For the first time in their 23-year history the Prince George Spruce Kings are crossing the provincial border into Alberta as champions of the B.C. Hockey League.
The Spruce Kings have a date with Doyle Cup destiny on Friday when they take on the Brooks Bandits in the opening game of the best-of-seven series at Centennial Regional Arena in Brooks.
The Kings earned that right a week ago in Vernon where they completed a four-game sweep of the Vipers to capture the Fred Page Cup and become the first community-owned team to win the BCHL crown.
The Kings' bus left Wednesday morning to overnight in Calgary, the hometown of Kings defenceman Dylan Anhorn, the only Alberta native on the team. It's a dream come true for Anhorn to take on the Bandits for the Pacific regional junior A hockey championship just two hours away from his roots, with both teams already qualified for the national tournament May 11-19 in Brooks.
"We're staying in Calgary tonight and it'll be a cool experience to be so close to home and having family be able to come out and watch," said Anhorn. "Our group is focused and we'll be ready to go. Two playoff runs with more or less the same group is going to give you a lot of experience and confidence going into a national championship and this Doyle Cup coming up here is going to be a great test for us."
Anhorn, 20, is heading into the final month of his junior career and the Kings' extended playoff run will mean a short off-season before he makes the jump to college hockey next season playing for Union College, an NCAA Division 1 team based in Schenectady, N.Y.
Anhorn's puck-handling ability and steady work habits in his own end helped set the tone for the Spruce Kings, the best defensive team in the BCHL all season. Just as he did the previous postseason in a 24-game run that took Prince George as far as the league final, he's stepped it up offensively in the playoffs with three goals and 10 assists in 17 games.
The Kings swept three of their four BCHL series during a record-setting 16-1 playoff run. They started with a five-game series win over Coquitlam, then dispatched Chilliwack, Victoria and Vernon in the bare minimum. No other team in the 58-year history of the league has won the Fred Page Cup with just one loss on its postseason record.
"It's really special whenever you win a championship and when you break a record like that it's something that'll stick with you for a lifetime," said Anhorn. "It's incredible just to see the community's support behind us and all the friends and families that have been able to share the moment with us, it's something we'll never forget but we're not finished yet.
"We know Brooks was a strong team going in and knew we'd probably face them if we want to win our goal of a national championship. Speaking with the guys I know from Alberta they say they're a real tough test but we think we've got the group to do it, so we're ready to go."
Kings winger Patrick Cozzi says his team learned from the adversity that came with their five-game loss to Wenatchee in the 2018 league final. Now that they're champions they carry the swagger he thinks will take them to the Doyle Cup and beyond.
"We're much more prepared on how to handle it and I think we're going to do great," said Cozzi, a Colorado College recruit who ranks second in team playoff scoring with two goals and 19 points in 17 games. "We've watched a ton of video on (the Bandits) and they look good, they have good systems, so I think it's going to be our toughest series but it's nothing we can't handle. Either way, we have a good chance of winning it here which will be good for our fans."
The Kings wrapped up their first BCHL championship last Wednesday with a 3-1 win in Vernon which culminated a 39-13-1-5 regular season in which they finished just one point behind Chilliwack for first overall.
"It's taken a lot of hard work throughout the year, every single practice, every workout, every single thing we did as a team, it all came together and everyone bought in and that's why we had success," said Kings defenceman Layton Ahac, who has 17 playoff points. "It's a surreal feeling, just to do it with this group is unbelievable."
The fast and physical Bandits shredded the Alberta Junior Hockey League record book this season. They went 57-3-0 and finished with 114 points. They posted nothing but wins in 30 games on home ice and ended the season on a 33-0 clip they extended to 35-0 before they lost to Canmore in overtime in the playoffs. Brooks drew a first-round playoff bye and went 12-3 on their way to winning the Inter Pipeline Cup - their fifth AJHL championship since 2012.
"To me, Brooks is probably the Victoria Grizzlies times two in the fact they're high-octane, they're deep at every position and their regular-season record just goes to show you how good a team they are," said Kings general manger Mike Hawes. "For us to have success against them, especially here in the Doyle Cup and further into the national championship, we're really going to have to ramp up our game.
"I don't know if they defend as well as we do but certainly they're a very skilled team with depth at every position, so they're deep on defence as well. But defending isn't just about defence, it's about the six-man unit on the ice. I think that's our strength is how well we defend and we're able to capitalize on our chances when we get them. I expect they'll defend well and I expect they'll threaten offensively every chance they get and have some good goaltending."
The Bandits will host the first two games of the series Friday and Saturday. If the teams split those two games a third game would be played in Brooks. If either team wins both games, the Kings will host Game 3 Tuesday night at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena, with Game 4 to follow on Wednesday.
In either scenario the Kings will be on home ice for the fourth game Wednesday, with if necessary games in Prince George scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Head coach Adam Maglio and assistant coach Alex Evin have spent hours this past week dissecting the Bandits' game video to devise a plan to diffuse a team that outscored its opponents 66-34 in the playoffs.
"It is a best-of-seven and nothing changes in how we're going to go about this series, the only thing that's different is the schedule with the home-and-away stuff, but I think we have the advantage being on the back half here (in Prince George)," said Maglio. "We want to do our job and it would be nice to be back sooner, if you sweep the first two you get to come home sooner."
Despite the fact both teams have already punched their ticket to the six-team national tournament Maglio says there will be no shortage of motivation to keep winning.
"It's a very good Brooks team and it's going to be a tough series but there's pride on the line, BCHL versus the Alberta league," he said. "They're a well-structured team with skill up front and they're a very aggressive team but they seem to play within a very good system. They're very good offensively but if you look at their shots against they've averaged (close to) 20 shots a game this year. It means they know how to defend."
The Kings will be without the services of defenceman Liam Watson-Brawn, 20, who suffered an upper-body injury in the Victoria series and played just Game 4 of the Vernon series.
The games will be broadcast on CFIS FM 93.1 and webcasts are available through Hockey TV.