Sunday, 15 May 2016

Wheat Kings are the toast of Brandon

Jayce Hawryluk (#8) and Nolan Patrick (#19) enjoy a Wheat Kings win.
  Since winning the WHL championship on Friday night in Seattle, the Brandon Wheat Kings and their fans have enjoyed the spoils of victory, and they should enjoy every good moment associated with that win.
    When the Wheat Kings downed the host Thunderbirds 8-4 in Game 5 of the WHL Championship series at the ShoWare Center on Friday night, Brandon claimed its first league title since 1996 with a 4-1 best-of-seven series victory. The win was followed by a joyous plane fight home and huge upbeat rally at the UTC Pavilion in Brandon on Saturday with the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Between league title wins, the Wheat Kings continued to hold the lofty status as being one of the WHL’s elite franchises.
    In the 20 years since the 1996 WHL title win, the Wheat Kings only missed the playoffs twice. During that time, the Wheat Kings finished first in the East Division on eight occasions, which included this season. The run to stay good included having to rebound from loading up to host the Memorial Cup in 2010.
Nolan Patrick became a game breaker for the Wheat Kings.
    That fact Brandon went 20 years between league title wins is more a testament to how tough it is to win it all in the WHL.
    This season, the Wheat Kings topped the WHL’s Eastern Conference standings and placed second overall in the WHL with a 48-18-4-2 mark. The 102 points they collected in the standings ranks seventh best in team history. Last year, Brandon finish first overall in the WHL with a 53-11-4-4 record, advanced to the WHL final and got swept by the Kelowna Rockets.
    When to comes to wins and losses, the Wheat Kings have had a small number of seasons that were better than the record posted in 2015-16, but the current playoff run seemed to resonate with the local fans on a bit of a higher scale than past campaigns.
    Over 11 playoff home games, the Wheat Kings averaged 5,070 spectators at Westman Place, which seats 5,102. The WHL Guide for 2015-16 states the Wheat Kings’s rink can accommodate 600 people for standing room, but we all know that number depends on how the fire marshal is feeling.
    Brandon’s crowds swelled into the standing room spots on six occasions in the post-season. The Wheat Kings highest attendance figure came when they drew 5,621 spectators to their final home game, which was a 3-2 overtime victory over the Thunderbirds in Game 2 of the WHL title series on May 7.
Jordan Papirny came up with critical saves for the Wheat Kings.
    During the regular season, the Wheat Kings averaged 4,212 spectators per game. In last year’s playoffs, they drew an average of 4,778 spectators for 10 home dates.
    It is hard to pin a reason why the Wheat Kings run this year seemed to do a better job of capturing the attention of the citizens of Brandon. There might have been a new appreciation for the positive characteristics the Wheat Kings bring to the rink night in and night out.
    The Wheat Kings success begins with head coach, general manager and owner Kelly McCrimmon, who is a strong community minded individual. He is good at building chemistry, when you note that seven of the 24 players on Brandon’s current roster arrived via trade including steady captain Macoy Erkamps, who came in a deal with the Lethbridge Hurricanes on Sept 30, 2014. Those additions mixed in with 13 Bantam Draft selections, three list players and one Import Draft pick.
    McCrimmon is like a second dad to his players, and behind the bench, he does a stellar job of remaining composed and focused no matter what happens on the ice. The players mirror that demeanor, which has to help them stay even when things go bad.
Fans packed Westman Place in Brandon for Wheat Kings games.
    The Wheat Kings players have had a history of being know has the favourite road team in the WHL among the hotel and restaurant staffs in other cities. They always carry themselves in a classy and personable manner, and those positive traits also help the team on the ice.
    The club’s assistant coaches in Darren Ritchie and David Anning and goaltending coach Matt Cockell have to be credited for helping build the team to what it is. Brandon also benefited from strong work performed by a scouting staff headed up by Wade Klippenstein, who is the team’s director of scouting.
    During post-game interviews after winning the WHL title, all the Wheat Kings players and staffers said that everyone on the team was a good character individual. When you look up and down their roster, you can see that is an accurate assessment, especially when you look at overage defenceman Mitch Wheaton and 19-year-old rearguard Jordan Thomson.
    Wheat Kings’s fans were able to see a lot of brilliant performances form a number of individuals. Three of the key ones had to come from Nolan Patrick, Jayce Hawryluk and Jordan Papirny.
Wheat Kings captain Macoy Erkamps (#20) battles for the puck.
    Patrick, who was born four days after the cut off day for this year’s NHL Entry Draft, was a star, but the skilled centre became a game breaker, who made key plays at critical times. He topped the Wheat Kings in post-season scoring with 13 goals and 17 assists in 21 games.
    Hawryluk, who was an NHL Entry Draft selection of the Florida Panthers in 2014, further cemented his reputation as being one of the hardest players to play against in the WHL. Standing 5-foot-10 and weighing 194 pounds, Hawryluk actually can play the physical bang and crash game, and he has the ability to be one of those pest/agitator types that knocks opponents off their game.
    The Roblin, Man., product delivers offensively too as he collected seven goals and 22 assists in 21 playoff games. In the victory that clinched the WHL title, Hawryluk had one of those special nights firing home a hat trick and collecting a pair of assists in an 8-4 win.
    In goal, Papirny delivered the big saves when the Wheat Kings needed them the most, and performed like a money goalie in the playoffs on most nights. His 2.93 goals against average and .897 save percentage doesn’t do justice to show how good the Edmonton product was. When Papirny had a bad game, he rebounded the next night in spectacular style.
Defenceman Mitch Wheaton is a character player for the Wheat Kings.
    On Monday, the Wheat Kings return to practice to gear up for their next big challenge, which is the Memorial Cup tournament in Red Deer. Brandon enters that four-team event as an underdog squad. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights will be pegged as the favourites.
    The Huskies topped the final Canadian Hockey League Top Ten rankings posting a 54-9-3-2 regular season record. They recorded a 16-4 playoff record in their run to a QMJHL title.
    The Knights were third in the final CHL rankings after posting a 51-14-2-1 regular season record. They were 16-2 in their run to winning the OHL championship.
    London opens the Memorial Cup this coming Friday against the host Red Deer Rebels. The Rebels finished sixth overall in the WHL with a 45-24-1-2 regular season mark, and they made it to the WHL’s Eastern Conference championship series before falling to Brandon.
The Wheat Kings next focus is capturing the Memorial Cup.
    The Wheat Kings open play at the Memorial Cup this coming Saturday against the Huskies. The tournament’s championship game is slated for May 29.
    Brandon has never won a Memorial Cup. The Wheat Kings come a long way to gain a rare opportunity to capture major junior hockey’s biggest prize.
    Everyone associated with the team will note there is no point stopping now, and they might as well finish things off by going all the way. The Wheat Kings are battle hardened and will prove to be a tough out on the national stage.

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