As they gear up for the most important home games in franchise history, the Abbotsford Pilots find themselves in an unfamiliar position.
Next Thursday, when they hit the ice at Abbotsford Recreation Centre (ARC) at 9 a.m. to open the Keystone Cup – the Western Canadian junior B hockey championship tournament – it will have been five weeks since they last tasted game action.
The lengthy hiatus was the product of an early playoff elimination – they were defeated in the Pacific Junior Hockey League semifinals by the eventual league champ Aldergrove Kodiaks.
But due to their status as Keystone Cup hosts, they’ve got new life as of next Thursday.
The big question is: Will they be rested, or will they be rusty? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but head coach Jim Cowden prefers to focus on the positive.
“It gives us a sense of excitement, like we’re almost starting all over,” he said. “The mood is good.
“We’re completely healthy – touch wood – so we should be ready to go.”
The Pilots’ traditional home rink, MSA Arena, isn’t available for the Keystone Cup because the ice is being removed to make room for box lacrosse.
And while the Pilots would surely prefer to be in the friendly confines of their own locker room, Cowden believes that playing on the larger Olympic-sized ice sheet at ARC will benefit his squad.
“I like playing on the big ice,” he asserted. “Most of our guys can really skate.
“The thing that scares you mostly is, you can’t be running around in your own zone, otherwise you can really get tattooed. That’s something we have to focus on.”
“Me personally, I like it,” Pilots captain Braeden Monk echoed, pondering playing on the big ice. “I’m definitely not the fastest guy out there, but it gives me a little bit more time to think and make plays with the puck. I think it’ll help us. We’ve got pretty good team speed, and we play a quick game.”
The Pilots will be seeking their second Keystone Cup in three seasons – they won the 2012 title in Saskatoon.
Four players from that team – forwards Brady Lawlor, Brad Parker, Jarrett Martin and Colton Cowden – are still on the roster, lending valuable experience to the host squad.
“Two years ago, my rookie year, I had a chance to go to Westerns, and that was a big deal,” Lawlor said. “But having a chance to play at home in front of family and friends this time is going to be exciting. The one thing that was lacking at Westerns there was crowd size, and I know that here, we should get a decent crowd out.
“(Succeeding in a tournament) is about preparation and taking care of your body. You’re playing two games a day on average, so you’ve got to get home, rest up, get good food in you.”
Pilots owner/general manager Jack Goeson called the Keystone Cup “a big event for our organization, our city and our league.” To that end, he’s running a plethora of promotions throughout the tourney – figure skating performances by the Abbotsford Skating Club during intermissions, appearances by the Abbotsford Heat and Chilliwack Chiefs mascots, and local dignitaries and athletes dropping the puck for pre-game ceremonial faceoffs.
The Pilots are one of six teams at the Keystone Cup – they’ll be joined by champions from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northern Ontario.
The Blackfalds Wrangers (Alta.), Saskatoon Quakers (Sask.), Selkirk Fishermen (Man.) and Thunder Bay Northern Hawks (Northern Ont.) have already punched their tickets to Abbotsford, while the B.C. representative will be decided this weekend at the Cyclone Taylor Cup tourney in Nelson.
The Keystone Cup format is a round robin, with the teams with the two best records moving on to the title game (1 p.m. on Sunday, April 20) and the third- and fourth-ranked teams playing for bronze (10 a.m. Sunday).
The Pilots’ tourney games are listed below. For a complete schedule, visit keystonecup.ca.
Thursday, April 17
Pilots vs. B.C., 9 a.m.
Pilots vs. Blackfalds Wrangers, 8:30 p.m.
Friday, April 18
Pilots vs. Thunder Bay Northern Hawks, 11:45 a.m.
Pilots vs. Selkirk Fishermen, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 19
Pilots vs. Saskatoon Quakers, 2:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 20
Bronze medal game, 10 a.m.
Gold medal game, 1 p.m.