Playing hockey in May is a brand new concept to the vast majority of the West Kelowna Warriors, player and coaches alike.
But the B.C. Hockey League champions are gratefully accepting that reality this week as they head east to Estevan, SK for the Western Canada Cup.
The five-team tournament is a qualifier for the RBC Cup national Junior A championship set for Lloydminster, AB, May 14 to 21.
Already 24 games and counting into the postseason, Warriors’ head coach and GM Rylan Ferster has absolutely no objections with what has already been the longest season in team history.
“It’s funny, it doesn’t feel like we’re about to turn the corner into May, it just feels like business as usual for us,” Ferster said. “To think the (playoffs) have been going on for nearly two months, it’s really nice to still be around, that’s for sure. I’d take it every year if I could, it feels great to be in the position we’re in.”
Representing the BCHL, the Warriors will take on the host Estevan Bruins in the opening game of the tournament on Saturday night. The five-team round-robin will also feature the Portage Terriers (Manitoba), Melfort Mustangs (Saskatchewan) and Brooks Bandits (Alberta). The top two teams after the playoff round will move on the to RBC Cup.
Because the Warriors haven’t played any of the other four teams, there’s no way to know exactly how the B.C. champs will stack up against their prairie opponents.
Still, based on the strength of the BCHL from year to year, owner Mark Cheyne said his club should be in the mix.
“Our league is so hard to win, we beat some really good players and teams on the way, and I think we came out of the toughest division (Interior),” said Cheyne, who took over the Warriors nine years ago. “I think we go in a pretty good spot…I wouldn’t say we’re the favourites but I think we’re feeling pretty good about our chances.
“But you never know in these kinds of tournaments,” he added. “You’ve got to get some breaks, you’ve gotta stay healthy and you’ve gotta score on the power play. The guys are excited.”
The Warriors raised the bar to a new standard on Saturday night at Royal LePage Place, capturing the organization’s first BCHL title in the 10 seasons since putting down stakes in West Kelowna. In front of a sold-out crowd, the Warriors downed the Chilliwack Chiefs 4-2 to take the Fred Page Cup in six games.
Ferster said everyone in the organization had a hand in the historical win, starting with the man in charge.
“First and foremost, it’s about Mark Cheyne, he’s been around a long time, he’s a great owner and a great person and he deserves it more than anyone,” Ferster said. “The community has been very good to us, so it was certainly nice to be able to reward them.
And it obviously it’s great for the kids. They worked hard to get here, you don’t get to this point without a great work ethic. I can’t say enough about our leadership group too, the older guys who have led us all the way. It’s great for them.”
One of those leaders, captain Kyle Marino, can’t wait for next leg of the Warriors’ journey.
“Our goal right from the start of the year was we wanted to go all the way to the RBC Cup,” said Marino. “There’s still a lot of work to do and we know it’s going to be a battle, but we’re looking forward to it. We’ve accomplished a lot already, but we don’t feel like we’re done yet.”
The long playoff road has brought the inevitability of injuries to the Warriors, who finished the BCHL final without goaltender Matthew Greenfield, defenceman Kristian Blumenschein and forward Quin Foreman. Ferster said there’s a good chance all three could play in Estevan.
After Saturday’s opener with Estevan, the Warriors will take on Brooks on Sunday, Portage on Tuesday and Melfort next Thursday.
For more on the tournament, visit westerncanadacup.com.