If you believe in destiny, this may be the Pembroke Lumber Kings' year.
Going into the season, many people thought this would be a rebuilding year, but little by little the team proved it was a contender, sitting at the top of the standings for most of the season, claiming the regular season title, the Art Bogart Cup as league champions and most recently being crowned the top team in Eastern Canada and earning the right to compete for the Royal Bank Cup symbolizing Junior A hockey supremacy in the country.
The last time Pembroke played for a national championship was in 1988 when the Lumber Kings hosted the Centennial Cup.
Pembroke lost in the semifinal to the eventual winner, Saskatchewan's Notre Dame Hounds.
Kings' coach and general manager Sheldon Keefe is honoured to be working and coaching a team that is still playing hockey in May, which doesn't happen every year.
"We are excited and honoured to be going to a tournament with the best teams in the nation," he said Monday. "We also believe we have as good a chance as anyone to win if we put our best effort forward. We have to be prepared to win each game and hope to bring another trophy home."
Pembroke opens the 2007 tournament against the host Prince George Spruce Kings May 5 at 7 p.m.
The Kings go into the first game basically blind, not knowing much about their opponent similar to starting the Fred Page Cup against host St. Jerome.
Keefe anticipates an intense atmosphere with the crowd behind the host team.
"They've been gearing up for this for the last month so we expect their energy level will be high," he said. "We were able to pull off a big win in the Fred Page Cup so our confidence will be high based on that experience."
The Kings get a break in the schedule with May 6 off so they will have a chance to watch the other three teams in the tournament.
He will also try to get a scouting report on the other teams - Central representative Aurora Tigers of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League, Pacific representative Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and West representative Selkirk Steelers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
The tournament runs from May 5 to 13, with the final being broadcast on TSN May 13.
Aurora held the number one ranking for most of the season and recently defeated the Schreiber Diesels 10-0 in the final of the Dudley Hewitt Cup. The western leagues have always had a strong showing at the Royal Bank Cup. Camrose won the title in 2001.
Despite this year's success, it's still tough for Keefe to forget last year's Fred Page Cup final loss at home, but he believes for some of the returning players winning the 2007 Fred Page Cup on Sunday may have felt like mission accomplished.
"I feel last year was our year and we fell short," he said. "Things happen for a reason though and it makes us stronger. That has a lot to do with our success this season."
As the season went on, it seemed everything started falling into place.
It began when captain Scott Campbell decided to return for a fifth season.
In November Pembroke acquired Chris Laganiere from the Hawkesbury Hawks, defenseman Brent Mackie came to the Kings after bouncing between various teams, Brad Wilson joined the team after deciding to play somewhere else in the summer and goalie Paul Beckwith came to Pembroke after being offered a position on other teams in the league.
"The list goes on and on," Keefe said. "Everyone came together and bought into the system. The guys pulled together and did everything we asked of them and more. They were willing to do anything for each other."
Still savouring the big win Sunday, the players had the day off Monday before hitting the ice at the Silver Dart Arena today and tomorrow before flying out Thursday. Keefe was busy on the phone Monday trying to firm up the team's schedule.
During practice, the plan is to make sure the guys are sharp and that they are able to keep the intensity level up.
"At this stage you don't go over systems, you just make sure the guys stay in it, stay ready and focused," he said.
When the Kings arrived home Sunday night, there were between 50 and 100 fans waiting for them at the PMC. The players and coaching staff really appreciated that the fans would take the time to do that on a Sunday night.
"It is a reminder for the players that they aren't just playing for themselves, but that the whole community is behind them," Keefe said.
The city is planning a thank-you and send-off rally in honour of the Lumber Kings May 2 at the PMC beginning at 7 p.m. All fans are invited to attend to send the team off in Hockeytown Canada style.
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