Brayden Schenn was on his way home from practice when he received the news he had been anxiously awaiting all day.
Schenn was listening to the radio while driving in his car when it was announced his Brandon Wheat Kings would be hosting the 2010 Memorial Cup tournament. The Wheat Kings’ bid topped that of the Everett Silvertips and Kelowna Rockets to give the 17-year-old Schenn the opportunity to realize a dream.
"For me to be able to compete for the Memorial Cup will be an unbelievable experience and you always dream of that," he told Sportsnet.ca. "The Memorial Cup is one of the hardest trophies to win and it’s just nice to be able to compete for it."
From there Schenn proceeded by calling his parents and older brother Luke, a rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL. Luke Schenn was an underage player when the Kelowna Rockets hosted the tournament in 2004 and billeted with all-star defenceman Shea Weber during the event.
"(Luke is) pretty pumped up," the younger Schenn explained. "He thought it would be a great place for the Memorial Cup to be. Through me, he knows Brandon’s a good organization so he’s excited for me and for the Wheat Kings organization."
Schenn met several of his teammates Wednesday night for their regular twice-a-week study hall at the local high school. The atmosphere was one of excitement but Schenn maintained the players aren’t looking ahead at next season.
"It’s a pretty exciting time knowing Brandon was awarded the 2010 Memorial Cup but you don’t want to look past this season. It’s still a long season and we just want look at this season."
The last two Western Hockey League franchises to host the Memorial Cup were the Vancouver Giants in 2007 and Kelowna Rockets in 2004. Ironically, both the Giants and Rockets won the Memorial Cup on home ice while also winning the WHL title and competing in the Memorial Cup the previous year.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison acknowledged a strong team is one of the requirements of hosting the tournament, a goal Brandon head coach and general manager Kelly McCrimmon is focusing on.
"Obviously it’s important that year leading into the event you have a real competitive team that gains experience," he said. "Certainly we expect at this point to treat it as two different teams to get the most out of the group that we have right now to have the best season that we can and we know we have a big nucleus from that group preparing for 2009-2010 and then we’ll add to that as needed."
Should Schenn return to the Wheat Kings next season after the NHL draft, where he is expected to be a top 10 pick, he will be the marquee name on a team loaded with young talent.
"The young talent on that team is exceptional and the nucleus of players that will be returning next season are exceptional young players," Robison said. "As a result, it’s not only exciting for them but it’s exciting for us to be able to showcase talent of that level."
Brandon made the first presentation which then received the support from both Kelowna and Everett, resulting in a unanimous decision.
The city of Brandon and the province of Manitoba have provided $5 million for expenses to improve the building with additions including: luxury suites, a video score clock, an additional press box as well as refurbishing the existing press box, a new dressing room and arena lighting.
The Wheat Kings will host the Memorial Cup for the first time in franchise history. This year’s tournament will be hosted by the Rimouski Océanic of the Québec Major Junior Hockey League.
WHL approves sale of Winter Hawks
The WHL also announced the sale of the Portland Winter Hawks on Wednesday.
Bill Gallacher of Calgary, Alta., who also owns the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL, has purchased the team for an undisclosed amount and will assume ownership of the franchise later this month. The Winter Hawks will remain in Portland, Ore. as part of the conditions of the sale
"First of all, our objective in this exercise from a league standpoint has been to find an individual, an ownership group, that is fully committed to the Portland market," Robison said. "We want to preserve the Portland Winter Hawks. We want to restore the franchise to levels that we experienced in the past. It’s one of the most prestigious franchises and we want to make sure that it continues to be a very solid part of our U.S. Division."
The Winter Hawks were once considered a model franchise, twice winning league and Memorial Cup championships in addition to hosting the Memorial Cup in 1983 and 1986. Portland held the highest single-game attendance record of 19,103 until March when the Calgary Hitmen broke the record by 202 fans.
Robison met with Gallacher for the first time more than a year ago when he first expressed interest in acquiring a WHL franchise.
"We came to that conclusion (that the team needed new ownership) a few months ago when it became evident the current ownership group was not showing signs of getting the franchise playing in the right direction," Robison said.
Portland is coming off the worst season in franchise history with 11 wins and 25 points while their 37 points the previous year is third worse in team history. The Winter Hawks have been in Portland since the 1976-1977 season.
The WHL also announced Wednesday that the league will implement the CHL drug education and anti-doping program. The WHL will begin random testing in November while the Ontario Hockey League is also implementing the program. The QMJHL is in its third season with the program.
Tigres keeping pace
One might think the Victoriaville Tigres wouldn’t be too receptive to the league’s divisional realignment this season.
The Tigres are in the Telus Central Division along with the Shawinigan Cataractes, Drummondville Voltigeurs and Lewiston MAINEiacs. If the way each team has played early this season is any indication, this is shaping up to be the toughest division in the QMJHL this season, something Tigres general manager Jérôme Mésonéro is welcoming with open arms.
"It’s a division that’s looking like it will be very competitive and we’ll have to find a way to perform well against teams in the division," he said.
The Cataractes and Voltigeurs are tied atop the division standings with 18 points while the Tigres trail with 14 and Lewiston with 10. Shawinigan is expected to compete for the league championship this season after a big off-season on the trade front while the Voltigeurs have made a complete turnaround from a dismal season where they finished with the league’s worst record.
"The players look at the standings and they see Drummondville and Shawinigan and they want to stay close to those teams so we have no choice but to work hard," Mésonéro said. "Shawinigan, Drummondville and Victoriaville are very close which also makes it very interesting for the fans."
One of the reasons the Tigres have been successful this season is due to the emergence of Czech forward Andrej Nestrasil. The 17-year-old arrived in the QMJHL with plenty of hype and as Mésonéro said, he’s living up to the advanced billing with five goals and five assists in 14 games.
"He’s a player who’s adapting very well to the North American style of game," he said. "We’ve been giving him a lot of responsibilities this season and he’s been one of our best players since the beginning of the season."
Nestrasil is considered a potential first-round NHL pick this summer. Meanwhile, goaltender Kevin Poulin, who was a fifth-round pick by the New York Islanders last summer, has been an integral part of the Tigres this season.
"Since he returned from his camp in the NHL he’s been one of our best players every night and he gives us a chance to win every night," Mésonéro said.
Belleville expected to compete
While there’s always uncertainty entering each season, Belleville Bulls head coach and general manager George Burnett maintains his expectation each year is for his team to be competitive.
Despite losing several key players from last year’s team that came within a game of winning the OHL and played in the Memorial Cup, Burnett’s Bulls are off to a quick 7-3 start this season. Belleville currently leads the Eastern Conference standings.
"We expect to be a competitive team regardless of what direction we go in. That’s something we strive to be every year," he said. "Is this a special year? I don’t have an answer to that yet and there’s still a lot of uncertainty with players away at pro camps.
"It’s been a good start but I think there’s a big difference between our group of a year ago… and the one we’re starting with now."
One of the aspects each team has to deal with each season are the additions and subtractions from rosters where some players will remain at pro camps while others will need to step up into bigger roles.
Third-year forward Matthew Tipoff has emerged as one of the Bulls’ top players this season and has already set a personal best for points in a season with 12 through 10 games. Burnett and his staff challenged Tipoff to improve his strength and fitness during the off-season and so far the results speak for themselves.
"He’s doing a little bit of everything for our club right now and he’s had a great start," Burnett said. "You hope he doesn’t get comfortable and he understands that you don’t just get this opportunity, you’ve got to continue to maintain what you’ve worked on and what you’ve developed over the course of the off-season.
"It gets tougher because now teams are starting to recognize he’s a big part of our club. He’s seeing other team’s first and second line when we’re on the road and don’t control the matchups and top D-pair because he’s creating some offence and having good success so it’s a tough grind all the time for those players."