From 127 teams to five, the Road to the RBC Cup is complete. More than two months after the first playoff puck dropped, the field for this year’s National Junior A Championship, which kicks off next Saturday at CUP in Summerside, P.E.I., is set.
Here’s a look at who will be in Summerside:
CENTRAL REGION – MINNESOTA WILDERNESS
For the first time ever, an American team will play for Canada’s National Junior A Championship. The Wilderness was once again the class of the Superior International Junior Hockey League, winning 51 of 56 regular season games and setting an SIJHL for wins and points in a season before cruising to a third straight league playoff championship, beating the Fort Frances Lakers in six games in the final.
Eliminated in the preliminary round at both of its previous Dudley Hewitt Cup appearances, the Wilderness dropped its opener at the Central Region tournament in North Bay, Ont., losing 4-1 to the Trappers. But not only would Minnesota not lose another game in the preliminary round, it wouldn’t allow another goal, shutting out Soo 7-0 and St. Michael’s 3-0 to earn the bye directly into the championship game. Trailing the Buzzers 3-2 in the dying minutes of the final, the Wilderness tied the game with 3:28 left and won it on a Nick Szopinski goal 11:59 into overtime, sending Minnesota to the RBC Cup.
The Wilderness is just the second SIJHL team to win the Dudley Hewitt Cup, after the Fort William North Stars in 2006. The North Stars reached the semifinals of the RBC Cup that year, losing to the eventual national champions, the Burnaby Express.
EAST REGION – TRURO BEARCATS
All season long, Truro played second fiddle to the Summerside Western Capitals, but the Bearcats will be right there beside the RBC Cup hosts when the puck drops at Canada’s National Junior A Championship. After finishing with the Maritime Hockey League’s second-best regular season record, behind the Western Capitals, Truro reached the MHL final, where it fell in five games, to the Western Capitals.
The Bearcats, however, would get another shot at Summerside, as they played host to the Fred Page Cup. A combined 2-7 in their three previous appearances at the East Region championship, Truro beat Longueuil, Cornwall and Summerside to clinch first place and earn a bye to the final. A Western Capitals overtime win over Cornwall in the semifinal assured the Bearcats of an RBC Cup berth, but they finished the regionals in style, getting a double overtime winner from Philip Fife to beat Summerside for the second time in three days and send Truro to the national championship as regional champions.
It is the fourth time two Maritime teams will compete at the same RBC Cup, but the first time since the introduction of the Fred Page Cup; from 1985 to 1994, the Maritime League champion earned an automatic berth into Canada’s National Junior A Championship.
WEST REGION #1 – SURREY EAGLES
For the first time since winning it all in 1998, the Surrey Eagles are going back to the RBC Cup. The top regular season team in the British Columbia Hockey League, the Eagles added their fourth BCHL playoff championship, winning 11 consecutive postseason games at one point and ending the reign of the defending RBC Cup champions, the Penticton Vees, in the league final.
After a tournament-opening loss to the Brooks Bandits at the inaugural Western Canada Cup, the Eagles posted wins over Steinbach, Nanaimo and Yorkton to take second place in the preliminary round and earn a rematch against Brooks in the 1-vs-2 playoff game, with the winner advancing to the RBC Cup. Surrey played arguably their best game of the season, shutting down the high-powered Bandits offence, scoring a 4-1 victory and clinching a spot at Canada’s National Junior A Championship for the third time.
The Eagles are no stranger to Summerside; the last time the national championship was held in the city, in 1997, Surrey reached the championship game, falling to the host Western Capitals. This year, the Eagles will be looking to continue a run of success by B.C. teams, which have won three of the last four national titles and appeared in six of seven championship games.
WEST REGION #2 – BROOKS BANDITS
What a season it has been for the Bandits. Of the 23 Top 20 rankings released by the Canadian Junior Hockey League, Brooks sat atop the last 22 of them. The Bandits went 20-0 to start the year, and lost just four games in regulation all season; their 53-4-3 record set Alberta Junior Hockey League records for wins and points in a season, and Brooks capped its memorable AJHL year with its second consecutive league championship
Travelling to Nanaimo, B.C., for the inaugural Western Canada Cup, the Bandits were in familiar territory after the preliminary round – on top of the standings. Their 3-1 record was good enough for first place and a spot in the 1-vs-2 playoff game against Surrey, with the winner moving on to the RBC Cup. A 4-1 loss to the Eagles momentarily postponed the Bandits’ plans, but they came back one day later to blank Yorkton 1-0, earning the West Region’s second spot in Canada’s National Junior A Championship.
Brooks is the first AJHL team other than the Camrose Kodiaks to reach the RBC Cup since 2004, when Grande Prairie hosted the national championship. The Bandits are looking to become the second team in as many years to finish the regular season atop the CJHL Top 20 rankings and win the RBC Cup – Penticton did it 12 months ago.
HOST TEAM – SUMMERSIDE WESTERN CAPITALS
They didn’t achieve their goal of reaching the RBC Cup through the front door, but the Western Capitals will still be a team to watch when they host Canada’s National Junior A Championship at CUP. Summerside claimed the Maritime Hockey League’s regular season and playoff championships, winning their third league title in five years thanks to a 12-1 postseason record.
Winners of 36 of their last 38 games entering the Fred Page Cup in Truro, N.S., the Western Capitals opened with victories over Cornwall and Longueuil, but a loss to Truro in the preliminary round finale meant Summerside would have to take the long way to the regional title. The Western Capitals scored their second 1-0 win over Cornwall in four days in the semifinal, but would come up short in double overtime against the host Bearcats in the final, leaving Summerside one win short of matching Dauphin in 2010 and Humboldt last year as RBC Cup host teams to win league and regional championships.
Hosting the RBC Cup for the third time, history is not on the side of the Western Capitals. Of the 23 host teams since the start of the five-team format in 1990, only six have won it all. One of those six, though, was Summerside, which claimed the 1997 national championship on home ice.