It's only 10 days long, yet the MasterCard Memorial Cup often seems like a hockey marathon. Over the course of two weekends, young hockey players, some destined for bigger and brighter glories in the NHL, others for whom the experience will represent the zenith of their careers, lay in on the line to win what is sometimes describes as the toughest trophy to capture in all of North American sports.
This time around, some of the storylines are strong enough to sell the event on their own. Can Portland's Seth Jones continue work on his unofficial Grand Slam of a league championship, a world junior gold medal, leading his team to the Memorial Cup and then going No. 1 in the NHL draft? Will the Winterhawks go from being resented Western Hockey League-wide to being a league darling if they bring the Dub its first victory in a half-decade? How will the unprecedented crop of NHL draft prospects fare in the harsh spotlight?
Buzzing The Net will host a livechat of each game, beginning with Friday's London Knights-Saskatoon Blades opener (8 p.m. ET/6 p.m. MT, Sportsnet). Here's a survey of what to keep an eye peeled for over the next 10 days.
1. The big three go head-to-head, but don't call it a "rivalry" — In January, the anticipation for a Seth Jones vs. Nathan MacKinnon/Jonathan Drouin showdown at the CHL Top Prospects Game was off the charts, and that was only for a one-off showcase game. Now that they are playing with their regular teams four months later, Saturday's Portland-Halifax game is "one of the more anticipated games early in the event" in recent memory.
The trio are tight off the ice, probably since very few of their peers can comprehend the fishbowl existence of a elite prospect. The only way it could get richer was Drouin, MacKinnon and Jones faked a feud, but they save their creativity for the ice.
Jones might be in the best position to impress, since he is already a pro-ready 18-year-old whereas the Mooseheads mates are still boys, relatively, as precocious 17-year-olds.
2. America's game — The Memorial Cup doesn't angry up the nationalist blood like that other 10-day tournament that begins the day after Christmas. A U.S.-based team in the tournament is nothing new and the Winterhawks are bankrolled by a Canadian owner, Bill Gallacher. Yet the Winterhawks' composition reflects where the game has gone south of the border. Jones is projected as the NHL's potential first African-American star, while Portland's 10-American contingent is spread across seven states from Alaska to Arizona.
In contrast, the last U.S. team to win the tournament, the 2008 Spokane Chiefs, had three American players.
3. Portland, the one with a D in their name and the most D in their game — The tournament will ask questions of a team's defence corps that it typically was not asked during league playoffs. By virtue of their top four of Jones, Calgary Flames prospect Tyler Wotherspoon, Pittsburgh Penguins first-rounder Derrick Pouliot and recent Ottawa Senators signing Troy Rutkowski, Portland can transition from defence to offence faster than any major junior team in captivity.
4. Redemption song — Five star players in the tournament — Portland's Wotherspoon and their finisher nonpareil Ty Rattie, London's blueline linchpin Scott Harrington and Drouin and MacKinnon — were on Team Canada in January when it missed the world junior championship medal podium for the first team this millennium. One suspects that for a player, just getting to be part of a big-ticket tournament is a thrill in itself. But the notion of winning a Memorial Cup after coming home empty-handed from Ufa is an easy media framing device.
5. London has only one place to go — Season 5 of Friday Night Lights had more plausible plotlines than the Knights have had across the last 12 months. They have lost the Memorial Cup on an overtime goal, blown four-goal leads in big playoff games and pulled it together to win OT and won the OHL championship on a goal with 0.1 second left in Game 7. As Clark Duke said in Hot Tub Time Machine, "That just sounds... exhausting." Yet London has shown that it is a resilient outfit, although three days to recharge for a tournament halfway across Canada seems like a lot to ask of a team of teenagers.
There is no discounting the memory burn from Anton Zlobin's goal going in at Centre Bionest last May 27. “As long as I live, I’ll never forget losing in overtime,” Knights captain Scott Harrington told Sportsnet's Patrick King. “We learned a lot and I think that really helped us all season.”
6. Much ado about Max — Let's be real, the hockey hero machinery whirs into overdrive when it can attach hope to a prospect from the Centre of the Universe such as London's Max Domi — not that he doesn't rate the hype — instead of a Maritimer, Quebecer or a Westerner. On top of that, Domi arrives at the tournament with Sportsnet's junior hockey expert Damien Cox wondering out loud if the centre's father Tie Domi might have some sway over his playmaking progeny being drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs next month.
7. Dale Hunter will want you to look over there — The odds are about 1:2 the Knights coach will get into some verbal jousting with one of his bench-boss brethren during the series. It's all theatre. Hunter is the master of drawing the focus to himself and taking the weight of the world off his team. It worked in the OHL final, when Hunter accused the Barrie Colts of diving after London was pushed to the brink of elimination following a Game 4 loss. It worked, since the Knights are still playing after winning three consecutive elimination games.
8. Zach Fucale, made for Malmö? — Halifax's star 17-year-old goalie is the fulcrum of a up-and-coming cohort of cord-cottagers who could eventually assuage the endless brow-furrowing over the state of Canadian goaltending, albeit not in time for the 2014 Olympics. (Maybe 2018, at the outside.) The tournament will be a chance to see the top-ranked North American goalie for the NHL draft play high-stakes games, which could be a harbinger for his readiness to wear the Maple Leaf at the world junior in either of the next two seasons.
Fucale is the lone Canadian among the four No. 1 goalies in the tournament. Portland's overage Mac Carruth is a Minnesotan. The host Saskatoon Blades have two-time Russian world junior goalie Andrey Makarov in the crease. London counted on Philadelphia Flyers second-rounder Anthony Stolarz, a Jersey boy, for most of the playoffs, although backup Jake Patterson is from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
9. Will the mighty Moose Q up a three-peat — Time was, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was the oddball red-haired left-handed kid in the major junior hockey family — quirky and amusing, but often not considered a serious threat to win the Memorial Cup time. Yet the league has a two-year run going thanks to the 2011 Saint John Sea Dogs and 2012 Cataractes and Halifax winged its way west this week having won 32 of their last 34 games in the Q and 74-of-85 across the entire season.
The Mooseheads' big question might be on the blueline. Their group was good enough to secure a President's Cup, but while the other teams have high NHL picks on the blueline, the Herd has only one NHL-drafted defenceman, San Jose Sharks signee Konrad Abeltshauser. They also face a tougher field than the Sea Dogs encountered two years ago in Mississauga, seeing as the other two league champions also finished first overall during regular-season play.
When the tournament heads west, the QMJHL champion gets the play-3-in-4 short straw. Three years ago in Brandon, the Moncton Wildcats lost a late lead on the second day against Calgary, then couldn't regroup the following day in a loss to the host Wheat Kings. Just like that, their tournament was basically over.
10. Rusty Blades, not just a clever name for an old-timers' team — Host Saskatoon is the blank slate, since they had enough time to go back to the drawing board during their seven-week layoff after being swept 4-0 in the opening round of the playoffs. The last two host teams which failed to reach their league final, the 2012 Cataractes and 2010 Brandon Wheat Kings, each lost the Friday-night opener after turning in a not-ready-for-prime-time performance.
In each case, it was understandable since it is tough to simulate actual game play. Yet one wonders how a Blades loss on Friday would go over with thousands of doubting Thomases in Toon Town.
The Blades have a lengthy history of being the bridesmaids. So did Shawinigan at the outset of the 2012 Cup.
11. Molleken in a maelstrom — Saskatoon coach-GM Lorne Molleken has 603 career WHL wins to his credit. His distinction of having presided over two first-round faceplants by Memorial Cup host teams with these Blades and the '01 Regina Pats, well, that's pretty tempting piñata swaying back and forth.
Yet over the years, many coaches have used long layoffs to get their teams to opt in to that "no one believes in you but you" fortress mentality. The Blades likely will not out-talent anyone, but could still be a tough out. Their mid-season retooling where they added gritty forwards Michael Ferland and Collin Valcourt was designed to toughen them up for their only four truly meaningful games of the season. How Saskatoon represents itself in the tournament could be legacy-defining for their coach.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.