Being first in line doesn’t always guarantee success, but the Winnipeg Thrashers are determined it won’t mean failure either.
Silver medalists at last year’s TELUS Cup in Arnprior, ON, the Thrashers secured a second-straight berth in the National Midget Championship last fall when they were selected by the 2009 TELUS Cup host committee as the tournament’s host team.
It was an honour richly deserved by a team that lost only twice in 53 games last season, but it also placed elevated expectations on the club to justify last year’s run to the gold medal game.
And with the distinction as tournament hosts came an obligation to prove their worthiness, even if most of that pressure came from within their own dressing room.
“This might be selfish on my part, but I didn’t want to be a team that is the token hosts,” said Kevin Benson, who is in his sixth season as the Thrashers head coach. “We want to be a legitimate contender.”
Historically, the six-team event – which features representation from five regions of Canada – has not been kind to host teams. In fact, only five hosts have made it to the championship game since 1979 and, of those, just three have captured gold, none since the Calgary Northstars in 1991.
The Thrashers would like to join that latter group, especially since the tournament just happens to be in their own backyard at the Selkirk Recreation Complex.
But the road to that objective hasn’t been paved with freshly-laid blacktop for the defending West Region champs as they have already discovered, even though they already have a pass to participate.
Along the way this winter, the Thrashers experienced some adverse stretches.
Moreover, the early distinction as tournament hosts almost played out like a burden on the 2008-09 squad.
First, they returned just eight players from last year’s team, which made for a major retooling effort in terms of systems, cohesiveness and talent.
Then as the regular season progressed, the club was drop-kicked by injuries, losing 103 man-games as a result of wounded bodies, with some of those belonging to key personnel for extended periods. And finally, there was the notoriety factor and the issue that they were moving targets all season long in Manitoba Midget AAA Hockey League.
Finally, by early February, those challenges had taken their toll on the team and the level of play was a concern for Benson and his staff.
“The year has been a little bit different than I think we originally anticipated,” said Benson. “We actually started to talk about the fear of embarrassing ourselves at the TELUS Cup by mid-season. And that was a pretty hot button to touch at that point and I think it ended up being a bit of a motivation for us.”
Obviously the tactic worked, as the Thrashers rallied to finish the regular season with a very respectable 35-8-1 record and seven wins in their last 10 regular season starts - good for second overall in league play behind their rivals, the Winnipeg Wild.
“We needed to find a different level of commitment and work ethic to get there,” added Benson. “And we certainly got back on that path as the playoffs approached.”
And now with those obstacles presumably behind them, returning to the TELUS Cup as hosts this season to hopefully avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss in the gold medal game to the Sudbury Nickel Capital Wolves should serve them well once the tournament starts.
Certainly as returnees, the Thrashers should have the advantage of experience on their side, as understanding the tournament in areas like proper nutrition, hydration and rest are significant benefits to succeeding in what could be a seven-game week.
“I’m not sure there’s anything more that we would do preparation-wise from last year to this time around,” said Benson. “In my mind, we’re going to approach it the same way.”
After all, they were the first of 140 eligible teams from across the country to gain entry into the 2009 TELUS Cup. And maybe by its conclusion, they’ll be the ones celebrating this year.