The bus ride was uneventful, but memorable, probably the way most trips on
the ‘Iron Lung’ should be when you’re 16 and travelling from home to
another city in Canada.
After his Calgary Royals captured both the Alberta Midget Hockey League
(AMHL) and Pacific Region championships, the next stop for Brett Pilkington
was Prince George, B.C., for Canada’s National Midget Championship, the
2001 Air Canada Cup.
“We left Calgary on the bus and started driving,” Pilkington, now 33, says.
“We stopped to eat and then drove into the bush. It felt like forever. I
remember thinking ‘Where the heck are we?’ And then all of the sudden you
drive out of the bush and you’re in Prince George.”
For Steve Bernier, the sojourn to northern British Columbia was similar in
uncertainty, but completely different culturally.
After winning the Ligue de hockey midget AAA du Québec (LHMAAAQ) and
earning the Quebec Region berth that automatically comes with the LHMAAAQ
title, his Gouverneurs de Ste-Foy entered the tournament with some
They were young, mostly 15-year-olds in an event usually dominated by
players one or two years older, and a group of kids from Quebec City that
spoke little English.
In fact, according to Bernier only one of them, Dominic Deblois, was
bilingual. His father, Lucien Deblois, played 15 seasons in the National
Hockey League with New York, Winnipeg, Montreal, Colorado and Toronto.
“For us at the time, we didn’t speak much English and felt pretty far from
home,” says Bernier, 32, now a forward with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound
Tigers, the top affiliate of the New York Islanders.
“For me though, it was like yesterday. I remember going to Prince George by
plane. When you’re 15, it’s always special to fly. When we arrived, it was
well organized and the rink was beautiful.”
Once the five regional teams and host Prince George Cougars began the 2001
national championship, it was the Royals that dominated the preliminary
round with a 4-1 record, including a 5-2 victory over Ste-Foy.
Both teams advanced to the playoff round and easily cruised into the gold
medal game with convincing semifinal victories. Calgary blanked the Toronto
Young Nationals 6-0 and Ste-Foy posted a 10-1 victory over the Dartmouth
The stage was set for a cross-country final. After nearly 150 Midget teams
across Canada started the year with the same goal in mind, only two
remained with the opportunity to capture a national title.
The game would not disappoint. It was exciting, entertaining and electric.
“We knew we had a good team, but it was going to be tough to win,” says
Bernier, who was taken 16th overall by the San Jose Sharks in the 2003 NHL
Entry Draft. “At that point, we knew how good we were in Quebec, but you
never play against other provinces during the season, so we couldn’t wait
to know where we stood when we got there.”
For Pilkington, it was a matter of his Royals coming together at the right
time to advance through Alberta and the Pacific Region. Calgary, in fact,
swept through the AMHL playoffs without a loss.
“We didn’t have the best regular season,” says Pilkington, who is now the
sales manager for The Surveillance Shop in Calgary, after spending eight
seasons playing college and minor pro hockey. “But we got hot about five
games before the playoffs started and rolled from there.”
In the final, Calgary jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to a pair of goals
from Matthew Williams-Kovacs, forcing Ste-Foy to play from behind and chase
the game. The Gouverneurs bounced back to score three times in the second
period – Jeff Cotton, Jean-Vincent Lachance and Dany Roussin – to take a
one-goal lead into the third.
Pilkington tied the game 3-3 with 6:10 left to eventually force a pair of
Early in double overtime, the puck found Bernier’s stick for the
game-winner and Ste-Foy captured the national title for the fourth, and
most recent, time in franchise history.
“We had a good shift in the offensive zone,” recalls Bernier, who was named
Most Valuable Player.
“Marc-Antoine Pouliot (a 2003 first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers) got
the puck on the wall. I was in front of the net. Instead of shooting it, he
passed it to me. I went around the goalie and shot it with a backhand along
“I still have the play in my head. It could have gone both ways. It was a
tight game. It was a very good game.
“I had a great tournament. When you’re young you don’t know any better. You
want to score the goal. You want to be part of it. You have all those
dreams. And when it actually happened it was the best feeling ever.”
Obviously, Pilkington’s recollection isn’t filled with the fondness Bernier
has, but he agreed it was a fast-paced contest. The loss, though, still has
a bit of a sting.
“To be honest we ran out of gas,” he says. “When you lose sometimes you try
to blank it out. But I remember my feeling was one of exhaustion when it
was over. Seven games in seven days, double overtime and emotions running
so high. We just fell a little short.”
Like Bernier, Pilkington earned a distinguished honour at the tournament as
Top Forward. Both agree the experience overall is special within their
hockey careers and undoubtedly helped them continue in the game as players,
while fostering great relationships, most of which are still solid today.
Pilkington went on to play four years at Bowling Green State University
before turning pro; he played 193 games in a journeyman career, making
stops in the AHL, ECHL, CHL and UHL.
“For me, it opened up a lot of doors,” says Pilkington, who is also an
assistant coach with the AMHL’s Calgary Buffaloes. “I had a lot of choices
and opportunities after that tournament. Teams from all across the west and
various levels were after me.
“But it’s also one of those things to this day I can still name every guy
on that team. I try to stay in contact with each and every one of them. The
bond will be there forever. Some of my best friends in the world were on
that team that I made from a young age.”
And for Bernier, who has played more than 600 games in the National Hockey
League with six different teams, it was an experience that rivals only a
2012 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Los Angeles Kings as a member of the New
Jersey Devils as his fondest memory in the game.
“It’s a tough championship to win. And to be able to do it, I’ll never
forget about it.”