|Nelson Nogier, left, and Jake DeBrusk salute the Red Deer fans.|
RED DEER, Alta. – No matter what happens on the ice, the 98th Memorial Cup in Red Deer will be a hit off the ice.
When you arrive in town, you can feel that the central Alberta city of just over 100,800 residents in jumping. Major junior hockey’s championship tournament is meant to be held in centres like Red Deer, which are pure junior hockey towns. The citizens seem to get just a little more excited and have a little more appreciation for the fact they are hosting the Memorial Cup.
In big cities, the Memorial Cup tends to get lost as another event.
The Red Deer Rebels are completing their 24th season of existence in the major junior ranks, and the WHL franchise has become ingrained in the culture of the Red Deer community. The attachment to the team hit another level back in 1999, when Brent Sutter bought the franchise.
The members of the Sutter family will always be viewed as hockey heroes in Red Deer as Brent along with his brothers Brian, Darryl, Duane, Ron and Rich all suited up for the now defunct Red Deer Rustlers junior A team before all moving on to lengthy careers in the NHL. Brent’s status in town took huge rise due to the fact he returned to Red Deer once his NHL playing days were finished. Besides owning the Rebels, he took a hands on approach running the club becoming the head coach and general manager.
|The fans have been rocking in Red Deer.|
Two years after buying the team, Sutter guided the Rebels to a Memorial Cup championship, when they slipped past the Val-d’Or Foreurs 6-5 in overtime at the 2001 tourney in Regina. The Rebels made it back to the WHL championship series in 2002 and 2003 and the Eastern Conference Championship series in 2004 during those early years under Sutter’s watch. While running the Rebels, Sutter guided Canada’s world junior teams to gold medal victories in 2005 and 2006 as head coach to further cement his status as a Red Deer icon.
Sutter along with his wife Connie, sons Merrick and Brandon, and daughter Brooke have always been a strong community minded family and that adds another dimension to the ties they have with Red Deer. When the Rebels were named the hosts of the 2016 Memorial Cup, it felt like a sure bet the Sutters would make the event a big success.
Over the tournament’s first five games, attendance hasn’t slipped below 7,181 at the Enmax Centrium, which is listed as having a capacity of 7,000 in the WHL guide and record book for 2015-16. The atmosphere in the rink has been festive. Along with the fans that has poured in from out of town, people have been focused on celebrating major junior hockey in Canada.
|One of the many signs in Red Deer that shows support for the Rebels.|
Besides filling the rink, the fans have packed the pavilion buildings the neighbour the Enmax Centrium on the grounds of Westerner Park to enjoy activities at the Fan Fest and the very popular Molson Hockey House.
Of course when the Rebels hit the ice, the fans focus on the game is heightened just a little more. The various signs that are up throughout Red Deer kind of show off that fact. The atmosphere at games has been electric, and the energy peaks during contests that involve the host club.
Fans in Red Deer and area were able to get a little bit more revved up for the tourney due to the fact the Rebels advanced to Eastern Conference Championship series in the WHL playoffs before falling to the eventual WHL champion Brandon Wheat Kings.
The local fans and the citizens of Red Deer have been very friendly and welcoming. The staff at Westerner Park have mirrored both those characteristics, which adds to the fact you want to be in the stands or at one of the pavilion buildings.
|Winger Jake DeBrusk breaks into the offensive zone for the Rebels|
On the ice, the London Knights, who are the champions of the Ontario Hockey League, are the team to beat. After their 5-2 victory over the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies on Tuesday night, the Knights advanced to Sunday’s championship game finishing the round robin portion of the tournament with a 3-0 record. They have outscored their opponents 20-5 in those wins and have won 16 straight games going back to the OHL playoffs.
In some Memorial Cup tournaments, you will have teams like the Knights that are so dominant they throw the competitive balance for a loop. London’s top forward line of Mitch Marner, captain Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk have played beyond spectacular.
Organizers can’t control the competitive aspect on the ice. As far as organizing everything that goes on around the games, the Rebels and the host committee definitely get and deserve top marks.
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