For the second time in three years, Canada’s National Junior A Championship is coming to British Columbia, and only five of Canada’s 143 Junior A teams are still standing in the quest to be called national champions. Will it be the defending champions, the all-time winningest team, the 1997 national champs or one of two teams making their national championship debut?
HUMBOLDT BRONCOS – WEST
The defending RBC Cup champions will look to become the first team since the Vernon Lakers in 19 to repeat as national titleholders. Humboldt ran roughshod over the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League during the regular season, finishing 15 points ahead of the next best team, and it featured the league’s best offence and defence. Leading the way was Broncos captain Brady Wacker – the Top Defenceman at the 2008 RBC Cup – who led the Broncos and all SJHL defencemen in scoring and picked up the league’s Defenceman of the Year and Player of the Year awards. Humboldt needed six games to eliminate the pesky Battlefords North Stars before rolling over Flin Flon in four straight to reach the SJHL final for the third year in a row, where they took just five games to top the Melville Millionaires and win their third-consecutive SJHL championship. Just as they did in 2008, the Portage Terriers provided the opposition for Humboldt in the ANAVET Cup, and the Broncos found themselves in a 3-1 series hole before routing the Terriers 12-2 in Game 5 and winning back-to-back overtime games in Portage to take the West Region championship on Nick Kalnicki’s extra-time winner, booking their ticket to Victoria for the chance to repeat as national Junior A champions.
KINGSTON VOYAGEURS – CENTRAL
From the time the first puck dropped on the OJHL playoffs on February 12 to the final buzzer in the championship game at the Dudley Hewitt Cup on April 25, the Voyageurs played 29 playoff games in 73 days against eight different opponents. Kingston didn’t have a lights-out scorer leading the way – Brock Higgs and Ben Power tied for the team lead with 58 points, good for only 63rd in the 37-team league. The goaltending, however, was a different story, as Shawn Sirman finished third in the OJHL with a 2.36 goals against average, and his .926 save percentage put him second in that category. The Voyageurs posted convincing series wins over Pickering and Ajax and ran off three-straight wins over Peterborough to rebound from an early 2-1 deficit and claim the division playoff championship, advancing to the final four. Kingston needed just five games to eliminate Huntsville and set up an OJHL championship date with the defending champions, the Oakville Blades, and took Games 1 and 2 to pull away from the Blades, wrapping up the league championship on home ice in Game 6. The Voyageurs claimed top spot in the round-robin at the Dudley Hewitt Cup and knocked off Fort William in the championship game to advance to Victoria and their first shot at the RBC Cup.
SUMMERSIDE WESTERN CAPITALS – EAST
For the third time, the Summerside Western Capitals will play for Canada’s National Junior A Championship – but the first time, they won’t play as the host team. The 1997 national champions earned their way in, posting the best record in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League and running roughshod over everyone and everything in their way en route to the league championship. The Capitals spread out their scoring, with five players ranked in the top 10 in MJAHL scoring led by Brad Smith (2nd, 84 points). Summerside rolled to convincing playoff series sweeps against Dieppe and Miramichi and, although they finally lost a game, won its second MJAHL championship in five games over the Truro Bearcats. The Capitals jumped out to a quick start at the Fred Page Cup, knocking off Pembroke and Sherbrooke before a loss to host Dieppe sent them to the semifinal, forcing them to take the longer road to Victoria. Another victory over Pembroke set up an all-MJAHL rematch with Dieppe with a ticket to the 2009 RBC Cup on the line. Locke forced overtime on a goal with eight minutes go, and MacIsaac was the hero, scoring in double overtime to send the Capitals west for the chance to win a second national championship.
VERNON VIPERS – PACIFIC
Ten years after they last stood atop the Canadian Junior A mountain, the Vernon Vipers are back for another crack at the national championship. A win in Victoria will make the Vipers the winningest team in National Junior A Championship history, with five national titles, joining 1990, 1991, 19. Connor Jones was the team’s leading scorer with 60 points, while twin brother Kellan finished third with 52 points, giving the Vipers a deadly one-two look-alike punch. Andrew Hammond was among the league’s best netminders – his 2.30 goals against average was number one, while his .912 save percentage was third-best as Vernon allowed a league-low 145 goals in 60 games. The Vipers quickly dispatched the defending BCHL champions from Penticton in five games in the second round and needed six to top Salmon Arm, moving into the BCHL final. The championship was a classic battle of offence vs. defence – the Powell River Kings scored 251 goals during the regular season, more than any BCHL team. But the Vipers smothered the Powell River offence in Games 1 and 2, posting consecutive shutout victories, and captured their seventh league title in six games. Riding the momentum of the BCHL championship, Vernon made short work of the AJHL-champion Grande Prairie Storm in the Doyle Cup, sweeping the series in four games and booking its spot at the 2009 RBC Cup.
VICTORIA GRIZZLIES – HOST
On paper, the Victoria Grizzlies appear to have a terrific chance to become the first host team since the Weyburn Red Wings in 2005 to win the National Junior A Championship. They set franchise records for wins and points in a season, had the best record in the BCHL, scored the second-most goals and allowed the second-fewest, and did something no host team since Grande Prairie in 2004 was able to accomplish – win a playoff series the same year they hosted the RBC Cup. Trever Hertz led the Grizzlies’ balanced offensive attack, finishing fifth in the BCHL scoring race with 72 points. The Grizzlies’ second-round series against Cowichan Valley looked to be well in hand when the Grizzlies took a 3-1 lead heading back to Bear Mountain Arena for Game 5, but eventually needed seven games to move into the Coastal Conference final. After dropping a pair of games in overtime on home ice and splitting two games in Powell River, the Grizzlies were the ones in trouble, facing a 3-1 deficit of their own. But Victoria rebounded with three-goal wins in Game 5 and 6, meaning they were returning to their home ice for a deciding Game 7. Unfortunately, though, the playoff run ended there, as the Kings scored a 4-1 victory to end one set of championship dreams for the Grizzlies.