Red Deer Rebels captain Conner Bleackley (Dave Brunner Photography)
It’s nice to see the Canadian Hockey League reward a smaller community with an event so big a rift seemed to be appearing in the junior world.Brent Sutter is on the phone with me and he’s in a great mood. No lie. Of course, the coach-GM-owner of the Western League’s Red Deer Rebels is still bathing in the glory of winning the right to host the 2016 Memorial Cup, and that explains why one of the most intimidating figures in junior hockey is all sunshiny. “On a personal level, I felt this community deserved it,” he said. “Hockey is our culture, and the support we get is phenomenal. It will be the event in the city and in central Alberta. I’m tremendously excited.” I like that Red Deer, a city of fewer than 100,000 people, will be a host. No disrespect to the other bidder, Vancouver, but it’s nice to see the Canadian Hockey League reward a smaller community with an event so big a rift seemed to be appearing in the junior world.
Simply put, the haves were getting the Cup, and the smaller franchises were being shut out. This season, Quebec City hosts. Last year it was London, and the year before it was Saskatoon. Add in Mississauga and you have four out of five host cities boasting populations of 250,000 or more. The outlier, Shawinigan, was supported by former Canadian PM Jean Chretien and Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur, so it wasn’t an underdog (but a little odd since a shortage of hotel rooms had participants Edmonton and London staying a half-hour away in Trois-Rivieres).Red Deer hosted the world juniors in 1995, but had been passed over twice before under Sutter’s time as the franchise’s steward. The Enmax Centrium has been spruced up, and even though the building holds 7,000 people – half what Vancouver could seat – the organizing committee gave the go-ahead. “I remember how disappointed Brent was the last time,” said captain Conner Bleackley. “Everything we’ve done lately, with the renovations and so on, has been geared toward getting this.” Now the Rebels’ mission will be to build toward an apex. Red Deer struggled early this season, and Bleackley does want to see his team make the playoffs and do damage, even if next season is the important run. The center was taken 23rd overall by Colorado in 2014, while defenseman Haydn Fleury went seventh overall to Carolina. The team has two intriguing 17-year-olds in power forward Adam Musil and the speedy Grayson Pawlenchuk, both of whom will make bigger impacts next season. But another recent trend at the Memorial Cup has been host teams embarrassing themselves. The automatic bid looks great until the host bombs early in the playoffs – as London, Saskatoon and Shawinigan all did in consecutive years – and has to wait a month between action. Shawinigan did end up winning the Cup on home ice, but the other two got skunked. Right now, the Rebels are waiting on goaltending. Their No. 1 man is 18-year-old rookie Rylan Toth, while 17-year-old Taz Burman also played backup last season. Sutter wants to see Burman get more reps, but the kid also needs to perform. (Neither had good numbers through the first month of the season.) The upshot is that if neither Burman or Toth can make a leap, the Rebels can grab a goalie through trade. And an import slot is open, meaning a push to grab high-end European talent won’t be a problem. Until then, the team will continue on building, while Sutter lets his son Merrick, the Rebels senior VP, and local businessman Ron LaRiviere keep tabs on the hosting duties as co-chairs of the organizing committee. Part of the reason I love junior hockey is because small towns can have as much glory as big cities: Joe Sakic plied his trade in Swift Current, Sidney Crosby developed in Rimouski and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was a star in Red Deer itself. “I’m from a small town, and it’s got that small-town feel,” Bleackley said. “But it’s also a bit bigger of a city.” Big enough to host and small enough to be unique, which is what the Memorial Cup is all about. This feature appears in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.