It was Western Hockey League brand hockey at its finest.
A tough, tight-checking and hard hitting game. The Brandon Wheat King struck first in the second period, but the Red Deer Rebels tied it up with 5:05 to play in regulation.
The tie sent the game into overtime. At 3:50, the Centrium erupted in celebration. Almost all of the 7,327 leapt to their feet as Rebels forward Evan Polei took a one-time pass from Conner Bleackley and scored the game winning goal.
That was the high point for the Rebels at the Memorial Cup, eliminating a league rival from the tournament and a team that had bounced them from the playoffs a month before.
It was also a low point for the Western Hockey League champions who came into the tournament with high expectations, only to be swept out on the heels of three straight round robin losses.
Two nights later, the Rebels tournament ended.
“We played hard, but we ran into a hot goalie in the semifinals,” said Rebels GM/head coach Brent Sutter. “They got through us because of him and he gave them a chance against London. That’s what goaltending does.”
The Rebels lost 3-1 to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the semifinal. Red Deer outshot the Huskies 37-27 in the game. The Huskies then lost in the final to the Ontario Hockey League and Memorial Cup champion London Knights.
But outside of the hockey, Sutter reflected on the success of the tournament in Red Deer.
“It will be a long time until you see hockey played at this level,” he said. “The last time was the World Juniors in 1995.
“The event was over and beyond what I thought it could be. Merrick (Sutter) and Ron LaRiviere (organizing committee co-chairs) did a great job overseeing it all.”
More than 500 volunteers helped out with the event. Total attendance for the eight games was 58,750 people.
“It’s something everybody can be very proud of,” said Sutter. “Here we are, a week later running prospects camp and getting ready for next season.”
Less than a week after the tournament ended, the Rebels held their annual prospects camp featuring 27 young players.
The Memorial Cup was about more than just the action at the rink as the trophy toured schools, legions throughout Central Alberta and even arrived in Red Deer via a helicopter.
Sutter said an event like this can get lost in larger communities, but truly has a home in some of junior hockey’s smaller communities.
“In Red Deer, for 10 days, it was the event. It didn’t matter where you were going,” he said. “People came from all over Canada, North America and the world.