It was indeed a wild finish for the Winnipeg Wild at the Mac’s midget AAA international hockey tournament in Calgary a year ago.
After losing to the Saskatoon Contacts in the semifinals, the Wild had settled into their downtown Calgary hotel for what they expected would be a quiet New Year’s Eve.
“Myself and three other guys were just hanging out in our hotel room and we heard like a big bang, and we just thought it was New Year’s fireworks going on,” recalled Wild forward Brandon Lauder, now a member of the Portage Terriers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.
“It was, like, 12:30 (a.m.) at that time, so we just thought it was fireworks. Then, not even 10 seconds later, we hear another bang, bang, bang. We were, like, ‘What the hell (was that)?’ We turn around and look out the window and there’s two guys running, and then the cop guys pulled in.
“The next morning, we went down to the hotel lobby to go and eat as a team for breakfast. And we found out that one guy (on the street) was killed and the other guy was critically wounded. So, it was pretty scary stuff.”
While there are many stories associated with the legendary Mac’s tournament, few might be as gripping as the Winnipeg team’s brush with big-city crime, if even from the relative safety of their 10th-floor hotel room.
“The hotel we were staying at was very nice,” Lauder said of the Westin. “It was just surprising that it happened (outside that hotel). All the hockey teams that were playing in the Mac’s tournament were staying in that hotel.”
Mac’s participants are used to royal treatment during the prestigious tournament, which begins on Boxing Day and runs through New Year’s Day, with the gold-medal games at the Saddledome for male and female divisions.
This year’s tournament might be overshadowed by the world junior championship in Calgary and Edmonton, but it’s no less a thrill for the participating midgets from Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, the Czech Republic and Russia.
The lineups are loaded with junior, university and pro prospects.
Many of the current Western Hockey League players remember the weeklong Mac’s tournament as one of the highlights of their midget careers, regardless of whether they won or lost.
“It was a really good experience,” said Calgary Hitmen forward Brady Brassart, who was a member of the Vancouver Northwest Giants team that earned the silver medal at the 2008 Mac’s.
“It was one of the tournaments I’ll always remember going to, just being there with the group of guys we had and going as far as we did.
“The whole experience was fun. We stayed at the best hotel and ate at the best restaurants. It was a really well put-together tournament. It was a really good time.”
The only downside for Brassart was the finish, as his Giants lost a double-overtime final to the Calgary Buffaloes.
At the time, Vancouver was two men short, as Brassart was sitting alongside teammate Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the penalty box.
“It’s hard to lose that way, but sometimes that’s the way it goes,” said Brassart, 18.
“We took that one pretty hard. It sucked to come out of the box and skate right to the (dressing) room after, knowing you lost.
“We played so many games and worked so hard to get to the final, it was hard to believe it was over so quickly.”
Both finalists from the 2008 Mac’s tournament graduated multiple players to the WHL, not the least of which was Nugent-Hopkins, who went on to play two seasons with the Red Deer Rebels before jumping to the NHL as an 18-year-old this fall with the Edmonton Oilers.
As usual, Red Deer is represented in both divisions at the Mac’s this week, with the Optimist Rebels in the male tournament and the Sutter Fund Chiefs on the female side.
As much as individual players are scouted at the Mac’s, some of the teams also use the tournament to scout other clubs they might face later in the season in the provincial, regional or national championships.
Such was the intention last season when the Wild, a powerful Winnipeg team, wanted to get a better read on their opponents in the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan.
“The Saskatchewan teams are very well-coached,” Lauder said.
“That’s the reason why we went to (the Mac’s) tournament — to go look at the teams we were up against. All those teams that we played are strong.
“It was just a good experience for our team and everyone out there. We played well. We had a tough loss our first game, to the Prince Albert Mintos, but we won four straight and we ended up losing in a semifinal, 4-2 to the Saskatoon Contacts.”
In the final, the Contacts lost 3-2 to the SSAC Athletics of Edmonton. SSAC’s Curtis Honey was named tournament MVP and all-star goaltender. Honey spent the first half of this season with the Bonnyville Pontiacs of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, before being called up to the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings last week.
SSAC forward Marc McCoy, now a WHL rookie with Red Deer, was named a second-team Mac’s all-star, as was Connor Hartley of the Optimist Rebels.
While the Wild were ousted in last year’s Mac’s semifinals, the Winnipeggers were chosen the most sportsmanlike team. They also earned individual honours as Paul Krueger was outstanding coach and defenceman Madison Bowey was a first-team all-star.
The Wild aren’t participating in this year’s Mac’s tournament. Nor are the 2011 national midget champion Winnipeg Thrashers.
John MacNeil is the editor of the Stettler Independent. His column appears on Fridays. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.