By Darren Steinke on September 23, 2013.
Whoever thought a blooper moment for YouTube would become a curse for the Western Hockey League.
On May 25, 2008, the WHL champion Spokane Chiefs defeated the host Kitchener Rangers 4-1 to capture the Memorial Cup. After lifting the championship trophy over his head twice and kissing it, Chiefs captain Chris Bruton went to hand over major junior hockey’s most cherished prize to defenceman Trevor Glass.
Glass was on the down side of a 3-1 score to the host Vancouver Giants in the previous year’s Memorial Cup tournament as a member of the WHL champion Medicine Hat Tigers. Bruton’s gesture was to be a touching moment.
As Bruton reached over to hand off the trophy, it became separated from its heavy base and fell to the ice. Bruton and Glass looked over the trophy with priceless stunned looks.
In a weird twist, a WHL representative hasn’t won the Memorial Cup since that time. Little did anyone realize at the time, “The Curse of the Drop” was about to begin.
The WHL is going through its longest drought of not winning the Memorial Cup spanning five years, which dated back to 1971, when the league could first compete for junior hockey’s biggest prize. Before that, the WHL was considered an outlaw league and was not permitted to compete for the Memorial Cup.
During the current winless run, one could try to find statistics to back an argument the teams coming out of the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League have been superior to the champs west of the border between Manitoba and Ontario.
That line of thinking would unfairly discount formidable WHL championship teams during that skid like last season’s Portland Winterhawks, who were 57-12-1-2 in regular season play. The Winterhawks would go on to drop an exciting 6-4 decision in the Memorial Cup final in Saskatoon to the Halifax Mooseheads.
With a curse, you can explain anything.
In 2009, the Kelowna Rockets appeared ready to win the WHL’s third straight Memorial Cup after posting a 3-0 record in round robin play and earning a bye into the final at the tournament in Rimouski, Que.
After sitting through four off days, the Rockets fell 4-1 to the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. The rust argument could be used here to explain the Rockets downfall.
In 2010 in Brandon, the Spitfires returned to the Memorial Cup tournament off an impressive 50-12-1-5 season in the OHL. With a roster that contained future NHLers Taylor Hall and Ryan Ellis, it is argued in some circles that the 2009-10 Spitfires were one of the best Canadian junior hockey clubs ever.
They won all four of their tournament games by a combined score of 28-9, which included beating WHL teams three times by a 24-6 count.
The host Wheat Kings made the final and the “we have a chance” chant of the host fans quickly faded in a 9-1 Spitfires romp.
Brandon’s goaltender in that year’s title game, Jacob DeSerres, resurfaced in the 2011 Memorial Cup tournament as the overage starting netminder for the QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs.
DeSerres was outstanding, winning all three of his starts including the championship game. He posted a .946 save percentage and a 1.82 goals against average during the event.
In the final, Saint John downed the host St. Michael’s Majors 3-1. The Majors beat the WHL champion Kootenay Ice 3-1 in the semifinal.
The Edmonton Oil Kings made the 2012 Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, Que., as WHL champions after a stellar 50-15-3-4 regular season.
After beating the host Cataractes 4-3 to open the event, the offence dried up for the Oil Kings. They scored four goals over their next three tournament games – all losses. The Cataractes won the tournament final with a 2-1 victory over the London Knights.
The plot twists to keep the drought going fit a curse.
As the 2013-14 major junior campaign begins, will the WHL be able to end “The Curse of the Drop?”
If the drought goes on, a story line that sees the WHL champ come up short again should be another interesting one.
Darren Steinke is a sportswriter with the Medicine Hat News
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