As the Canadian Junior Hockey League’s 133 teams whittle themselves down to five for this year’s RBC Cup, one team knows it will be there when the puck drops May 5 to kick off Canada’s National Junior A Championship.
But just being there isn’t enough for the Humboldt Broncos, who already know they’ll be part of Junior A’s final five as hosts of the national championship. The Broncos want to go in through the front door.
“We want to earn our right to play in the tournament and not just be in it because we are the host team,” Broncos head coach and general manager Dean Brockman said. “We’ve got another chance to put Humboldt on the map in junior hockey this year.”
The key word from Brockman is “another.” The 2012 RBC Cup will mark Humboldt’s third appearance in the national championship in the last five years; the Broncos won the national title in 2008 and finished as runners-up in 2009.
In addition, the 2012 tournament is the 25th anniversary of the first time Humboldt welcomed the nation, for the 1987 Centennial Cup. This year, the town of 5,678 becomes just the second city to host a pair of national championships, after Summerside, P.E.I. (which will host its third in 2013).
And the people of Humboldt are just as enthusiastic today as they were 25 years ago, according to Aaron Lukan, one of the rare volunteers to have been on the organizing committee in 1987 and again in 2012.
“The support back then was great, and the support today is great, too,” commented Lukan. “We may not have everything the larger cities have, but we’ve got the whole community behind us. The people here are invested.”
In 25 years, a lot has changed in hockey and the way the National Junior A Championship is run, starting with the number of volunteers – in 1987, just over 100 were recruited, while the 2012 number is closer to 300.
“There are a lot more positions to be filled,” said Lukan. “I think for things like security – there would certainly be a bigger emphasis on something like that. And it’s a learning experience each time a city puts this on. Each committee learns a bit more.”
What hasn’t changed, though, is the preparation of the Humboldt host committee.
“One thing I think Humboldt did in ’87 was to set the bar for future organizing committees,” Lukan said. “Right from when we went down and did our presentation. They were quite taken aback by how much we researched and did the background work to get the bid through, to how we treated the teams when they got here and what a first class event it was.”
With that kind of precedent set, the city has a reputation to live up to in 2012. According to Jeff Bunko, co-chair of the 2012 RBC Cup host committee, Hockey Canada is impressed again this year with the way things are going.
“We’ve already sold 1,600 ticket packages,” said Bunko in March, “and the bottom line is we’ll be sold out before the tournament begins.”
Bunko said this year’s tournament had far exceeded Hockey Canada’s standpoint for both ticket sales and sponsorship, something he attributes to the great support the community has shown toward the event.
But as important as the off-ice preparation is, the game is still played on the ice, and the pressures remain for the Broncos to perform on home ice as they look to become just the third franchise to win three national championships.
Bernie Lynch, the Broncos coach in 1987, and his assistant Donn Clark both remember to what extent the hype of hosting the national championship had on the team that year.
“It was a real big thing at that time,” recalled Clark. “It started back in July or August before the try-outs. We had had a really good team the year before, something like 56-4 for the season. Two-thirds of the team from the previous year came back, and it acted like a springboard for the event.”
Lynch went on to make his career in Europe coaching and mentoring young players. Now in his 39th year behind the bench, the former Broncos coach reflected on how hockey has changed in 25 years.
“The players are bigger, faster and stronger than 25 years ago,” he remarked. “But now there is an emphasis on core physical strength and fitness training that was never part of it before. And the Canadian junior players that come over here to play are consistently outperforming the young European players.”
He attributes this to the opportunities that exist in Canada for young players to move up the ladder toward playing in the big leagues. And Canada’s National Junior A Championship is an important rung on that ladder.
Even more reason for fans to be paying attention come May 5.