Something unique about the MasterCard Memorial Cup is that the teams do not just play for themselves, but pretty much anyone who ever wore the jersey.
That seems especially true for the Calgary Hitmen, going by the retrospectives both hometown newspapers did on the 1999 team which lost in the final to the Ottawa 67's on a Matt Zultek overtime goal, in just the franchise's fourth season of existence. As Matt Kinch, who now plays in Germany, put it:
" ... it was pretty gutting, to lose that way. To be that close. But looking back now, you realize how much we actually did accomplish. I think the Memorial Cup is the hardest trophy to lift. You win your league and then you're still faced with another four or five games and no time to heal injuries or get some rest. Every game feels like a seventh game.
"I've maintained friendships with so many guys from that team. We had a close group. And there are an awful lot of them still playing, 10, 11 years later. Maybe not in the NHL, but somewhere, in different leagues."
"Back then, the Flames weren't drawing so well, so we kind of captured the city. I remember the building being full when we beat Kamloops in the WHL final. That kind of moment you never forget." (Calgary Herald)
Current Hitmen standout Kris Foucault, a Minnesota Wild draft choice, was in the stands when Calgary eliminated the Ajay Baines-captained Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League final. It's clear why they had a city in thrall, going from expansion outfit to an 110-point team (without three-point games, too).
"The losing the Hitmen went through their first two seasons was no shock. That's life for expansion teams, especially when it's filled with youngsters right out of their first year of midget and players you generously call depth guys on their former teams.
"Then, there was all the other awfulness with the Graham James spectre.
"Think of all the trash-talk you could come up with if you were facing that team. Now multiply it. That's what those kids, who didn't deserve one second of it, had to play through while losing night after night after night." (Randy Sportak, Calgary Sun)
Like in any case of losing after great striving, there were a lot gnawing what-ifs. Sportak noted centre Kenton Smith "had to race home before Game 1 of the Memorial Cup due to the death of his mother ... he returned with a heavy heart in time for the final and scored late in regulation to put his team ahead." The Calgary player who's gone on to the most NHL renown, Detroit Red Wings defenceman Brad Stuart, was lost to a concussion "from a disgraceful elbow to the head courtesy of Ottawa 67's plug Lance Galbraith."
Now, it would be hokey to think the current Calgary Hitmen are walking around the dressing room saying, let's win it for the '99 guys. They have enough motivation. Still, winning a Memorial Cup is defining for anyone who's been part of that particular hockey family, so that adds a layer to their backstory coming into Brandon this weekend.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Calgary Hitmen
- MasterCard Memorial Cup