BROOKS, AB – May 11 can’t come soon enough for the Brooks Bandits, who are inching closer and closer to hosting the RBC Cup National Junior ‘A’ Championship.
It’s been almost two years since the announcement was made, but the bidding process dates back to the 2014-15 season in Brooks.
Now with just days remaining until puck drop, Bandits head coach Ryan Papaioannou said it’s finally settling in for both the coaching staff and the players.
“It's been a couple years in the making and for those of us that were a part of the bid process it's been probably four years in the making,” said Papaioannou. “So, to see it a couple weeks out is becoming a little surreal.”
The Bandits have been earning their way to the RBC Cup despite hosting, coming off their third AJHL championship in four years over the Spruce Grove Saints.
Ahead of the RBC Cup, they’re looking to add another trophy to the collection embroiled in a best-of-seven series with the BCHL’s Prince George Spruce Kings for the Doyle Cup.
Assistant captain Arnaud Vachon was a part of the Bandits team that lost in overtime of the 2017 RBC Cup championship final to the Cobourg Cougars and said they’re not taking this opportunity lightly.
“One thing we've talked about this year is that we want to earn our way there, not just be the host and be there just because we're hosting,” said Vachon. “That's what we're doing so far, just going through it and winning some games.”
One rising star playing some big minutes for Brooks has been 15-year-old call-up Corson Ceulemans, who has joined the Bandits for their playoff run.
The University of Wisconsin commit is already playing top-four minutes on the blueline for Brooks, something that Papaioannou said has been earned by the teen.
“We wanted to have him in this series to see if he's a guy that we need to have in come the national championship,” he said. “He'll be with us for the next few years, so give him an opportunity. And, they way he's been playing, I just don't see any way that we're not going to be able to have him in.”
It’s been a seamless transition to the Junior ‘A’ ranks for the OHA Edmonton Prep defenceman, who had two goals in Brooks’ AJHL championship run.
“It's a super big honour,” said Ceulemans. “I came here not expecting to play, but I think I've worked myself into one of the higher roles. So, it feels really good.”
Prince George is in a unique position as well, also RBC Cup bound with the Bandits already earning one of the five spots up for grabs.
Facing the Spruce Kings in the best-of-seven series ahead of time, Papaioannou said it’s given his team an extended scouting report.
“Video is video, but when you actually get out on the ice it's a little different,” he said. “For us, a lot of the series is about learning, learning about them, learning about a team that we're going to face in two weeks.”
They’re also getting a closer look at Prince George goalie Logan Neaton, who has been at the top of his game over the last two months.
Committed to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Neaton was a force in the BCHL playoffs with just one loss and a .940 save percentage in 17 games.
The first opposing goaltender to shutout the Bandits at Centennial Regional Arena in over five years, Neaton said he’s playing well thanks to a stingy blueline.
“I think I am playing my best hockey, but I also think that's also a product of our team playing their best hockey in front of me right?” said Neaton. “Everyone picked up their game and everyone's stepped up big time coming into this tournament and coming into playoffs “
Facing Neaton on a nightly basis throughout the Doyle Cup, Papaioannou added they’re getting a decent read on the all-star netminder ahead of the RBC Cup.
“Big goalie, moves well, he's pretty calm and that's about it,” he said. “He's going to be hard to beat, so we're going to have to generate a lot of opportunities and when we get opportunities, we're going to have to finish.”
Confidence is high in the Bandits dressing room, but according to Ceulemans they’re staying focused on the task at hand in the hopes of adding a Doyle Cup to their collection.
“We're both going to RBC, so if we can get this and get the advantage over them, they'll be scared of us going in,” he said.
In search of the franchise’s second national championship, Papaioannou said it’s all up to the players to determine if they can hoist an RBC Cup on home ice.
“It's all in our guys' hands,” he said. “We play well, we're going to have a chance to win a national championship.”
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