The Brandon Wheat Kings are off to the Memorial Cup. We took the time to speak with one of the Wheaties, Jayce Hawryluk of Roblin.
The year was 1996. Mariah Carey was at the top of the Billboard charts. Toy Story was still in theatres. Jarome Iginla was the Player of the Year for Kamloops. Mike LeClerc lead the Wheat Kings in regular season points with 111 and Bobby Brown was the Playoff MVP. That was the last time the Wheat Kings won the WHL Championship. That year Brandon lost in the Memorial Cup semi-final 4-3 to the Peterborough Petes. Peterborough went on to lose to the now-defunct Grandy club from Quebec in the final.
But it was not the last time the Wheaties appeared in a Memorial Cup, they had the honour of hosting the tournament in 2009-2010. The Wheat Kings knocked off Calgary 5-4 in OT in the semi-final before being on the wrong end of a 9-1 beating at the hands of Taylor Hall and the Windsor Spitfires en route to their second consecutive Memorial Cup, a rare feat.
The Wheat Kings have been to the Memorial Cup five times: once as an MJHL team in 1949, and four times as a WHL team in 1979, 1995, 1996, and 2010. Brandon has yet to win a Memorial Cup, but this year they'll have their sixth chance.
As Brandon player Jayce Hawryluk tells it, it's a much different experience earning a berth as the league champs rather than hosting the tournament.
"I think there's more of a sense of accomplishment when you win the league to make it there instead of hosting it," he admits. "You've earned your way."
Gearing up to the tournament Hawryluk says the Wheat Kings are as ready as ever.
"We're excited for the tournament we feel we're well prepared. We've earned this opportunity and we're going to make the most of it."
Hawryluk led the Wheat Kings with 106 points this year, 47 goals, 52 assists. In 2014 he was drafted 32nd overall by the NHL's Florida Panthers. In this year's post season he had 30 points in 21 contests, at the top of the league, tied with team mate Nolan Patrick. Five of those points came in Game 5 of the WHL final. Hawryluk scored the game winner and added two more tallies for good measure, defeating Seattle 8-4.
En route to their first league title in 20 years the Wheat Kings de-crowned, royalty over another commodity, the Edmonton Oil Kings, outlasted the Moose Jaw Warriors, and tamed this year's Memorial Cup host Red Deer Rebels. In the finals they met the Seattle Thunderbirds. A team which had only lost one game through three rounds and had just swept last year's champion, the Kelowna Rockets.
Going into the finals against a team that's only lost one game would be a nerve-racking experience for some, but not the Wheat Kings.
"There wasn't really any nerves at all to be honest," said Hawryluk. "Maybe the first game in front of our sold-out crowd, maybe we were a little bit excited, a little bit nervous there but nothing too much because we had been there before. We have a lot of experience on our team this year and we know what it's like to play in those kind of games so we were well prepared and we knew what to expect."
Hawryluk says the team wasn't too focused on the Thunderbirds success in the playoffs so far, rather, they were much more concerned with their own.
"That doesn't mean anything," he insisted. "They had to play us to get by us. We knew what kind of team we had, and what it was going to take to beat us, and it was going to take everything they had."
"They threw everything they had at us, we answered, we played well, and we came out on top."
Winning the Memorial Cup however, is a completely different matter as Hawryluk explains.
"It's the Memorial Cup, it's the four best teams in Canada. I feel like its anyone's game any kind of night. It's a matter of who plays their best, and who brings their A-game, and who steps up to the plate because each game's a game seven."
"You need your best out of your players and I feel like whatever team brings that is going to be the team that wins."
The Wheat Kings are competing for the Memorial Cup against the OHL's London Knights, and the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, and the Red Deer Rebels as host.
The Knights have not lost since the first round and are riding a 13-game winning streak. They have the OHL's best goaltender during the regular season in Tyler Parsons, and three of the league's 5 top goal scorers.
The Huskies were the league champions, setting a league record with 113 points, due to good goaltending and goal scoring. They've not won a Memorial Cup since 1970, when they were known as the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
Of all the teams competing the one the Wheat Kings are most familiar with are the host Red Deer Rebels. The Wheat Kings defeated the Rebels in five games in the conference final.
Some would argue the familiarity is a definite advantage, including Hawryluk.
"I feel like we're a little more comfortable in that building than the OHL and the [QMJHL] teams because we play in that building, we've won in that building."
But don't count the Rebels out, they'll be getting up to play the Wheaties looking for revenge after being eliminated by them. But don't worry, the Wheat Kings aren't getting too comfortable about the fact they've been in that barn before.
"It's still a hockey rink. We're on a sheet of ice. Nothing's changed there."
The Memorial Cup starts Friday with the London Knights taking on the Rebels. The Wheat Kings play Rouyn-Noranda on Saturday.
"It's going to be a fun tournament, it's going to be some great competition and all the games are going to be very tight. Its anyone's game."