Playing at Canada’s National Midget Championship is once-in-a-lifetime experience, twice for a lucky few.
But how about five appearances? Or six?
Players can’t rack up that many trips to the TELUS Cup, but coaches sure can, and two of the six head coaches behind the bench in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., are no stranger to the national championship.
For Strathmore Bisons head coach Dan MacDonald, the 2015 TELUS Cup marks the fifth time that he will attempt to lead a team to the Midget hockey’s top prize, after helping Red Deer to appearances in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2002.
And Steve Crowell, the Newbridge Academy Gladiators bench boss, is back for a sixth time; he coached Dartmouth in 1992, 1995 and 1996, and was with Cole Harbour as head coach in 2005 and 2008.
“It’s the only time there is a national championship in minor hockey, so it’s really special,” MacDonald says. “All that was needed to get there, the effort they’ve had to put in and the learning process; when you add it all up, it becomes a neat reward for the boys and their families.”
While getting there is a reward for a season of hard work, every team wants to be the one that leaves with a gold medal, and that’s something that has eluded both MacDonald and Crowell.
Crowell’s best finish was a bronze with the host Dartmouth Kings in his first appearance in 1992 – at the time just the third medal ever won by an Atlantic team – while MacDonald has come agonizingly close, losing in the final in 1994 (in double overtime) and 1995.
And then there was 2002, when a 14-year-old named Sidney Crosby torched Red Deer for 10 points in two games, including the game-winning goal in the final minute of a 5-4 semifinal win over the Chiefs.
But in the end, there’s nothing quite like the experience, and not just for the players.
“The first thing I’ve noticed from the times I’ve went is that it’s a very shared event,” MacDonald says. “The parents and even grandparents get really excited and the community itself also gets excited to see some of its youngsters go.”
Their previous successes allowed MacDonald and Crowell to explore other coaching opportunities in the game, but in the end both were drawn back to Midget hockey, for very different reasons.
Crowell, for example, had the chance to be a hockey dad again.
“I went to coach Junior A for five years but when both my youngest kids got enrolled in hockey, I took a step back and wanted to get involved in minor hockey again,” says Crowell, whose is coaching his son Matthew with the Gladiators.
“I missed the level. I was really glad to get back into the league because these kids still have that dream and those goals of playing Major Junior, Junior A or NCAA. It makes it easier on us because you know they’ll give you an honest effort every night.”
MacDonald came on board when Strathmore made the decision to go with a school-based program; all of the Bisons billet in town and attend Strathmore High School regardless of whether they are from Strathmore, Cochrane, Airdrie, Chestermere or any other community on the outskirts of Calgary, Alta.
“They called me because of my experience with this age group and my background,” says MacDonald, a teacher by trade, of joining the Bisons in 2013, “and it’s been a wonderful ride for me to work with these kids in a school environment. We have the privilege to not only affect them as hockey players, but as students as well.
“It’s a safety net for when they’ll hit junior as well. It’s good for them to be away from home right now because if they end up playing in Seattle or in Tri-City or somewhere like that, they’ll already be used to not having their parents there with them.”
So what do coaches with so much experience tell their players ahead of the biggest tournament of their lives?
“I’ve told them all year, I’ve coached at the Canada Games, at the (World Under-17 Hockey Challenge) and in other events that were great, but nothing compares to this,” Crowell says. “It’s an awesome tournament that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. If they see guys coming out of the tournament who are going to move onto the NHL, it’ll give them chills just remembering that they played with and against them here.”
For MacDonald, he’s happy he gets the best seat in the house.
“Now, at this time of the season, they get to carry us while we watch and tag along for the ride,” he says. “The boys all know what they’re doing. We guide them a bit, but we don’t do much other than appreciate where we stand.”