For 30 years, the National Midget Championship has been the pinnacle of minor hockey in Canada – the only official national championship in Canada’s minor hockey system.
Every season, more than 100 teams – there were 1-08 – have taken to the ice in the fall hoping to earn one of the five spots to compete for the TELUS Cup, or the Air Canada Cup in its previous incarnation.
Everyone wants to be there, and only one man has…every year.
Yvon Huard will make the trip to Arnprior, ON this year for the 2008 TELUS Cup, marking the 30th consecutive year he will be in attendance for the National Midget Championship.
When looking for an authority on everything Midget hockey, Huard is a pretty good place to start.
“Some people I knew were playing for Ste-Foy (in 1978), so I thought I’d go,” Huard explains about how he got hooked. “I enjoyed it a lot, so I thought I’d go again the next year. Now it has become my vacation. Some people go to the Caribbean, I go to the TELUS Cup.”
The Cap-Santé, QC native has criss-crossed the country following the National Midget Championship, traveling from his home just outside Quebec City to Victoria, BC (1982), St. John’s, NL (1989) and Red Deer, AB (2007), with dozens of stops in between.
His favourite host?
“The people in Charlottetown (in 2006) were amazing,” he says. “The mayor stopped by to meet me and give me a book on the city’s history. It was just a great week.”
That tournament was also the site of what Huard calls the best game he has ever seen at the National Midget Championship, the gold medal game triple-overtime thriller between the Prince Albert Mintos and Calgary Buffaloes.
“The players gave everything they had, and more, and the goaltenders were superb,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of exciting games over the years, but that game was something special.
One year after being part of the longest game in National Midget Championship history, the Mintos entered the record books once again when they topped the host Red Deer Optimist Rebels 3-2 in double overtime in the 2007 gold medal game, becoming the first team to ever defend its national championship.
A number of teams had the opportunity – Notre Dame lost the gold medal game in 1987 after winning the 1986 title, Regina won in 1988 and lost the final in 1989 and Thunder Bay won national crowns in 19 and lost in the final in 1996 – but no one before the 20 Mintos were able to pull off the back-to-back feat.
The two gold medals puts Prince Albert in elite company, only the eighth team – joining the Regina Pat Canadians (1983, 1988, 1994, 1999), Lac St-Louis Lions (1981, 1985, 1992), Gouverneurs de Ste-Foy (1979, 1996, 2001), Riverains de Richelieu (1987, 1990), Notre Dame Hounds (1980, 1986) Calgary Northstars (1991, 2003) and Thunder Bay Kings (1995, 1997) – to win multiple National Midget Championships.
The wins by the Mintos also kept up three decades of domination by Saskatchewan-based teams, who have taken home 10 of the first 29 gold medals, including the last three in a row.
Even in the first five years of the Air Canada Cup (19), when the tournament featured 12 teams – one from each of Hockey Canada’s Branches – Saskatchewan teams took home two championships.
However, the most impressive run of consistency belongs to Quebec, which has won at least a bronze medal at every National Midget Championship since 1998 (including three gold medals), and at 26 of the first 29.
If a Quebec team takes home the top prize from Arnprior, it would tie Saskatchewan atop the all-time charts with 10 national championships for one province, a remarkable run of success for both provinces.
Saskatchewan is also home to the player Huard chooses as the best he has ever seen. Over the past 29 years, a lot of great players have hit the ice at the National Midget Championship – Yzerman, Sakic, MacInnis, Roy, Gagné, Heatley – but none of them get his vote.
“Gord Kluzak with the Notre Dame Hounds in 1980 (in Cornwall, ON) was the best,” Huard says of the future first-overall NHL draft pick. “He was already 6-foot-4, and he could do so much. If the coach needed offense, he’d set up in front of the net. If they needed defense, he’d shut down the opposition. He was dominant.”
As good as Kluzak was, Huard is quick to point out that Sidney Crosby’s performance at the 2002 Air Canada Cup in Bathurst, NB was just as memorable.
Crosby, playing as a 14-year-old with the Dartmouth Subways, followed up a 217-point regular season by racking up 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in seven games as he almost single-handedly led the Subways to a silver medal.
“He was the best player on the ice,” Huard says of the current Pittsburgh Penguins captain and last year’s NHL MVP. “He was so dominant at 14, it was unbelievable to watch.”
Over the years, Huard has seen the Midget game change first hand. Players are getting bigger and stronger, equipment has changed, and the way the game is covered by media is different.
But he says the biggest change he has seen has been in the coaching.
“It’s different from, let’s say twenty years ago, when the coaches were fathers coaching their son,” he says. “Now you get paid to coach Midget hockey. It has become more specialized. Now you have former Major Junior or Junior A coaches coming back to coach the Midget game.”
Now into his 60s, Huard says he hopes there are many more TELUS Cups in his future.
“I’ll be there as long as I can stay in good health and still have the passion to watch every game and enjoy myself. It’s the same thing the players are told: go on the ice, enjoy yourself, have fun. I’m doing the same thing, I’m having fun watching the game.”