Fittingly, the MasterCard Memorial Cup has a player with the initials A.Z. — Shawinigan Cataractes right wing Anton Zlobin.
The championship , which begins Friday in Shawinigan, Que., offers no end of storylines, suspense and fun facts for hockey fans. This is the first tournament since 2006 to encompass four distinct regions of Canada. The defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs are hoping to bring the trophy back to the Maritimes, Shawinigan stands in for Quebec, the London Knights represent Ontario and the Edmonton Oil Kings shall wave the Western Canada banner for all it's worth.
Buzzing The Net will have plenty from Shawinigan, with Sunaya Sapurji, Cam Charron and myself, and junior hockey diehards from all corners of the Internet for each game of the tournament. To whet the appetite for the Cup, here's an A-to-Z primer on the teams.
A is for America. Hockey Night In Canada commentator Don Cherry got some mileage out the fact that last season's tournament didn't have a single American player while the Kootenay Ice also dressed an all-Canadian lineup. That was an anomoly. This tournament reflects the modern United Nations of Hockey, with six countries represented.
That includes nine Americans, including London's trio of goalie Michael Houser, OHL playoff MVP Austin Watson and shutdown defenceman Jarred Tinordi.
B is for Laurent Brossoit, the Oil Kings' goaltender and most valuable player of the Western Hockey League playoffs. The Calgary Flames sixth-round choice has been a tremendous story not only for his sterling play but for the efforts his father, John, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago, has made to see his son play. Brossoit is also a favourite of many to be Canada's No. 1 goalie at next season's world junior hockey championship in Ufa, Russia, so his game will be dissected severely over the next two weeks.
C is for Charlie Coyle, the Sea Dogs centre who was the most valuable player of the President's Cup playoffs. The Minnesota Wild prospect looked borderline unstoppable while averaging two points per game while Saint John became the second team to go 16-1 in the QMJHL playoffs.
D is for "defence wins championships." Yes, it's the hoariest sports cliché out there but it applies to all four teams. Edmonton allowed only one more goal than the stingiest team in the WHL. London was also second in its league. In the Quebec loop, Shawinigan and Saint John finished 1-2 in goal prevention. The Cataractes only allowed 175 across a 68-game schedule, which was only two fewer than the Sea Dogs.
E is for experience. Saint John, for what it is worth, has it in spades over the other three teams. The Sea Dogs are, as you know, the defending champion. Many of their mainstays were also around when they won the QMJHL regular-season pennant and fell two wins short of the 2010 Memorial Cup.
F is for T.J. Foster, a heart-and-soul member of Edmonton's checking line. Last May, the right wing felt a sense of helplessness when wildfires destroyed much of his hometown of Slave Lake, Alta. It might only help a little but now the 19-year-old has a chance to bring some joy to his hometown.
Foster is one of 12 Oil Kings who played in 2009-10, the team's school-of-hard-knocks third season. That season, with many of the players claimed in the 2007 expansion draft having moved on, Edmonton won only 16 games.
G is for Brandon Gormley, Shawinigan's horse on the blueline. Cataractes GM Martin Mondou, under the gun to producer a Cup contender, went out and added Gormley at the QMJHL trade deadline on Jan. 7. The Phoenix Coyotes first-rounder was voted the top defenceman at the world junior championship and also played in the 2010 Memorial Cup with the Moncton Wildcats.
Gormley and fellow Prince Edward Islander Morgan Ellis will bear a lot of responsibility for Shawinigan defensively.
H is for Hunter Hockey, the appellation given to the Knights' defensive system. It's not sexy to anyone who's not a London fan or a regular attendee at coaching clinics, but it's effective. The Knights' blueline triumvirate of Tinordi, potential top 10 NHL pick Olli Määttä and Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Scott Harrington were superb at each end of the ice during the OHL playoffs.
I is for the memory of the late Ian Jenkins, the Knights' 2011 second-round pick who died from injuries suffered in a truck mishap one year ago this month. All three London goalies wear green wristbands in memoriam of Jenkins, who was projected to be the Knights' netminder of the future.
J is for either Jonathan Huberdeau or Tomas Jurco, Saint John's wickedly talented wingers. They were the Sea Dogs' top two scorers in last season's tournament, when Saint John became the first team from Atlantic Canada to capture the Memorial Cup. Each can bring a crowd to its collective feet.
K is for Kirill Kabanov, the Cataractes' colourful right wing. You just knew it wouldn't feel right if Kabanov didn't cause a stir before the Memorial Cup. The New York Islanders have him under contract, but word spread late last week that Kabanov had signed with Salavat Yulaev of the KHL. One could understand
Add that to a Kabanov file that includes seeing his draft stock tank in 2010, passing through four QMJHL in three seasons and going through several agents.
L is for layoff — Shawinigan had a 30-day break after it lost a seven-game second-round series to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens.
It's anyone's guess how Shawinigan will come out on Friday when it faces an Edmonton team which was dialed-in during the final three games of the WHL final against Portland. Former Ottawa 67's coach Brian Kilrea, whose team won in 1999 after going out in Round 2 of the playoffs, says the first game is crucial.
M is for the Montreal Canadiens, who have a boatload of their teenaged prospects skating in the tournament. Tinordi, Saint John defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and Shawinigan's Ellis and Michaël Bournival are all in the Habs' system.
N is for noise. The enthusiasm from the fans at the 4,112-seat Centre Bionest who have waited 42 years to see the Cataractes win a major championship. (They lost Game 7 of the President's Cup final three years ago.) Playing at home has helped a few teams over the years at the tournament after they came in 'through the back door,' having fallen short of their league championship. Two seasons ago, the Brandon Wheat Kings upended WHL champion in a gripping WHL final. The last host team to win was the 2007 Vancouver Giants.
O is for offspring. No less than eight players in the tournament are the sons of former NHLers. Edmonton boasts four: defenceman Keegan Lowe (Kevin), defenceman Griffin Reinhart (Paul), centre Henrik Samuelsson (Ulf) and centre Michael St. Croix (Rick). The London Knights have a pair of who are progeny of ex-pros, centre Max Domi (Tie) and Jarred Tinordi (Mark).
The QMJHL teams each have one. Shawinigan defenceman Dillon Donnelly's father, Gord Donnelly, was a Quebec Nordiques enforcer in the 1980s. Saint John winger Danick Gauthier's father, Daniel Gauthier, played five games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1995. When Danick scored 47 goals in the regular season, he not only set a Saint John record but also broke the family record; his père's best in the QMJHL was 45.
Coyle is also the nephew of former NHL star Tony Amonte.
P is for Mark Pysyk, the Oil Kings captain. The Buffalo Sabres prospect was plus-3 in the WHL's deciding game on Sunday, blanking Portland stars Sven Bärtschi and Ty Rattie, who combined for 215 points in the regular season. (That total might have been in the 240 range if Bärtschi had not been injured at the world junior and called up to the Calgary Flames for a spell.)
Pysyk will have to repeat that work in the tournament, particularly when Edmonton faces Saint John.
Q is for the great province of Quebec. It has been 15 years since a Quebec team won a Memorial Cup held in La Belle Province. The 2000 Rimouski Océanic and 2006 Quebec Remparts won tournaments played in Halifax and Moncton, respectively. Far be it to wonder if that means it would have helped the chances of a Quebec team winning if this tournament had been awarded to Saint John, which also bid.
R is for revenge. Saint John still nurses a grudge over last season's Memorial Cup host decision (see Q).
S is for Slovakia. The small Eastern European nation is represented twice over in the tournament by Saint John's Jurco and Edmonton's offensive defenceman, Martin Gernat.
T is for Team Canada. Four of the defenceman from the squad which fell short of the world junior gold medal game are looking to cap off their seasons with a championship: Beaulieu, Gormley, Harrington and Pysyk. Only one will get to.
U is for Undrafted, which needs to be capitalized when used in reference to Knights goalie Michael Houser. The 19-year-0ld goalie is the emotional nerve centre of London's team and was between the pipes for 62 of their 65 regular-season and playoff victories. He was also voted the league's player of the year, which makes it an enduring mystery that he's only ranked 16th among North American goalies for the upcoming NHL draft.
V is for Shawinigan coach Éric Veilleux, who heard calls for his job after the playoff el foldo last month. who kept might be replaced. Veilleux has added former NHL coach Bob Hartley to the fold for the tournament. How Shawinigan fares after being off so long could do a lot for Veilleux's perception in the hockey world.
W is for Austin Watson, London's two-way forward extraordinaire. The Nashville Predators prospect has given his body to the science of shot-blocking. He scored at below a point-per-game clip in the OHL playoffs but his defensive play made him a hands-down pick as the MVP.
X is for the X factor. You can expect the unexpected in this event.
Y is for youth. Edmonton and London are perceived as teams who effloresced one season ahead of schedule. Three Oil Kings could go very early in the next two NHL drafts — Reinhart and Samuelsson next month and 16-year-old Curtis Lazar in 2013. The Knights are laden with potential high picks, particularly Määttä for this summer and Domi and Bo Horvat for next season..
Z is for Zack Phillips, the most prominent Maritimer on the Sea Dogs roster. The Minnesota prospect had a superb QMJHL playoff.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.