It has been 17 years since the Mastercard Memorial Cup was last staged in Regina, but the host team has made it feel like yesterday.
Leading up to the 2018 championship, the Regina Pats have followed a script with so many parallels to 2001 that you’d almost think it’s a carbon copy.
The names have changed, but the plot is the same.
“Absolutely,” says former GM Brent Parker, the architect of the 2001 club. “There’s tons of parallels if you look at the teams. It’s hard not to see it.”
The Pats’ eyes were wide open heading into 2017-18 as head coach/GM John Paddock looked to supplement an existing cast led by two world-class junior stars: Centre Sam Steel and defenceman Josh Mahura.
Although the team was recognized as a work in process, Regina struggled more than anticipated during the first half and sat one game under .500 at the Christmas break. Slowly but surely, Paddock countered with an assortment of roster moves, some of which were subtle. Others weren’t, such as acquiring top-end players like centre Cameron Hebig and defenceman Libor Hajek to complement previous impact additions like forward Matt Bradley and defenceman Cale Fleury.
Not only did Paddock transform the Pats into immediate contenders, he addressed some of the issues that cost them in last year’s WHL final.
“We learned that we had to be deeper and possibly a little bit bigger,” says the former NHL coach and GM. “We tried to cover all our bases and have a top team. We got a top team.”
Thanks to a major second-half turnaround, the Pats went 40-25-6-1 and entered the playoffs as the league’s hottest team. Unfortunately, their reward was a first-round matchup with the Swift Current Broncos, who ranked second in the league with 48 wins.
Swift Current ultimately prevailed in a back-and-forth series that went the distance, ending with a 3-2 heartbreaker in Game 7. That loss forced the Pats to take a six-week hiatus before cashing in their automatic berth to the Mastercard Memorial Cup.
Regina opened the 2000-01 campaign with a solid foundation that included former NHL bench boss Lorne Molleken and two proven WHL headliners: Centre Brett Lysak and defenceman Barret Jackman.
Despite their best efforts, pressure began to mount while the team struggled to keep its head above water.
“As much as they’re mature beyond their years in a lot of ways, they’re still young guys,” notes Parker. “They don’t want to screw up and get traded. They play differently because of it. I saw that in our team. We thought we’d be better than we were, not unlike I’m sure what they thought (this year). It started to get away from us and it started to get away from them too.”
Parker took control with a series of deals that turned his fragile group into a powerhouse squad, going from three games under .500 in early December to a final record of 40-27-3-2.
The Pats looked to carry that momentum into the first round but they ran smack-dab into the Calgary Hitmen, who had a comparably stacked roster headlined by Pavel Brendl. The import sniper was on target in Game 6 when he led a third-period comeback with two late goals, including the series-winner with 15 seconds left.
It was stunning setback for the Pats, who would have to wait over six weeks before returning to action as the host team in the 2001 national championship.
“When you lose, it’s a punch right in the gut,” recalls Parker, whose team went on to suffer another crushing blow with two straight losses to open that year at the Mastercard Memorial Cup.
Desperate for a spark, the Pats replaced veteran goaltender Donald Choukalos with unheralded rookie Chad Davidson, who backstopped the team to back-to-back victories, including a playoff tiebreaker.
In the semi-final, Regina was on the verge of punching its ticket to the championship game when the Val-d’Or Foreurs tied it 4-4 with 38 seconds left and added the winner in overtime.
That ended a potential Cinderella story for the host team, but it didn’t negate the positive vibes created as a whole. The sold-out event is still recognized as one of the most successful in Mastercard Memorial Cup history.
“I look back on it with fond memories in a lot of ways,” says Parker. “We were right there. We were a bounce away from playing in the final. I think we represented the league and the city well. I was really proud of our kids and our organization. I couldn’t say enough good things about our organizing committee. In a really, really difficult year, I thought everybody handled themselves in a first-class manner and performed well.”
The Pats would go through seven head-coaching changes over a period of 13 years after the 2001 Mastercard Memorial Cup. It came to a head in 2014 when long-time owner Russ Parker sold the team to five local businessmen, known collectively as Queen City Sports and Entertainment Group.
The new owners quickly lured a big fish in Paddock, whose arrival led to a seismic shift for the organization. Midway through his first season, Paddock dismantled a formidable lineup in hopes of building a sustainable winner. The moves paid immediate dividends as he guided a young team to back-to-back winning seasons and two straight second-round playoff berths.
Paddock’s plan culminated in 2016-17 when a star-studded group broke numerous franchise records and ran away with the WHL’s regular-season title.
It was a memorable campaign that ended just short of the ultimate goal when Regina couldn’t quite overcome some key injuries, losing the league final in six games to the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“That was the year (to win it all),” says Paddock. “We had players that came along quicker or maybe better than we thought. We didn’t know Adam (Brooks) was going to explode into the best player in the league (at age 19). Then we were fortunate to have him back (as a 20-year-old). That’s stuff you can’t predict.” The Pats also couldn’t have predicted that they would land the 2018 Mastercard Memorial Cup – one year beyond their ideal championship window.
Since the 2016-17 trade deadline fell during the bid process, Paddock tried to kill two birds with one stone by acquiring Mahura, whose addition ultimately paid off when Regina’s bid was successful.
However, the team would still have some huge holes to fill after losing three of its top four defencemen and five of its top eight scorers. Paddock immediately went to work over the summer. When the dust settled after the deadline, he had added 16 full-time players who weren’t with Regina the previous spring.
Paddock had hoped to make fewer moves, but the team’s first-half struggles necessitated an overhaul. He also had to find a last-minute replacement for front-line winger Austin Wagner, who was expected to rejoin the team after recovering from major off-season shoulder surgery.
When the Los Angeles Kings decided to keep him in their system, the Pats were forced to improvise. They settled on acquiring the WHL rights to overage winger Jesse Gabrielle, who spent the first half of the season with the AHL’s Providence Bruins.
“We believed we were going to get (Wagner) back; then things changed,” says Paddock. “I’m not complaining about it other than you’re missing a player you liked and played four years in the jersey. That’s just the way it went.”
In the end, Paddock was happy with the final product even though his trade assets had been spread thin.
The team responded with a dominant second half before running into the wrong first-round playoff opponent, much like the 2001 club.
That’s also what happened to the 2017 Windsor Spitfires, who lost to the London Knights in the opening round of the OHL playoffs but redeemed themselves with a Mastercard Memorial Cup title on home ice.
It’s a storybook ending the Pats hope to emulate after their loss to Swift Current.
“We happened to play a well-coached team that was ranked No. 4 in the country or better all year and it was anybody’s series,” adds Paddock, whose veteran-laden roster includes eight NHL draft picks and three more players who’ve attended NHL camps as free agents.
“We feel we’re a really good team. We like our players. We have complete belief in them and I think they believe in themselves.
“That’s a real good thing for us going ahead.”
Story contributed by Greg Harder