisted the National Junior A prize once winning it in 2001. Of their five trips to the RBC Royal Bank Cup they played in four championship games, the only time they missed out was in 2007 after losing to the Prince George Spruce Kings in an epic battle during the semi-finals.

This is the first time that Camrose has hosted the tournament and it will be the first time it has been held in Alberta since 2004 when the Grande Prairie Storm was the host team. Since 1990, six host teams have gone on to win it all and be crowned National Champions. The last to do it was the Weyburn Red Wings in 2005. The other five were the Halifax Oland Exports (2002), Fort McMurray Oil Barons (2000), Summerside Western Capitals (1997), Olds Grizzlys (1994) and the Vernon Lakers (1990).

The equivalent of the Doyle Cup, the Anavet Cup determines the winner to represent the West between the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and Manitoba Junior Hockey League. The Portage Terriors come into the RBC Royal Bank Cup for their third time having seen both ends of the spectrum in their previous two visits. Representing the West in 1973, the Terriors came away National Champions from the Tournament held in Brandon and Winnipeg Manitoba. More recently, in 2005 in Weyburn Saskatchewan, the Terriors were the first team eliminated not making it out of the round-robin portion of the Tournament.

The Central Region representative has a longer post season road to travel that is capped off with a round robin tournament known as the Dudley Hewitt Cup. The Wellington Dukes dispatched the host team of that tournament to earn the right of representing the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) as well as the North Ontario Junior Hockey League (NOJHL) and the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL). This is the second time at the RBC Royal Bank Cup for the Dukes having finished 3rd in 2003 after losing the semi-final game to the eventual tournament winner the Humboldt Broncos.

Rounding out the five team field is a familiar name for those that remember the 2007 RBC Royal Bank Cup in Prince George. The Pembroke Lumber Kings will be making their six appearance this year, fourth as the East Region representative. Interesting enough the Lumber Kings once attended the Tournament as a representative of the Central Region in 1987 and one year later as the host team, finishing third both times. In 2007 they finished 4th while in 1977 and 1973 they came away with silver.

All teams have fought hard all year long to get here and this year the field looks extremely tight with all five times having a legitimate shot at hoisting the RBC Royal Bank Cup. Round robin play gets underway on Saturday April 30 with the defending champions taking on the host team - the Vernon Vipers and the Camrose Kodiaks get underway at 7pm Mountain Time (6pm Pacific Time). For complete schedule and additional information check out the RBC Royal Bank Cup page on the Hockey Canada website (click here).

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