Jonathan Toews getting away might have been one of the best things that ever happened to the Tri-City Americans.
Little did anyone know that the Americans drafting a Winnipeg whiz kid No. 1 overall in the 2003 WHL bantam draft would help the U.S.-based team build a pipeline into the largest city in Canada without a CHL team. Toews opting for the NCAA at North Dakota worked out -- he's won an Olympic gold medal and is starring for the Chicago Blackhawks. Meantime, the Americans, in the WHL final for the first time in the franchise's 22 seasons in Washington state, boast nine players from Winnipeg.
Only two of the Winnipeg Americans -- or Tri-City 'Tobans, if you prefer -- broke into the WHL with other teams. 'Pegging their team-building on a unique draft strategy is ideal for a U.S.-based team playing in a Canadian league and a province which feels like it doesn't always get its due in hockey circles.
"It used to be where WHL teams were wary of drafting kids from Manitoba, because there was a fear they wouldn't report, because it was so far away," says Americans scout Kim Ridd, Tri-City's man on the ground in Manitoba. "What happened is they started to have some success and just kind of snowballed.
"People used to see me in my Americans jacket and say, 'Tri-City, where is that?' " Ridd adds. "They don't say that anymore."
The Toews pick in '03 -- co-owner Olaf Kolzig notes that scouting trips opened GM Bob Tory's eyes to a "how many players there were who were talented enough to play in the Western Hockey League" -- beget tapping Winnipeg again in '04 for future world junior team goalie Chet Pickard, who is now is a Nashville Predators prospect. A year later, Tri-City hit a Manitoba motherlode, getting two of their current 19-year-old stalwart defencemen, Eric Mestry and Tyler Schmidt, with their first two selections.
Ridd says by that point, hockey parents in the 'Peg were starting to see Tri-City as a great place to send their sons. Prior to that, it was commonplace to think that if you didn't get drafted by the province's lone WHL team, the Brandon Wheat Kings, start looking at the NCAA.
"The kids, their parents became the best ambassadors we could have had, telling people, 'hey, it's a pretty good place to play,' " Ridd says. "Now everybody knows about the the team. When I go to interview a prospect (before the bantam draft), I always hear, oh, so-and-so is my neighbour."
That's often the case in junior and Canadian university hockey;players gravitate to where they know somebody who'll remind them of the comforts of home.
All told, Winnipeg is home to four of Tri-City top five regular-season scorers -- Brendan Shinnimin, Brooks Macek, Johnny Lazo and Adam Hughesman -- with Neal Prokop and Mason Wilgosh completing a the six-pack. The back end includes Brett Plouffe, who will be going up against his former team in the final against Calgary, along with Mestry and Schmidt. Brandon native Brock Sutherland makes it even 10 players from the Keystone Province.
Calgary captain, Michael Stone, also from Winnipeg, told the Calgary Herald earlier this week that a while ago, the Tri-City 'Tobans "actually drove a bus from Winnipeg to Tri-City for training camp because they had so many Winnipeg guys going."
Kolzig says he occasionally zings Tory, an Edmontonian, for the plethora of 'Peggers.
"I kind of joke with him, you must have something on the side, because you're in Winnipeg so often," he says.
It makes sense, though. Winnipeg is a 2½-hour drive from the nearest WHL city, Brandon. Tri-City, as Ridd alluded to, might not have the instant recognition of the WHL's other U.S. teams. Portland and Seattle are major-league cities. The Spokane Chiefs won the MasterCard Memorial Cup in 2008, while the Everett Silvertips
Suffice to say, the Am found something of an untapped resource. Thanks in large part to the Winnipeg Americans, Manitoba, according to Gregg Drinnan, was the most represented province in the WHL's final four, with 26 players on the rosters of Tri-City, Vancouver, Calgary and Brandon, to 25 from Alberta, 24 from British Columbia and 12 from Saskatchewan.
Calgary is the betting favourite for the WHL final. However, should the Americans spring the upset, it will increase Manitoba's chances of having its first Memorial Cup champion since 1959. After all, it won't just have one team, the host Brandon Wheat Kings. It will have two.