For St. John’s Maple Leafs coach Rick Babstock, the biggest challenge ahead is convincing his team that they belong on the same ice surface as the best midget AAA teams in the country.
And while that may seem like a formidable task for some, Babstock shouldn’t have too difficult of a time making believers out of his team. After all, last year’s representative from the Atlantic Region, the Dartmouth Subways, made it to the championship game of the Air Canada Cup Midget AAA Championships, losing 5-2 to the Tisdale Trojans of the Western Region.
“One of the biggest problems we have here is making our boys believe we can compete on the national stage,” said Babstock. “We don’t get that opportunity very often and my guys have to believe they can do it.”
The Maple Leafs will be one of six teams competing in the round-robin tournament slated for Sault Ste. Marie April 21-27 and they bring to town a swift-skating team that relies heavily on the scoring prowess of two players.
Offensively, the Leafs got a lot of mileage this season from Sean Wadden, who scored 74 goals and 121 points in 56 games and Ted Purcell, who notched 51 goals and 114 points in 55 games.
Both wingers play on the same line and in between a variety of centres and their play should dictate how far the Leafs can go.
“We have a pretty balanced attack but those guys have done the bulk of our scoring this season,” said Babstock.
The Maple Leafs finished the season with a 43-9-3 overall record that included a championship win at the Monctonian Tournament. They also competed in a tournament in Hull, Que., this season where they lost out in the playoff round to the Michigan IceDogs.
In their Atlantic Region playdowns, the Leafs won their best-of-seven championship series by beating the Tri-Penn Frost in six games.
“I think we’re a fairly quick team,” said Babstock. “We have average size at best and adequate goaltending but we're pretty solid offensively. Our overall asset is our speed.
“We’ve had teams at the nationals before and what I’d like is for our club to be able to compete against the other teams. Last year, Dartmouth from the Atlantic Region made it to the championship game and I hope we can repeat that.”
On defence, the Leafs are anchored by Mike Stevens, Tim Sullivan and Danny Matthews and in goal, Devon O’Brien and Doug Jewer will split the workload.
Both played a similar number of minutes this season with Jewer sporting a 2.63 goals-against average and O’Brien a 2.86 GAA.
Leafs diminutive centre Scott Brophy, meanwhile, also exudes talent and was a late cut of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Hull Olympiques.
While the Air Canada Cup will spell the first visit to the Sault for several of the teams in this year’s final, it isn’t for the Maple Leafs. They were here for the Steel City Hockey Tournament in 1998 and won a gold medal, beating the Barrie Icemen 5-2 in the championship game.