NCAA basketball has the Final Four. College hockey has the Frozen Four. The equivalent in junior hockey is the Memorial Cup. This year, the WHL is represented by two teams: the WHL Champion Swift Current Broncos and the host team, the Regina Pats. The Pats boast top NHL prospect Sam Steel as their Captain.
The Canadian Hockey League is comprised of three leagues. The WHL is sometimes viewed as the scrappy underdog compared to the more elite OHL and QMJHL. This year, the Regina Pats beat out two OHL teams (Hamilton Bulldogs, Oshawa Generals) for the honor to host this year’s tournament. It’s a big deal when the Cup is hosted out west. Now that all four teams are set, let the games begin. The Memorial Cup runs from May 18 – 27.
Sam Steel, Regina Pats Get Ready to Welcome the Competition
History lesson: The Pats are named for Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. They are the CHL’s oldest franchise, having begun operations in 1917. The 2017 – 2018 season marked their 100th anniversary.
Small world: The Pats had a brief opportunity to enter the tournament as their league’s champion. They qualified for playoffs but were eliminated in the first round. The team that eliminated them in seven games? The Swift Current Broncos. You can’t make this stuff up. The two teams will face each other on May 23.
NHL Drafted Prospects: Sam Steel (Anaheim Ducks), Jake Leschyshyn (Vegas Golden Knights), Nick Henry (Colorado Avalanche), Libor Hajek (Tampa Bay Lightning), Cale Fleury (Montreal Canadiens), Josh Mahura (Anaheim Ducks).
2018 NHL-draft eligible player to watch: Goalie Max Paddock.
The current format of the Memorial Cup dictates that the host team gets an automatic berth in the tournament. It’s a freebie of sorts. A lot goes into the competitive bidding process, so it’s not entirely free. Still, it’s a second chance for the host if they got eliminated from playoffs. The rematch with the Swift Current Broncos promises to be a true “Battle of Saskatchewan.”
Pats Captain Sam Steel was famously cut from Team Canada’s World Junior roster in 2016 after being drafted 30th overall by the Anaheim Ducks earlier in the year. He didn’t let it stop him. Quite the opposite. He led the WHL in scoring in 2016 – 2017 and won the Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as the WHL Player of the Year. He also won the CHL’s Top Scorer Award, and made Team Canada’s roster for the 2018 World Juniors, where he contributed to the team’s gold medal victory.
Sam Steel’s teammate Josh Mahura spent most of his junior career with 2016 Memorial Cup host the Red Deer Rebels, so he already has tournament experience under his belt. Mahura is quite the playmaker, with 69 points (22G, 47A) in 60 games played this season. He had five assists in the Pats’ seven playoff games.
Goalie Max Paddock is ranked 22nd overall in the NHL Central Scouting final draft rankings for 2018. He was injured during the Pats playoff games with the Broncos but is expected to be ready for the Memorial Cup. All in the family: Paddock is the nephew of Pats Head Coach and GM John Paddock.
Local angle: Let’s face facts. Sam Steel has one of the best hockey names in the league. He also has a great post-World Junior comeback story. I have the feeling he’s going to be like Mathew Barzal. Barzal was a huge superstar in the WHL, so it’s amusing to watch Islanders fans marvel at how good he really is. Sam Steel has that same quality. If Max Paddock really is back at full strength, look for a strong showing between the pipes.
History lesson: The Swift Current Broncos have not won a WHL Championship since 1993. They won their only Memorial Cup to date in 1989. The Broncos and Pats are connected by another piece of history that cannot be ignored. The Swift Current Broncos were on their way to play in Regina on December 30, 1986 when their bus crashed, killing four players. Today’s players will travel to the Memorial Cup by plane. I will not rest until I hear that all three CHL teams have arrived safely in Regina.
NHL prospects to watch: Goalie Stuart Skinner (Edmonton Oilers), Tyler Steenbergen (Arizona Coyotes), Giorgio Estephan (free agent), Glenn Gawdin (Calgary Flames), Aleksi Heponiemi (Florida Panthers), Beck Malenstyn (Washington Capitals) and Colby Sissons (New Jersey Devils).
The Broncos eliminated three more teams on their road to the Memorial Cup, including seemingly invincible Western Conference Champion Everett Silvertips. Their path to this moment has been 25 years in the making. I don’t think much of anything will stop them now. They are also coached by one of the best in the league, Manny Viveiros. His “Manny in the Morning” pre-game briefing is a must watch for local WHL fans.
Tip of the day: Beware when Tyler Steenbergen has been quiet. The last time he snuck up on the opponent the 2018 World Juniors. He was eerily quiet for most of the tournament until he exploded for the gold medal game winner.
The big picture: The Hamilton Bulldogs and the Acadie-Bathurst Titan are going to give the WHL teams all they can handle. That doesn’t take away from the excitement of having two WHL teams in the spotlight. The Broncos have the edge based on their history and 2018 playoff performance. The Pats are well-rested and they have home-ice advantage. I will give the edge to the Broncos. They’ve waited 25 years after all. It’s time.
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