Western Canada Cup features the best field yet

The top five teams in Western Canada square off over the next nine days in the Western Canada Cup

Hockey fans are you ready?

The top five teams in Western Canada square off over the next nine days starting Saturday in the 2017 Western Canada Cup (WCC), presented by Sun Life Financial, at the South Okanagan Events Centre. Two RBC Cup berths are on the line May 6 and 7.

Representing the B.C. Hockey League are the champion Penticton Vees and Chilliwack Chiefs, who lost 1-0 in overtime to the Vees in Game 7. Alberta is represented by the Brooks Bandits, the No.1 team in the Canadian Junior Hockey League. Then there is the No. 5 ranked Battlefords North Stars, who swept their way through the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs and the Portage Terriers, who have three-peated as Manitoba Junior Hockey League champs.

“This is probably the deepest field in the history of the Western Canada Cup,” said Vees president, coach and GM Fred Harbinson. “It should make for a great event. A great week of hockey for our fans.”

The Vees enter the WCC, which started in 2013 in Nanaimo, as the first hosts to punch their ticket into the tournament by winning their league.

The Vees square off against the North Stars Saturday at 7 p.m. The North Stars won their first Canalta Cup in 17 years against the Flin Flon Bombers. Harbinson said they possess a large back end and offensive fire power. In their 12 playoff games, the North Stars scored 63 goals while allowing 25.

North Stars head coach-GM Nate Bedford said his group of returning players still felt the sting of losing to the Bombers last year in five games.

“I think we beating the Flin Flon Bombers is a good indicator of how good we were this year,” said Bedford, whose wife gave birth to their second child, a boy, days before heading off for the WCC. “To be able to sweep 12 straight is a good indicator of good team leadership and discipline.”

Yet Bedford, in his first season with the North Stars, has no illusions of what the North Stars face.

“We know we are in tough being the first time we have been there,” said Bedford, whose squad won 48 of 58 games in the regular season. “This time of year is a bit uncharted for us. We’re the rookies here. There is going to be some nerves. We’re confident we can compete with the other four teams.”

The North Stars come in with a strong goaltending tandem of Taryn Kotchorek (2.04 goal against average in the playoffs) and Joel Grzybowski (2.09 goals against average in five playoff games). Bedford likes his team to play physical and be difficult to play against in all three zones.

“I think we play really well defensively. I think our goaltending is top notch,” he said. “I think our focus is on team defence. We’re certainly capable of scoring as well. We’re a pretty well rounded team.”

The North Stars count on Coby Downs (25 points in 11 games) and Layne Young (23 points in 12 games). On the back-end, Connor Sych and Kendall Fransoo are the keys.

Related: Bandits ride in as Canada’s best

The Portage Terriers, fifth in the MJHL, and winners of the 2015 RBC Cup, may be the underdogs after taking out the first, third and fourth place teams. Terriers coach Blake Spiller said for his team to three-peat against the OCN Blizzard “was a huge accomplishment.”

“We lost the first two games in OCN by big scores but our guys seemed to get going in Game 3 at home and found a way to get back in the series and ultimately win,” said Spiller.

A challenge for the MJHL champs was knowing who they are as a team.

“We seemed to lack an identity most of the season and were inconsistent throughout the regular season,” said Spiller, who has guided the Terriers to six league championships since taking over in 2006. “We seemed to be a team that responded very well when we got behind in every series in the playoffs.”

Offensively, the Terriers were led by Jeremey Leipsic, who put up 100 points in 60 regular season games to lead the league, and added 19 points in 18 playoff games. Teammates Chase Brakel was right behind with 80 points, including 15 in the playoffs.

The Terriers also feature former Vee Ty Barnstable, who was dealt for Taylor Sanheim. Barnstable led the Terriers with 10 goals in the playoffs. In 24 regular season games, Barnstable put up 12 goals and 21 points.

“It will be a great experience for our young guys and we hope to get off to a good start in the tournament and see how things shake out,” said Spiller.

Vees forward Duncan Campbell agreed that the tournament is similar to the Memorial Cup, which he played in last year with the Brandon Wheat Kings.

“It’s not as series. You can’t get up or down in a series or anything like that,” he said. “You have to be prepared for every single game. “You have got to come out guns blazing. There’s not really many second chances. You just got to play your best.”

Campbell said it will be refreshing to face different teams, which also brings new challenges since they haven’t seen the Bandits, North Stars or Terriers.

“Some teams may be skilled. Some teams may be hard hitting, grinding teams,” he said. “You never know what to expect. We’re ready for the challenge.”

WCC notes: Luke Bast, brother of Vees defenceman Gabe Bast, is an affiliate player with the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. As of early this week, it wasn’t certain if Bast would play due to an injury.