Only 10 more days remain on the Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament advent calendar until the drop of the puck.
The 17-2-3 CFR Chemicals Bisons discovered their round robin opponents Dec. 7 at the Westin in downtown Calgary. Now, the planning begins as the Bisons look to lift the trophy for the second time in franchise history.
The Bisons are the host team in Pool 5, which features the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs from the Alberta Midget Hockey League, the Alaska Oilers (Alaskan State Hockey League), Greater Vancouver Canadians (B.C. Minor Midget Hockey League) and the Moose Jaw Generals (Saskatchewan Midget Hockey League).
The 39th annual tournament kicks off Boxing Day and wraps up New Year’s Day.
The Bisons will have less than 24 hours between unwrapping Santa’s gifts to puck drop, as they take on a familiar face in the opener. The Red Deer Optimist Chiefs will host the Bisons Dec. 26 (12:45 p.m.) at Father David Bauer Arena.
The Chiefs (10-9-2) captured the inaugural tournament back in 1978.
“We will be able to game plan for Red Deer a little bit. We are familiar with them and they are familiar with us. There’s no surprises there,” said Bisons head coach Sandy Henry.
The Chiefs were the first team to disrupt the Bisons perfect season back on Oct. 28, when they skated to a roughly played 2-2 tie up in Red Deer.
But after that, scouting for this tournament is minimal, minus a couple of Google searches and a few phones calls.
“That’s just part of the tournament. You prepare as much as you can, you go in with what you got and make the adjustments as you move along,” said Bisons assistant coach Paden Grant. “Every team is in the same boat.”
Unlike the NBA and NHL that take an fun, relaxed break in the middle of their season for their respected all-star games, the Bisons are potentially adding eight extra games into their busy AMHL campaign.
Christmas break doesn’t exist for these kids like it used to growing up. The Bisons battle the Calgary Northstars Dec. 21 in their final AMHL game before the tourney and will take on the Hungarian National U18 squad Dec. 23 at Pason Centennial Arena in Okotoks as a warm up for the tourney.
“Since the players were picked for this team, they have been looking forward to this tournament. I think they’re more than okay giving up some free time around Christmas,” said Grant.
The Bisons host the Alaska Oilers Dec. 27 in their only feature game at the Max Bell Centre #1. Puck drop is set for 2:30 p.m. and will include pregame festivities such as player introductions.
Zachary Krajnik leads the Oilers (17-6-1) who made the 2,000-mile trek from Anchorage with seven goals and a staggering 23 assists through 24 games. In net, they share a tandem combo much like the Bisons, with Jack Walters and Eric Yancey playing 12 games each. Yancey is 10-3 with a 2.03 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. Walters isn’t too far behind him, going 7-3-1 with a 2.14 GAA and a .895 save percentage.
“We don’t know much about the American teams, but we expect a dog fight,” said Bisons forward Kaden Hanas. “They’re here for a reason and we know they are going to come out flying. We are going to have to play our hearts out to win this pool.”
The Bisons will have a full off day before they take on the Greater Vancouver Canadians Dec. 29 (2:30 p.m.) at Father David Bauer Arena.
The Canadians produced current NHLers Evander Kane (Buffalo Sabres) and Brendan Gallagher (Montreal Canadiens) and are currently led by Chris Douglas, who has racked up 12 goals, 31 points in 21 games and is an affiliated player for the Red Deer Rebels (WHL).
In net, Lukas Shaw sits 5-3-3 with a 2.75 goals against average and is a Surrey Eagles prospect of the B.C. Hockey League.
The Canadians sit sixth in the BCMMHL with 10-8-3-1 record.
“We just need to do what we do; work hard at practice, prepare to play and expect playoff-like hockey,” said defensemen Cole Clayton, who is one of six Bisons returning to the tournament.
The Bisons close out their round robin Dec. 30 in a battle with the top team from the SMAAAHL, the Generals at Max Bell Centre #1.
A rookie, Reece Nekirk, who has piled up nine goals and 22 points in 25 games, leads the 19-5-0-1 Generals. The Portland Winterhawks selected Newkirk in the third round of the 2016 WHL draft. Behind Newkirk on the leaderboard is left defensemen Devan Harrison (3 G, 16A) who was taken one round earlier by the Kamloops Blazers.
The Generals are very stingy in net. Their 48 goals allowed are the third fewest in the SMAAAHL.
Stopping all those pucks is Hunter Arps and Matt Lenz. Arps is 10-2 with four shutouts and a 1.73 GAA with a .929 save percentage. Lenz sits 9-3 with three shutouts and carries a 1.73 GAA and .929 save percentage.
Following the round robin, the leader from each division advances with three wildcard spots occupying the remaining playoff seeding. No two-wildcard teams can come from the same division.
Pool 1 features the Calgary Buffaloes, Arizona Bobcats, Belarus National U17 team, Regina Pat Canadians and the Vancouver NE Chiefs. Pool 2 consists of the Calgary Northstars, Cariboo Cougars (Prince George B.C.), New York Jr. Islanders, Notre Dame Hounds and SSAC Boston Pizza Athletics. The Calgary Royals host Pool 3 and are accompanied by the Austrian National U18 team, Okanagan Rockets, Saskatoon Contacts and Sherwood Park J. Ennis Kings. Pool 4 is rounded out by the Calgary Flames, the Hungarian National team, Leduc Motor Oils Kings, New Jersey Hitmen and Prince Albert Mintos.
The quarterfinals kickoff early on New Year’s Eve and the semifinals follow later that day. The championship is slated for Jan.1, 6 p.m. at the Scotia Bank Saddledome.
Schedules, standings and tournament leaders will be available online and updated as the tournament plays out.