Warriors relying on 'scar tissue' from past in pushing forward at Memorial Cup

SAGINAW — Some scar tissue built up over time has given the Moose Jaw Warriors resilience.

The Western Hockey League champions earned a spot in the Memorial Cup semifinal Tuesday night with a 5-3 win over the Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League champion Drummondville. Both teams were 0-2 entering their final round-robin game, with the loser going home.

"I think that's something that you build over time," Warriors head coach Mark O'Leary said. "It's just like scar tissue. This group has grown together for the last four seasons and it starts out when you're a young group and you're rebuilding and you're losing some games by a lot of goals.

"You learn back then that you could either stand there and whine and complain and look to blame others or you can get yourself up quick and start punching back. And I think that's a mentality that we've developed over time here.

"Now when those same players are 19 years old, 20 years old, they have that scar tissue and that same mindset, … there's no whining, there's no complaining, it's just get up quick and punch back."

Defenceman Denton Mateychuk said a moment of adversity in the second round of the WHL playoffs helped forge the team's mentality.

"There's lots of moments but the first one that really came to mind is that Swift Current series," said Mateychuk, the WHL playoff MVP. "We lose Game 1 7-2 and we don't play a terrible game but we get pretty much bullied the whole game.

"And then we come out the next night and we're flying and we don't lose another game in that series. That just shows the kind of grit that we have, doesn't matter what happens we're able to flip the page the next day and be ready to go for whatever's next."

Moose Jaw entered the tournament coming off the franchise's first-ever Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions in its 40-year history. The Warriors were ousted in the first or second round in each of the last three WHL post-seasons (2019, 2022, 2023) before winning this season.

It's also the team's first-ever appearance at the Memorial Cup.

However, the Warriors took two one-goal losses to the chin to start the tournament. Moose Jaw fell 5-4 to host Saginaw on Friday and 5-4 to Ontario Hockey League champion London on Monday.

Star forward Jagger Firkus said the team's start didn't serve as a shock or and obstacle they couldn't get past.

"No, I don't think it'd be too surprising to us," said Firkus, the WHL player of the year. "Obviously we expected a better start to the tournament but at the same time, once adversity hits this team, I think we don't give up on each other.

"That's when we really show what kind of team we are. … These next two games are also must-win so we've got to come out with the same mindset as we did in the Quebec game last night."

O'Leary wasn't looking for his team to change anything from what has made it successful to this point — checking, puck management and winning races and battles across 60 minutes.

Now the Warriors wait for Friday's semifinal where they will face Saginaw, which fell 4-2 to London in the round-robin finale on Wednesday night. London will face the winner between Moose Jaw and Saginaw in Sunday's final.

While the team is excited for the opportunity — and confident in capitalizing on it — it serves as another step toward proving itself as the Canadian Hockey League's very best, especially after seeing the remaining teams live and up close.

"It's kind of like a playoff series that way, right?" O'Leary said. "You lose Game 1 in a playoff round as we did against Swift Current, you get a little bit of snarl and you want to punch back right away.

"You have a little bit of animosity and distaste for that team, you want to fix things in a hurry. So in that sense, it kind of feels like the playoffs, you lose Game 1 and whoever we play, … we're going to get another crack at them, so for sure there's some motivation there."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2024.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press