On Monday afternoon, most Abbotsford Pilots players were wearing T-shirts and shorts when they showed up for practice, taking maximum advantage of a sunny spring day.
They’ve still got plenty of work to do inside the relatively chilly confines of MSA Arena, though.
The local junior B hockey club will have home ice advantage during the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial championship tournament, which opens on Thursday and wraps up Sunday.
They’re gearing up to battle the Delta Ice Hawks, the Victoria Cougars and the Beaver Valley Nitehawks for the right to represent B.C. at the Keystone Cup, the Western Canadian championship, in Saskatoon April 19-22.
The Pilots have known since the start of the season that they’d be at the Cyclone Taylor Cup by virtue of their host status, but according to head coach Jim Cowden, that reality never gave way to complacency. Abbotsford showed a great deal of determination in battling all the way to the Pacific International Junior Hockey League final, where they fell in six hard-fought games to Delta.
“At the beginning of the year, yeah, we talked about it,” Cowden said. “But then we forgot about it for four or five months. There comes a point where it’s just business as usual. As you get closer, you get a little more excited.
“We’ve tried to put a competitive team together, and I think we’ve done that.”
The first three days of the tourney are a round robin, with games running at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The Pilots are in the late game each day, and face Victoria on Thursday, Delta on Friday and Beaver Valley on Saturday.
The two teams with the best records advance to the final at 3 p.m. Sunday, while the other two teams play for the bronze medal at 11 a.m.
Cowden believes the tournament will come down to which team is peaking at the right time, and that’s a sentiment shared by Pilots captain Brett Kolins.
“It doesn’t matter how good you are on paper,” Kolins said. “It just comes down to one game, one goal or one shift.”
Pilots goalie Aaron Oakley is approaching this tourney as a shot at redemption.
Last year, as a member of the Richmond Sockeyes, Oakley came out on the wrong end of an epic goaltending duel in the final game of the Cyclone Taylor Cup round robin in Fernie. The host Ghostriders coaxed a puck past him midway through the third period and hung on to win 1-0. Fernie advanced to the final, while the Sockeyes were eliminated from title contention.
The Pilots traded for Oakley back in October, and he’s thrilled to get another crack at the Cup.
“Last year left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, so I’m really excited for this tournament,” he said with a grin. “It’s going to be great, and we as a team are going to do whatever it takes to win it.”
For more information on the provincial tourney, visit cyclonetaylorcup.ca.