They say the hockey world is actually quite small, and that adage was proven again last week when the Brandon Wheat Kings claimed their Manitoba Midget ‘AAA’ Hockey League title.
By winning the provincial championship, the Wheat Kings advance to the 2019 TELUS Cup West Regional, which takes place in Tisdale, Sask., April 4 to 7. Here’s where that tight-knit hockey adage becomes all too evident.
“I’ve been to Tisdale before, but never to watch a hockey game,” said Wheat King coach Ken Schneider, a native of Saskatchewan himself. “I’ve got family and friends who will be there, and I pass through there every year to go fishing in Nipawin.
“I also have connections to the team – the captain of the Trojans, Luke Arndt. I’m best friends with his father. We grew up together, and he actually bought my parent’s land,” said Schneider. “And another player, Landon Kosior, his family billeted my son Mark when he was a Regina Pat. So there’s lots of intriguing things about this matchup, and I’m really excited to head west for this event.”
The Wheat Kings advanced to Westerns by avenging last year’s loss in the league championship – ending the Winnipeg Wild’s three-year reign as champions in the process – with a 4-1 victory on home ice on March 27. Brandon won the best-of-five final three games to one, giving them their first championship since 2007 when they defeated the Winnipeg Thrashers for the title.
Schneider says the experience to get to and win the MMAAHL final has been a whirlwind few weeks, especially since he only joined the team in early January.
“I haven’t won a provincial championship before, so this is pretty special for us,” said Schneider, who last coached the Wheat Kings back in 2014. “I came in about Jan. 9, so it’s been three months now. It almost feels like a carpet ride.”
The Wheat Kings won the league despite entering as the third seed. After eliminating the sixth-seeded Eastman Selects in the quarter-finals in four games (including an overtime thriller to clinch the series), Brandon went up against the second-seeded Yellowhead Chiefs. Brandon swept the Chiefs in three games, including two victories on the road.
Those first two rounds helped the Wheat Kings gain confidence, according to Schneider.
“I don’t know if I ever felt we were in control. I felt Eastman played us really tough in the first round,” says Schneider. “I think what really happened, and as time wore on, we seemed to gain more confidence.
“We also had a couple of really close games against Yellowhead, and won a game 7-6 in overtime up there,” he added. “I always find it’s a slippery slope as to whether you’re in control or not.”
Brandon did lose Game 1 of the series in Winnipeg by a score of 6-3, but then rattled off three straight wins to capture the league title by scores of 3-2, 5-2 and 4-1.
“In all fairness, our goaltender was sub-par in Game 1, but he bounced back and gave us three quality starts,” noted Schneider. “But when we won a tight one in Game 2, I felt our players knew they could compete with them. And in Game 3 and Game 4, we actually controlled how the game was played.”
Nolan Ritchie led the Wheat Kings’s offense with 21 points in 11 games. Teammate Rylan Thiessen was close behind with 19 points. Although the forwards get the eye-popping stats, Schneider felt this was a team built to win from the goal out.
“The game has gotten so much faster, and we have a core group of forwards who are high skill and skate well. Having someone of Nolan’s caliber – he’s just on another level,” said Schneider of the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat King prospect. “He’s a great leader and a quiet guy who goes about his business.
“Having said that, I felt our strength was from our goalie out to our defense,” he added. “For the first time in my career, we have a solid six defenders.”
Should Brandon advance from the 2019 TELUS Cup West Regional, they would qualify for the TELUS Cup in Thunder Bay, Ont., April 22 to 28, where the national ‘AAA’ Midget champion will be determined.
Schneider knows getting through the regional competition won’t be an easy task.
“I expect all the teams to be competitive, obviously, if they are provincial champions,” said Schneider. “And from what we’ve gathered on the host Tisdale team, they may have lost out a little earlier, but they’ll be hungry and will have a large crown to support them.”