When the Kootenay Ice traded captain Luke Philp to the Red Deer Rebels in a pre-trade deadline blockbuster back in January, the veteran centre took solace in the fact he was going to get the opportunity to compete for a Memorial Cup championship.
Nearly five months later, the 20-year-old Philp and the Rebels prepare to host the nation as Memorial Cup competition opens Friday from the Enmax Centrium in Red Deer.
While the Rebels didn’t take the path they had hoped for, they’re in the mix to compete for Canada’s national major junior championship, with the first test coming against Mitch Marner and the London Knights — champions of the Ontario Hockey League — Friday (6 p.m. Mountain).
“It was disappointing getting knocked out of playoffs, but we’ve worked hard in practice these last couple weeks and we’re really excited for the tournament now,” Philp, a native of Canmore, Alta., said Wednesday afternoon over the phone from Red Deer.
“It’s always easier when you’re playing every other day, but we’ve worked hard in the gym, we’ve worked hard in practice and we’ve game-like drills and game-like situations in practice, so we’ll be ready for the tournament.”
After dispatching the Calgary Hitmen in a five-game, first-round series, the Rebels skated past the Regina Pats in a seven-game slug fest during the second round. Red Deer’s pursuit of the Ed Chynoweth Cup came to a crashing halt during the WHL’s Eastern Conference final, as the eventual league-champion Brandon Wheat Kings cruised to a 4-1 series triumph.
“We know that they’re the champions of the leagues they play in, so we certainly have our hands full here,” said Brent Sutter, head coach and general manager of the Rebels, at a pre-tournament coaches’ media conference Wednesday night. “To be quite honest, we’re sitting up here as the loser right now. We’re excited for the challenge. We feel we have a good team and we feel we can compete.”
With that in mind, the Rebels haven’t played a game since falling in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference championship back on April 29, but Philp isn’t worried.
The Wheat Kings, of course, went on to defeat the Seattle Thunderbirds to claim the WHL championship and gain a berth into the Memorial Cup championship, so Philp and the Rebels will get a shot at redemption when they face Brandon (Wednesday, May 25 at 6 p.m.)
“We made too many mistakes against Brandon,” Philp said. “When you make mistakes against good teams, the best teams make you pay for them. Especially in a tournament format like this, we have to really limit mistakes and play pretty sound hockey.”
Limiting mistakes will certainly be a key to success if Philp and the Rebels hope to upset the respective champions from across the country.
Featuring WHL Playoff MVP Nolan Patrick (13-17-30), Florida Panthers prospect Jayce Hawryluk (7-23-30), New Jersey Devils first-round pick John Quenneville (16-11-27) and 2015 WHL scoring champion Tim McGauley (8-18-26), the Wheat Kings pack plenty of punch, that’s nothing new to Philp.
The Knights boast Marner — a high-flying prospect of the Toronto Maple Leafs (2015, fourth overall) — who lit up the OHL post-season with 16 goals and 44 points in only 18 games. Following closely behind are Matthew Tkachuk (20-20-40) — a top-ranked prospect heading into the 2016 NHL Entry Draft — and Christian Dvorak (14-21-35) — a highly-touted prospect of the Arizona Coyotes.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League-champion Rouyn Noranda Huskies aren’t short on high-end talent, either. Francis Perron, a 2014 seventh-round selection of the Ottawa Senators, led the QMJHL in post-season scoring with 12 goals and 33 points in 18 games. Next down the charts comes 2015 San Jose Sharks first-round pick Timo Meier (11-12-23) and 2015 Colorado Avalanche second-round pick A.J. Greer (12-10-22).
“We know that [the Knights and Huskies] are both highly-skilled teams,” Philp said. “They can both score a lot of goals and they’re both really dangerous off the rush. We’ve got to be ready for that and we’ll prepare for that the next couple days and we’ll be ready to go.
“We have to play smart hockey. We’ve got to chip pucks in when we’re at the blue lines. We’ve got to win one-on-one battles. We’ve got to be getting pucks out of our zone in key situations, blocking shots. But I think limiting turnovers and making things as hard as possible on these other three teams [will be key].”
The opportunity to play on the national stage has been a longtime coming for the overage forward. A 247-game career with the Ice brought with it 28 post-season games, but nothing beyond the second round of the WHL post-season.
Now, after 17 regular-season games and 17 WHL playoff games with Red Deer, the Rebels’ captain will finally get the chance to play for the Memorial Cup to close out his junior hockey career.
“I’m excited for it, but you can’t get overexcited for it,” Philp said. “It’s one of the toughest tournaments to win. I think controlled excitement is going to help you play your best out there. You don’t want to be overexcited out there because sometimes you tend to try to do too much, or run out of position. It’s obviously really exciting because it’s a big tournament, it’s a big stage. We’ve been preparing for this all year, but you’ve got to control your emotions out there.”
The 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup marks the 98th edition of Canada’s annual major junior championship.
The trophy was originally known as the OHA Memorial Cup, donated by the Ontario Hockey Association in March 1919, in remembrance of the many soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice for Canada during the First World War. The Memorial Cup was rededicated in 2010 to the memory of all fallen Canadian military personnel.
The Oshawa Generals won the 2015 Memorial Cup championship, hosted by Quebec City. The OHL’s Windsor Spitfires will host the 2017 MasterCard Memorial Cup.