The Brooks Bandits had a junior A hockey national championship carrot to dangle in front of the eyes of the prized prospects they were trying to entice for the 2018-19 season.
Knowing the team is hosting the nine-day event next month the southeastern Alberta city became a magnet for top-notch talent and the Bandits did their best to form a team that belongs skating with the best of the bunch. As a perennial contender in the Alberta Junior Hockey League they've been in that category nearly every year in the past decade and this season the Bandits took that to a new level.
In a 60-game season they shredded the Alberta Junior Hockey League record book, establishing new high-water marks for most wins (57), fewest loses (three) and points (114 out of a possible 120). Not only that, the Bandits rewarded their fans at Centennial Regional Arena with a perfect season, going 30-0 in their home schedule.
That streak was finally snapped in the postseason but that didn't deter the Bandits from winning their three playoff series convincingly with a 12-3 record that ended in the celebration last week of their fifth Inter Pipeline Cup championship in eight seasons.
"It's been good," said Bandits head coach and general manager Ryan Papaioannou. "The weird part of us is this is the one year we knew we didn't have to win (because the national hosts are guaranteed a spot), so we always wondered about our team and what kind of efforts we'd get night after night and if we'd have a team that was hard to push just because of complacency.
"They all knew they would play on May 11th and it worked in the complete reverse. We had guys that came in every day and did the right things and get the results on the ice and we never felt we had that team that banked on the national championship.
"To this point it's been all good, but I think we have a whole other animal in front of us here with the Spruce Kings."
The Bandits will clash with the BCHL-champion Prince George Spruce Kings tonight in Brooks in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Doyle Cup series. The series winner will claim the Pacific region slot at the national championship in Brooks.
The Spruce Kings went 16-1 in the playoffs and have won 25 of their last 27 games. Both teams expect the Doyle Cup will offer their toughest tests of the postseason.
"I think they're real good, I've seen six full games and they've got a lot of things going on defensively where they play nice and tight as a pack of five and they don't make a lot of errors," said Papaioannou. "Lots of good back pressure, they're hardworking that way and we know they're going to finish checks. Offensively they have a lot of stuff going on, a lot of movement in the offensive zone and their power play's been good in the playoffs. Up and down the roster they've got key guys in key roles doing a lot of good things and they're obviously on a 16-1 stretch."
AJHL scoring champion William Lemay (32g-58a-90pts) plays the left side on the Bandits' top line centred by Simon Gravel with Randy Hernandez on the right side. Lemay led the playoffs in scoring with 11 goals and 23 points in 15 games. Arnaud Vachon provides a scoring threat through the middle, on a line with wingers Ryan Mashie and Ray Christy, and Brooks has been getting steady production from the fourth line - Tyler Campbell-Jacob Lee-Simon Boyko.
AJHL playoff MVP defenceman Brandon Scanlin (1-10-11) eats up major minutes on specialty teams and is tasked with shadowing opponents' top players. Andrew Lucas (4-9-13) is a blueline springboard who jumpstarts the Bandits' offence. Winger Nathan Plessis of Salmon Arm is in his third season at Brooks and wears the 'C.' He and backup goalie Tanner Marshall are the only B.C.-born Bandits.
Marshall, a Kelowna native acquired in a trade in December from the Trail Smoke Eaters, went 12-0 in the regular season but Pierce Charleson of Aurora, Ont., who went 44-2 in the regular season, has played all 15 playoff games. Charleson, 19, sports a 1.46 goals-against average and .907 save percentage, as compared to Logan Neaton, the Kings go-to goalie, who has played all 17 playoff games, posting a 1.46 average and .940 save percentage.
Both teams possess NCAA-committed forwards who made an impact in the junior playoffs as 15-year-olds. University of Wisconsin recruit Corson Ceulemans, a defenceman, scored two goals in the Bandits 5-1 win over the Spruce Grove Saints in Game 3 of the AJHL final, while Kings centre Finn Williams University of Michigan) notched his first goal in Game 2 of the BCHL final, a 4-1 win over the Vernon Vipers.
"The way it's trending now with more higher-end kids looking at the NCAA option and we're starting to see these kids jump in and make impacts at 15 or 16," said Papaioannou. "Probably no different for our guys or the Spruce Kings, a 15-year-old that can come in and score goals and play big minutes and you almost have to have him in the lineup."
The current Brooks roster has 17 players committed to NCAA Division 1 schools. Former Bandit defenceman Cale Makar - the first player ever to repeat as national tournament MVP - is the most prominent Brooks alumni. Picked fourth overall from the Bandits by the Colorado Avalanche in 2017, Makar went on to play two seasons at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and made his NHL debut with the Avalanche two weeks ago in the playoffs against the Calgary. The 20-year-old scored his first goal in the Avs' 3-2 overtime win in Game 2.
"You always knew after the draft that he would play in the NHL but for it to come around and see it happen, it's pretty surreal to see the guys he's on the ice with and who he's working with on the power play," said Papaioannou. "It's unbelievable and good for him to take it in stride and do well."
Papaioannou joined the Bandits as an assistant in 2008 and took over as head coach and GM the following season. He led the team to AJHL championships in 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017 and this season. The Bandits won the RBC Cup as national champions in 2013 in Summerside, P.E.I., and came within an overtime loss of duplicating the feat in 2016 when hey lost an overtime final to the host Cobourg Cougars.
Brooks will host the first two games of the series Friday and Saturday. If one team wins both games then Game 3 will be played Tuesday night at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena. If the teams split the first two games, Game 3 would be played Sunday in Brooks. In either scenario, Prince George will host Game 4 on Wednesday, with all subsequent games in Prince George. If there is a split, Game 5 would be played Thursday, if necessary, with Game 6 and 7 set for the following Saturday and Sunday. If there is a sweep the first two games, the 'if necessary' games would be played the following Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Despite the fact both teams will advance to the six-team national tournament, May 11-19, the Bandits coach says his team won't be lacking for motivation over the next week.
"A lot of the games we've played this year have had very little meaning to them, said Papaioannou. "I wouldn't call them meaningless games but you go through the regular season and playoffs knowing you'll play in May so I think our guys are used to this kind of hockey where you're playing for bragging rights and to get better and learn about yourselves and the other team
"I think it's exciting for us to play a new opponent, somebody we know we'll be playing in two weeks at the most important time of the year."
Papaioannou played in the WHL as a goalie for Calgary, Lethbridge and Seattle and visited Prince George a few times during his junior career, which wrapped up in 2003-04 when he played in the QMJHL for the Moncton Wildcats.
"I've been there a few times to play some Western League games and always enjoyed it, it was always a nice ride up," he said. "One thing I've already told our guys is the highway from Banff all the way through to P.G. is something they should probably stay wake for, it's pretty darn nice."