Each year of the WHL Cup has brought with it overhauls of all four provincial rosters, a common theme of the tournament as it enters it’s sixth edition this week.
While the roster transition is nothing new to each provincial hockey organization, it will be especially tough to British Columbia.
With Alberta, their geographical neighbours to the east, winning the previous editions of the tournament in 20013 and 2015, 2016 looked to be B.C.’s year when they’d unthrone the two-time champions and capture their first title since 2012.
Josh Williams, Massimo Rizzo and Ethan Leyh led their province on an offensive tear throughout the tournament and even took Alberta to overtime in the gold medal game.
Instead, Spokane Chiefs’ prospect Carter Chorney dashed their hopes, completing the three-peat for the Wild Rose province. Those dashed hopes have only fuelled the fire and B.C.’s desire to win this year in the mind of head coach Steve O’Rourke.
The Prince George Cougars associate coach is taking over the reins of the program and is eager to be the team that end’s Alberta’s streak of success.
“What you learn over the years is these opportunities, they don’t come around very often,” noted O’Rourke. “You get one chance at a program of excellence maybe at this level.
“Then if you do really well, you get the next chance, but each time these things [happen] you have to enjoy them.”
O’Rourke is well-versed in the quick nature of these tournaments. He played at the 1991 Canada Winter Games and his son Ethan, who plays for the Cougars, suited up at the 2015 edition of that tournament as well. Now, Steve is ready to guide 20 players through a similar process and helping them grow for the future at the same time.
“So often, the program is just about selecting players, really not giving much back to them,” added O’Rourke. “There’s a total different approach [now] of teaching them.”
With the help of a full coaching staff, the players are getting an experience they’ll use in the future and the skills to win this week.
One of those players looking to lead British Columbia to the top is defenceman Ryan Watson, a third-round selection of the Medicine Hat Tigers in last spring’s 2017 WHL Bantam Draft.
“I’m just looking to showcase my skill to whoever is watching and my coaches to trust me in the role that I’m going to be given.”
With the hard part of figuring out where he’d land on draft day over, Watson has gotten back to the on-ice side of things, playing with the Delta Hockey Academy in the CSSHL. He’s made it to the championship round with his teams in previous seasons, coming up short of the ultimate goal both times.
So to Watson, there’s extra motivation to win and claim a victory at the highest level he’s played in to date. It’ll help that he’ll be competing alongside a bunch of his teammates at the tournament, including forward Payton Mount and goaltender Dylan Garland. DHA teammate Krz Plummer will line up against him with Alberta this coming week.
“It was surreal,” Watson said regarding being selected to the tournament and being able to be in competition with some teammates. “I’ve never been selected to be on a team to play for my province.
“All the boys are going to have to come together and play the role that they’re given.”
The province’s roster will also feature some of their top-tier talent selected from the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft, including third-overall pick Justin Sourdif (Vancouver Giants) and fifth-overall selection Aidan De La Gorgendiere (Saskatoon Blades).
With only 20 rosters spots available to fill, B.C. was obviously unable to take even half of the 62 players selected from that province in last spring’s draft. O’Rourke said it wasn’t about just getting top 20 selections from the draft, but the 20 best players that would mesh and grow throughout the course of the five-day tournament.
“This is about coming here as a team of 20,” O’Rourke noted. “If you’re on the power play, you’re supporting the guys on the penalty kill. Everyone’s going to have a key piece to trying to win this championship.
“If we can’t select 20 guys that can play on the ice in all situations, we’ve probably got the wrong 20 guys.”
The tournament will last five games at most, but the experience will carry with them a lifetime, something Rourke was fully anticipating.
“These are the types of situations you want to be in, whether it’s [the World] U-17 [Challenge] next time, wherever these guys are going to play and be able to perform.”
British Columbia will open their conquest for a second gold medal at the WHL Cup Wednesday when they host Manitoba Wednesday, October 18 at the Markin MacPhail Centre in Calgary, Alta.
For more information on the WHL Cup, visit prospects.whl.ca