Win or lose, the next week and a half will be a stretch of hockey that Matt Revel will remember for the rest of his life.
Revel’s Saskatoon Blades are playing host to the MasterCard Memorial Cup, major junior hockey’s storied championship tournament, beginning this Friday and wrapping up on Sunday, May 26.
Revel, a 17-year-old rookie centre from Abbotsford, is one of the Blades’ most promising youngsters, and he’s thrilled at the opportunity to compete for a title.
“It’s been really exciting, especially this week,” Revel told The News via cellphone. “There’s been a lot of excitement around the rink.
“I’m sure it will be a good, loud crowd, and we’ll have some good fan support behind us.”
As recently as last fall, Revel wasn’t entirely convinced that major junior hockey was the right road for him.
He’d been passed over in the 2011 Western Hockey League bantam draft, partially because he also happened to be an outstanding baseball prospect. But he drew rave reviews in 2011-12 with the Fraser Valley Bruins of the B.C. Major Midget League, pacing the squad in scoring with 25 goals and 51 points in 40 games, and the Blades added him to their protected player list.
Even so, Revel initially cast his lot with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the B.C. Hockey League (junior A), and was all set to traverse the so-called “college route” and work towards an NCAA scholarship.
But the Blades were persistent in their recruitment, and they dangled a carrot that no other junior franchise could boast – an automatic Memorial Cup berth by virtue of their host status. After two games with the Chiefs, Revel departed for Saskatoon.
“For a while there, I was looking at the college route, and that’s a very intriguing route too,” acknowledged Revel, who posted seven goals and 12 assists in 61 regular season games with the Blades. “But I think in the end, I wanted to play the best hockey possible, and that was here in Saskatoon playing in the WHL.
“I think even after the Memorial Cup, the league will challenge me more than junior A will and make me the best hockey player I can be.”
If pressure makes diamonds, Revel’s experience with the Blades this season should be immensely valuable as he proceeds in his hockey career.
Memorial Cup hosting duties bring an extra layer of scrutiny, and for the Blades, that included being the subject of a Sportsnet documentary series which took a behind-the-scenes look at the Western Hockey League franchise.
Starring on TV is one thing, but the Saskatoon squad experienced the double-edged nature of the hype after being stunningly swept in the first round of the WHL playoffs by the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Blades had been seeded No. 2 in the Eastern Conference, while the Tigers were No. 7.
While the other three Memorial Cup participants – the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, and the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – had to earn their way in by winning their respective leagues, Saskatoon has sat idle for nearly two months.
That’s led to criticism of the tourney format, and the suggestion that the Blades don’t belong.
“We had lots of criticism through the media, lots of guys blaming different people on our team,” noted Revel, a product of the Abbotsford Minor Hockey Association and the Yale Secondary hockey academy. “But we know what we have to do in the Memorial Cup, and that’s come out and show everybody what we can do and what we’re capable of.
“It’s been 52 days or something like that since we played. We might be a little bit rusty off the start, but we have to get over that quick and get back into that playing mindset.”
For skilled young offensive-minded players, tightening things up in the defensive zone is typically the biggest area for improvement, and Revel has been no exception in that regard.
“The biggest difference from midget hockey to junior hockey is the ability to play against the other team’s top forwards and adjust defensively,” he said, reflecting on his first WHL campaign. “[Blades coach Lorne Molleken] challenges me a lot, and he expects a lot from me. To trust me to play, he needs to me to be on my game defensively, and that’s come along quite a bit this season.”