As his corner of southern Manitoba prepared to host the Memorial Cup for the first time, Kelly McCrimmon was asked to assess how his Brandon Wheat Kings fit into the local cultural landscape.
"In some respects, we're the Green Bay Packers of the Western league," he said in a recent interview. "We're a smaller market, relative to some of the bigger markets in our league, and yet our teams have been competitive. We have good tradition, a good following and a good fan base."
McCrimmon is uniquely qualified on the subject, serving not only as the hockey team's owner, but also as its general manager and head coach. And beginning Friday night, his Wheat Kings will aim to strengthen their status with a run at their first Canadian championship.
Fans have consumed all but a few standing room tickets in their city's debut as the sole host of the event. Some businesses have been decorated as part of a promotion to show their spirit, and the local art museum is showing an exhibit entitled "Hockey Town" to run alongside the tournament.
"The town has always loved hockey," said Brian Propp, a retired NHL star who stands as Brandon's all-time leading scorer. "Most of the players who played there, we still keep in touch with the people we lived with and their families, as they've grown."
The Wheat Kings rewarded that support with the second-best record in the WHL during the regular season, a 50-win, 104-point effort topped only by the Calgary Hitmen (107 points). Brandon led the league in scoring with an array of options that included forward Brayden Schenn, who was selected fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the NHL's entry draft last summer.
It has been three weeks since any of those players stepped on the ice for a meaningful game, though. The Wheat Kings were eliminated in the third round of the WHL playoffs, losing in five games to the Hitmen?a team they will face again on May 19 as a reward for hosting the Memorial Cup.
"It's a balance," McCrimmon said. "It's one of the highest-profile hockey events in the game, and we want to be excited to play. In terms of guys being too excited, once the puck drops and teams get playing, I think those things (fade)."
The Wheat Kings hit a low point on April 23, when their playoff run ended at the wrong end of a 6-1 blowout loss. Brandon won the opening game of its series with Calgary, but was called for two penalties in the first 73 seconds of overtime in Game 2, en route to a devastating loss.
For all of its success as Manitoba's only active junior franchise, Brandon has never been able to win the Memorial Cup. The Wheat Kings came closest in 1979?with a team led by future NHLers such as Propp, Laurie Boschman and Brad McCrimmon, Kelly's older brother?but lost the final game against Peterborough in overtime.
The franchise returned to the Memorial Cup tournament in 1995, and again in '96, but it has never been able to win the final game. It has been 51 years since any team from Manitoba has won the title, and that team, the Winnipeg Braves, will be honoured in Brandon.
"It's time," Braves alumnus Laurie Langrell told the Winnipeg Free Press. "It's been nice to be the only Manitoba team to have won in a while, but it's time to have someone else join us."
The Wheat Kings had eight players score more than 20 goals over the regular season, with Schenn among them. The 18-year-old, who is two years younger than his brother Luke, a defenceman with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has already had a busy season.
He made his NHL debut against the Vancouver Canucks in November, having signed a one-day amateur tryout contract with the Kings. General manager Dean Lombardi told the Los Angeles Times that Schenn has "got a chance to grow into some leadership."
Schenn was also on the Canadian team that finished second to the United States at the world junior championship in Saskatoon. He finished the season tied with teammate Matt Calvert for fourth in WHL scoring with 99 points.
Brandon had four players (Calvert, Schenn, Scott Glennie and Aaron Lewadniuk) finish among the top 12 point producers in the WHL.
And all of them will have endured 20 days of unwanted rest by the time they face off against the defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires on Friday (Rogers Sportsnet, 8 p.m. ET). McCrimmon is aware of the emotions they will face when they return to the ice, with a chance to win a title at home.
"I know that our players are excited to play in our building," he said. "The city is excited, and I know that we've had great demand for tickets, so the atmosphere is going to be tremendous. And, obviously, that's our goal?to be champions?so if that were to play out, the city would be thrilled."