It’s been a long time coming for the Brooks Bandits.
But after years of hard work preparing both on and off the ice to host the National Jr. A Championship (NJAC) it will kick off Saturday night in Brooks.
“From an organizational standpoint, it’s been two years in the making, so there’s a lot of people in this community that have put in a lot of time and effort,” said Bandits head coach Ryan Papaioannou, who this week was nominated for Canadian Junior Hockey League coach of the year. “It’s nice to see all their efforts come to fruition.
“From a coaching side, we’re excited, we’re ready to play. Our guys, I think, have been bored all week practising just looking forward to getting on the ice (Saturday) night.”
The tournament will feature the cream of the crop when it comes to Jr. A talent in Canada.
While the Bandits play host and represent the Alberta Junior Hockey League, they will be visited by four other organizations.
Representing the British Columbia Hockey League is the Prince George Spruce Kings, while the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Portage Terriers will also be there.
From the Ontario Junior Hockey League is the Oakville Blades with the Central Canada Hockey League’s Ottawa Jr. Senators coming in tow.
At least one of these teams is a familiar face – that being the Spruce Kings, who the Bandits squared off against last weekend in the Doyle Cup.
It was an affair that saw the BCHL champion Spruce Kings defeat the Bandits in six games.
“When you get two championship teams, expectations go out the window and you’ve got to get out on the ice and play,” said Papaioannou of the series. “I thought they were tremendous in their building, I thought we were pretty good in ours. We struggled up there, we had no answer for their depth and their speed. The oddity was when we were in Brooks is we had an answer for all that stuff. It’ll be fun to see them again.
“I think throughout the year I don’t think we faced enough adversity, so to lose back-to-back games for the first time all year (in the Doyle Cup) and then to lose three games in a row, I don’t see it as a huge negative. I think it’s going to be a big-time positive if we use it as a learning experience. Or we can take it the opposite way and let the losing continue. I think our guys are smart enough to know it’s all championships teams here and we’ve got to be good.”
Looking ahead to the NJAC, the Bandits are going to be looking to rekindle some of their offensive prowess that helped lead them to one of the best seasons in AJHL history; it was a year that saw them post a regular-season record of 57-3, becoming the first team to ever record 57 wins and 112 points in the AJHL, all the while setting a new league record with a 33-game regular-season win streak.
“I think we’re going to need to start getting scoring from all of our lines again,” said Papaioannou. “Throughout the year we scored at a pretty high clip and we did just fine in the playoffs. In the Prince George series there, they are a very good defensive team and we really got scoring from one line consistently and that’s it. It’s pretty hard to win with one line scoring and I think that’s the big key — everyone getting their offence back feeling good.”
Game one of the National Junior A Championshi will see the Jr. Senators and the Terriers square off Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m., while the Bandits play their first game against the Blades at 7 p.m. that night.