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2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup: Edmonton Oil Kings set sights on Saskatoon and next year’s tournament

Neate Sager
Buzzing The Net

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Henrik Samuelsson (top) is among Edmonton's strong returning cast (OHL Images)

SHAWINIGAN, Que. — Keegan Lowe's family history is hockey history.

Perhaps it was a reach, but in defeat Thursday, Lowe acknowledged a parallel between his ousted Edmonton Oil Kings and a certain Stanley Cup dynasty his father, Kevin Lowe, patrolled the blueline for three decades ago. It's apples-to-oranges to compare major junior hockey with the NHL, but the younger Lowe knows the story well.

The 1980s Oilers took two big pratfalls in the playoffs — losing in 1982 to the Los Angeles Kings after finishing 48 points ahead of them and being swept by the New York Islanders in the '83 final. Then they won those five Stanley Cups. That was another time, another level of hockey. With combination of the Oil Kings' youth, an average age of 17.5 years, and ignominy of being the first team eliminated at the MasterCard Memorial Cup, it fits. At least in scale-model terms.

"It was in Wayne Gretzky's book," said the 6-foot-3, 186-pound Lowe, who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes last summer after deciding that joining the Oilers would be an awkward fit since his dad is the club president . "I was reading it one time, they lost to the Islanders and walking by their room on the way out of rink the door's open and they say their guys sitting in front of their stalls with ice bags everywhere, banged up. They realized that's what it takes to win.

"I'm not saying our team didn't do that. But maybe this will help us next year."

The thread is a team which went home feeling it left something in the tank. By unwritten rule, a defeat in sports requires a good ketchup answer — something that covers anything. The Oil Kings' explanation is that they weren't ready to win a Memorial Cup, with an average age of 17.5 years old.

"It's a short-term competition, anything can happen," coach Derek Laxdal said. "I've talked to a few players who have been to more than one Memorial Cup and they said they were paralyzed the first one."

London was young, too

The London Knights, of course, are through to Sunday's final with a lineup whose core includes the rookie Max Domi and other players under age 18 such as defender Olli Määttä and forwards Andreas Athanasiou, Josh Anderson, Matt Rupert, Ryan Rupert and Chris Tierney. They do, however, have more players who are likely to graduate to pro hockey next season.

Edmonton is young up and down its roster. That's why Laxdal — whose team did have the distinction of being the sole team in Shawinigan that didn't get fined by the CHL during the tournament — didn't hesitate to send a we'll-be-back message. Whoever coaches the team, pending questions about whether Laxdal will return to the pro ranks, will be getting the keys to a Porsche.

"We've got 20 guys out of our group of 25 coming back. Our message right now and in the dressing room tonight is that our goal is to get to Saskatoon," Laxdal said in reference to the site of the 2013 Memorial Cup.

The Oil Kings will have to do so while playing in the same conference as the host Saskatoon Blades, who are already loading up in a bid to bring The Paris of the Prairies its first major junior hockey championship. As Laxdal noted, their nucleus will hardly be touched. Captain Mark Pysyk will move up to the Buffalo Sabres organization. Latvian left wing Kristian Pelss was signed by the Oilers, signalling there will be an open import slot.

Edmonton doesn't have a surfeit of overage candidates to replace departing forwards Tyler Maxwell, Jordan Peddle and Rhett Rachinski. Aside from Pelss and Pysyk, wingers T.J. Foster and Dylan Wruck are the only players headed into their 20-year-old seasons.

Rookies Curtis Lazar and Henrik Samuelsson were part of Edmonton's only reliable line throughout the tournament. Defensively, 6-foot-4 Griffin Reinhart is more developed than Pysyk was at the same point two seasons ago. Lowe and Oilers draft pick Martin Gernat offer savvy and skill on the back end, if not a mean streak. Ashton Sautner is just a pup, but is pegged as a future power-play quarterback.

Laurent Brossoit was hailed as Canada's best junior goalie before the Memorial Cup turned nightmarish for he and his team.

The Memorial Cup piled on top of what Lowe called a "marathon" seven-game WHL final vs. the Portland Winterhawks was too much for the Oil Kings. It was like piling pancakes and syrup on to a night of beer drinking. In the long run, though, they have a year to sweat it off, so to speak.

'Just satisfied' to win WHL

The year-end tournament gets much more national media attention than league playoffs. The latter, though, is more fraught with drama and emotion, stretching across eight weeks rather than 10 days. The Oil Kings found that optimal state, that elusive inch from Al Pacino's Any Given Sunday speech, against Portland.

It never returned. A year from now, they might know how to keep that inch.

"I think after that series we were almost just satisfied with that win and weren't able to regroup for this tournament here," Reinhart said. "We're a young group so experience was a factor. It's the best junior hockey in all of North America. We'll take a lot of positives from it.

The disappointment was so abject Lowe was even asked point-blank if it meant winning the Dub didn't matter as much. Not a chance. Like his dad, there ought to be a hunger born out of the hurt of feeling you could have done more.

"If we didn't get here it means we didn't win the WHL championship. You would never wish that upon your team. We wish we could have done better. The 20-year-olds and the 19-year-olds, I wish them all the best. We know how bad this stings now to get this far and be the first team out so there's some motivation for next year."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at neatesager@yahoo.ca and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.

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