Wednesday, May 30, 2007

2007 Memorial Cup
The agony of defeat

Maybe I'm just a big softy, but I don't know that I'll ever get used to the scene I took in on Sunday in Vancouver.

In one dressing room, jubilation: 20 gangly teenagers hooting, hollering and posing for pictures with junior hockey's Holy Grail while the likes of Pat Quinn and Gordie Howe served up congratulations.

Thirty feet down the hall — cordoned off by a curtain like a lifeless body, but certainly not out of earshot of the celebration — were the Medicine Hat Tigers, or at least the few players who were unlucky enough to be called out for media availability after the most difficult loss of their young careers.

Darren Helm, Matt Keetley and two other Tigers were in the hallway talking to a handful of reporters chronicling their team's demise, and it wasn't pretty. Four small-town prairie boys with scruffy playoff beards, wearing only their jerseys and underwear, and there wasn't a dry eye among them. The netminder Keetley, who had been the real star in a game where his team was outshot more than two to one throughout, was giving a television interview with what appeared to be a local broadcast as tears streamed down his cheeks, and his mouth quivered as he struggled through what seemed to be the same questions — and answers — over and over.

Great player. A lot of heart, obviously. The Calgary Flames draft pick was playing his final junior game as a 21-year-old, a hometown kid hoping to bring the Tigers their first Mem Cup since 1988.

Given the situation, I didn't feel up to chatting with him.

Helm, on the other hand, was composed in comparison, steely eyed and quiet as he fielded the largest group of reporters. The Detroit Red Wings' prospect had had a terrific year, both during the season, at the world juniors and in the playoffs, but that was obviously of little consolation under the circumstances. He's certainly not a big guy — listed at 6 feet, 180 pounds — but he plays big and was the best Medicine Hat skater on this night.

Helm is another late-round steal for the Wings, drafted in the fifth-round in 2005 the year before he exploded for 41 goals, and said he was planning on playing in that organization next season — whether it was in the NHL, AHL or wherever. He turned 20 in January and could return to the Hat as an overager, but that doesn't seem likely.
“Our goal was to win the Memorial Cup and we came up short," Helm said. “Our season can’t be defined by just one loss. I thought we were headed for the showers a couple times, but we have so much character in this dressing room.

“I won’t remember losing the Memorial Cup, I’ll remember the good times, and how we battled for each other.”
It's hard to believe, given the unreal season the Tigers had (52-17-3) that they left Vancouver empty handed, but as I've said before, when it comes down to a one-game-takes-all scenario, that's the way it shakes out sometimes. Medicine Hat had actually beaten the Giants three times in a row heading into the game, and had won the WHL championship with a Game 7 decision at home a few weeks earlier.

Again, not much consolation on this day.

It was said during the week that the Mem Cup is a tougher championship to win than the NHL's grand prize, and I don't doubt it given the length of the ordeal. Junior hockey's top players have to endure a preseason tryout, a 72-game regular season, a world junior camp and tournament, four rounds of playoffs and then a round robin, sudden death four or five-game battle against the top teams from other leagues who they've never faced.

All while still trying to complete high school.

Talk about a test of endurance.

The crowd at the Pacific Coliseum for the finals was unreal — and ditto for the considerable hoopla surrounding the affair. In addition to Quinn and Howe, I noted both St. Louis Blues president John Davidson and Los Angeles Kings coach Marc Crawford in attendance, chatting together on the concourse prior to the game, and rumour had it Bobby Orr was around as well.

The funny thing about the Memorial Cup is that a lot of the game's biggest personalities let their hair down, so to speak, at the event, and many were mingling amongst the junior hockey hardcores without much trouble at all.

This was the first Mem Cup final I'd attended in 12 years — since all the way back in 1995 when Kamloops hosted and won the thing for the third time in four years (the winning coach, Don Hay, was the same then as now). The scale has certainly changed, and in more ways than just attendance, and it really makes me wonder if, perhaps, the event is outgrowing its humble roots in the small towns that have propped junior hockey up for eons.

It's hard to say, but here's hoping that, despite the financial shortfalls of doing so, the Mem Cup continues to fall to a place like my hometown once in a while — even if Vancouver did a helluva job hosting this time around. The spectacle, the giant beer tent, the luxury hotel and a group of unreal volunteers — it was all top notch.

I'm glad I made the trip, and here's hoping I'll be in Kitchener come 2008.



At 12:29 p.m., May 30, 2007, Anonymous ben said...

So, if I understand the tournament format correctly, the Giants were only participating because Vancouver had been selected as the host team before the start of the season? Seems like that would be especially hard to take for the Tigers and their fans. In that case, it's the only the hardest tournament to win if you got there legitimately.

At 1:11 p.m., May 30, 2007, Blogger PPP said...

It's a shame that the Tigers beat the Giants in both the WHL final AND the round robin only to lose to them in the only game that truly mattered.

Most people will understand why the host team has to qualify but what a kick in the groin for the Tigers.

At 1:19 p.m., May 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There wasn't much to choose between these 2 great teams - the WHL final went to double overtime in 7 games. To say, the Giants didn't deserve to be there is a stretch, especially after what they did against Plymouth.

At 9:57 p.m., May 30, 2007, Blogger Not my cat said...

And the real b!tch of it...

The Giants shouldn't have been in the game. We've come to accept the notion of hosts getting in but...IT'S WRONG.

The Tigers beat the Giants in the WHL championship, that should have been it. Period. There is no justifying host entries (that did not win a league championship). None.

It may sell tickets but it cheapens the tournament.

And, no, I'm not from the Hat, nor am I a Tigers fan.


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