Ken Hitchcock ambled into McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre on May 20, the fourth-winningest coach in NHL history making an unscheduled visit to chat with his old pal, Don Hay, and the Kamloops Blazers’ coaching staff after practice.
The former Blazers’ bench boss — who led Kamloops to a pair of league titles and Memorial Cup appearances — agreed to an interview with KTW and did not hesitate when asked to deliver advice to players and coaches making final preparations for the Memorial Cup tournament.
“Have fun,” Hitchcock said. “That’s the No. 1 thing. It’s really difficult because there is a lot of pressure — pressure from media, pressure coming from your own fan base. You’ve just got to be able to handle it.”
KTW tracked down head coach Shaun Clouston, assistant coach Chris Murray and signed NHL prospects Olen Zellweger, Matthew Seminoff, Logan Stankoven and Daylan Kuefler, along with goaltender Dylan Ernst, to glean insight on the opportunity that lies ahead.
“It’s once in a lifetime, honestly,” Ernst said. “We all know that.”
Clouston said the same thing. So did Zellweger.
Everyone interviewed, in their own way, noted the one-off nature of the experience, its singularity adding to its weight, an already heavy load thanks to desires for revenge on the Seattle Thunderbirds and the crystal-clear goal reinforced by majority owner Tom Gaglardi.
“We want to win it,” Gaglardi said during a recent appearance on the Kamloops Last Week webcast/podcast. “That’s the goal. There’s nothing other than that. We’re not thinking about any other accomplishments other than winning the thing.”
Hitchcock’s advice is sage and seems simple, but when the stakes are so high, having fun is easier said than done, said Murray, a two-time Memorial Cup champion who also tasted defeat in both the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup finals.
“There is a lot of emotion that gets built up into it. It has a tendency with young guys to pull them out of enjoying the moment,” Murray said. “It’s really important you enjoy the moment — every bit of it. You’ve still got to take care of your preparation and your rest and hydration, but you need to enjoy what you’re doing. This is such a great opportunity. It’s not life or death. We deal with stuff like that at the fire hall. This is a game. It’s a sport. It’s a chance to do something great.”
The Blazers did their best last week to turn the page on the Western Conference final, with emphasis on short, upbeat, high-tempo practices.
“It’s taken me a bit to get over that series,” said Blazers’ captain Stankoven, who led the WHL playoffs in scoring, but was not content with his own production in the Seattle series.
“Personally, it was really disappointing, but I’ve taken some time to reset, refocus and it’s good to be around the guys. You’ve got to enjoy each day. It’s really important, but it’s the game of hockey. When you’re having the most fun, that’s when things are clicking and you just kind of get into the zone.”
Preparation for this moment began long ago, with help from mental-performance coach Bob Wilkie, who has been in the players’ ears since the loss to Seattle.
“The pressure from the fans is no more than the pressure we put on ourselves,” said Minten, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect from Yaletown in Vancouver.
“We’re used to the pressure and feeling like we want to win. It’s just being competitive to us. Having fun is why we play. This is the greatest opportunity we’ll get in junior hockey, so I think it’s great advice and something we’ve been striving for all year.”
Minten also highlighted internal motivation, the last crack at fulfillment for a team built to win, a squad that will soon be dismantled.
“We’re a little bit hungrier coming back after the defeat,” Minten said. “It’s our last ride with this group. There will be, probably, half the team not here next year. We’re going to give it our all.”
Zellweger’s sights have been on the T-Birds, who melted the Winnipeg Ice in five games to claim the WHL title.
“Yeah, for sure,” said Zellweger, the Anaheim Ducks’ prospect and back-to-back WHL defenceman of the year.
“Whatever team was going to win would have been fine, but now that it’s Seattle, we get another chance at them. We weren’t 100 per cent happy with our games against them, so it will be awesome to get another chance to beat them.
“You want to beat the best. That’s how you feel good. You want to beat the best team.”
Clouston reported no injuries serious enough to keep players out of the lineup and said there will be focus on bringing more energy into games, with increased emphasis on tenacity in net-front areas.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for most people,” Clouston said. “It’s an incredible opportunity for the whole group. It’s awesome.”
Seminoff plans to drink in the experience and hopes to sip from the Memorial Cup.
“As you get older, it starts to get a little more easy to enjoy it,” said Seminoff, the Dallas Stars’ prospect from Coquitlam. “It’s such a cool experience. I’ve never played in the Memorial Cup, but we have mentors here and they all have said just to enjoy it.”
Murray is among those mentors.
“I’ve been through these great big events that are impactful for the rest of your life,” Murray said.
“It’s important to enjoy the moment, stay in the moment and focus on what you can control. Don’t worry about all the noise. Be present every minute.”