King on WHL: Blades have 51 days to regroup

Andrey Makarov of the Saskatoon Blades. (WHL Images)

Fifty-one days.

That’s how long the Saskatoon Blades will have to pick up the pieces, and figure out just how the MasterCard Memorial Cup host team couldn’t even manage to win a single playoff game. The Blades, the Western Hockey League’s No. 2 Eastern Conference seed, were unceremoniously swept in the first-round of the playoffs by the No. 7-seeded Medicine Hat Tigers on Wednesday night.

The Blades never led in the series, and scored a mere four goals in four games. They were outscored 15-4, and it could have even been worse against a Tigers team that was firing on every cylinder.

The Tigers, who wouldn’t even register as a potential participant in the MasterCard Memorial Cup, just took out the tournament’s host team with relative ease.

Fifty-one days.

The Blades were a surprise recipient in landing the tournament when it was announced in October of 2011. Their bid beat out others from Kelowna and Red Deer, and from that day forward, their critics ferociously disputed their validity. There’s little reason now to dispute those claims.

The Rockets forced a Game 5 in their first-round stunner with Seattle, while the Rebels advanced to the second-round after sweeping the Prince Albert Raiders on the same night the Blades were eliminated. Of course, none of this matters now, because the decision is final and the hosting privileges aren’t about to be passed to someone else, as they were in 1990 and 1991 when the Dukes of Hamilton and Beauport Harfangs lost the hosting rights due to having weak teams.

The Blades have no one to blame but themselves for this embarrassment of epic proportions. But it goes much deeper than the pride hurt one would expect exists within the room. This is an about face for the Western Hockey League, who put all its eggs in Saskatoon’s basket, and watched the house of cards come crumbling down in less than a week.

Not a year goes by that the tournament format isn’t criticized and suggestions made to change it. A pre-determined host site, accompanied by a host team, is not a popular way for the national championship to be crowned among junior hockey outsiders.

Last year, the Canadian Hockey League was able to save face when the Shawinigan Cataractes, who lost in Game 7 of their second-round series to Chicoutimi, overcame a mountain of adversity to win the Memorial Cup. They had a 31 day layoff, which is now dwarfed by Saskatoon’s wait.

Fifty-one days.

The pressure they felt isn’t about to be lifted. There will be plenty of mirrors for the players to gaze into during this time, and the reflection they see is the one responsible for this predicament.

They notoriously ran hot and cold throughout the season. When they were hot – one time winning 18 in a row – no one was hotter. But when they were cold, the temperature was as frigid as a Saskatoon winter.

There was never an ounce of desperation from the Blades in their abbreviated playoffs, never a belief the next play held much meaning or importance. The lingering reminder that there would always be a tomorrow for the team hosting the MasterCard Memorial Cup manifested in the impression of indifference and a perceived sense of entitlement.

The tournament may be given to them, but surely nothing else would. Bad habits and shortcuts littered their play, as a lack of discipline and unity reigned.

For all the criticism bestowed on the Shawinigan Cataractes last year, they wound up getting the last laugh. Few believed it was possible for them then, and even fewer will believe it possible for the Blades now.

Those 31 days were filled with angst, emotion, rampant speculation and rumours and even a second training camp for the Cataractes. Their players were quick to heap praise on the training camp and their head coach, Eric Veilleux, who pushed them further than they knew they could be pushed. It wound up being the silver-lining for the Cataractes, though their players didn’t hide how the time off ate at them every day.

The Blades will have nearly three more weeks of it than the Cataractes did. Fifty-one days of it, to be exact. They’ll have seven weeks to re-discover and re-define themselves. It won’t be pretty. The MasterCard Memorial Cup host isn’t supposed to sit and wait – especially not for three rounds – even if it gives them some form of advantage when the tournament finally comes.

Head coach Lorne Molleken has been here before. In 2001, as the bench boss of the Regina Pats, his team was bounced in the opening round of the playoffs. They wound up losing the semifinal in overtime.

It will be different now. Unlike 12 years earlier, the Internet brings junior hockey farther to the forefront than it’s ever been before. The Blades are trending on social media, and the negativity evolving from it is something the players won’t be able to hide from. Such thing didn’t exist for Molleken’s Pats in 2001.

Fifty-one days.

They’ll be the longest 51 days in Lorne Molleken’s career.

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