The long wait is finally over for the hosts of Canada’s 46th National Junior A Championship
By the time the puck drops Saturday to open the 2016 RBC Cup, 716 days will have passed since the Lloydminster Bobcats found out they would host Canada’s National Junior A Championship.
That’s one year, 11 months and 15 days of waiting; 1,031,040 minutes of fine-tuning the roster, preparing to welcome four regional representatives from across the country to compete for a national title.
And the last 35 days may have been the hardest.
The Bobcats’ quest for their first Alberta Junior Hockey League championship came to an end April 8 with a Game 5 loss to the Spruce Grove Saints in the AJHL semifinals, and they’ve had nothing to do for the last five weeks except rest, practice, and wait.
Now that it’s showtime at the Centennial Civic Centre, Lloydminster hopes to rediscover the form that produced the winningest regular season in franchise history.
The Bobcats finished third in a tight North Division with 44 wins and 90 points, both all-time highs, and their 155 goals against were third-best in the AJHL, and good for 21st among 131 Junior A teams across Canada.
No. 6 in the preseason CJHL Top 20, Lloydminster validated that spot with six consecutive wins – and 15 in its first 16 games – to open the season, reaching a season-high ranking of No. 2 on Sept. 29.
Lloydminster spread around the scoring as well as any team in the AJHL; five players hit the 20-goal mark, nine were in double-digits, and 10 skaters recorded at least 30 points, led by 58 from Kevin Darrar, who sat 24th in the league scoring race.
Between the pipes, Alex Leclerc was a North Division all-star, playing the second-most minutes among AJHL goaltenders (2,588) and finishing at or near the top of the league in most major categories – tied for first in wins (31), tied for third in shutouts (four), and fifth in goals-against average (2.48).
The playoffs started with a quick three-game sweep of Drayton Valley, capped by an 11-3 demolition of the Thunder in the decisive Game 3; true to their regular season M.O., it was a complete team effort in the clincher, with 16 of 18 skaters getting at least a point, and no one had more than three.
Round 2 looked to be a much tougher test, with Lloydminster facing off against the Whitecourt Wolverines. The two teams finished with 90 points each during the regular season, but Whitecourt won four of six head-to-head match-ups, giving it home-ice advantage.
The Bobcats needed late-game heroics to win Game 1, getting the game-tying goal from Brett Smythe with 2:07 left before Eric Benshadle’s power-play goal in overtime gave Lloydminster the early edge.
The rest of the series wasn’t as close as the opener; the Bobcats took both games in Whitecourt with a 5-2 win in Game 2, and outscored the Wolverines 12-4 in two games at the Centennial Civic Centre, completing a rather-unexpected four-game sweep.
Hopes of a trip to the RBC Cup through the front door were quickly dashed, though, when Lloydminster ran up against the two-time defending AJHL champions from Spruce Grove in the division final.
The Saints put up 18 goals in winning the first three games to take command, and although the Bobcats handed Spruce Grove its first postseason loss in Game 4, the series lasted just one game more as Lloydminster bowed out in five.
Now comes the fun part – hosting the RBC Cup. The Bobcats are just the sixth AJHL team to host the tournament, although three of the previous five – Spruce Grove in 1975, Olds in 1994, and Fort McMurray in 2000 – were crowned national champions.
A win would make Lloydminster the ninth host to win Canada’s National Junior A Championship since the home team was introduced in 1985, joining Orillia (1985), Vernon (1990), Olds (1994), Summerside (1997), Fort McMurray (2000), Halifax (2002), Weyburn (2005) and Portage (2015).