It’s a Christmas tradition in this country: turkey-eating, present-opening, driveway-shoveling and hockey-watching.
The 39th installment of the Mac’s AAA Midget Hockey Tournament has produced a smorgasbord of NHL talent and crowned champions from six different countries. It is set to get underway Dec. 26 (10 a.m.) when the Arizona Bobcats host the Calgary Buffaloes at Max Bell Centre #1.
For the CFR Chemicals Bisons, they aim to be the sixth team to capture the elusive title for a second time. The Bisons won the Mac’s Cup back in 1998 when they iced the Swift Current Legionnaires, one year after losing out in the championship to the Saskatoon Contacts.
Last season, the Bisons failed to make it out of the round robin stage, going 1-2-1.
This year, expectations are reasonably higher for the Herd. The Bisons rolled through the Alberta Midget Hockey League like big shots to begin the season. They opened the season on a 19-game undefeated tear, but hit miniscule a road bump at the start of December. The Herd appears to be back on track following a 7-1 win Dec. 16 over the Knights of Columbus Pats.
“We are a lot more confident this year than we were last year,” said Bisons winger Kanden Hanas. “Our hot start might have given us a bigger target, but that only makes it more fun.”
But there’s mythical allure to this tournament. The names of Wendel Clark, Sidney Crosby, Mike Modano and Jarome Iginla ring around the arena while parents, fans and scouts file into the Max Bell Centre to catch a glimpse at some of the best midget hockey from North America and Europe.
“You kid yourself if you don’t get excited for the Mac’s. It’s a cool event, not just for the kids, but for everyone involved,” said Bisons assistant coach Paden Grant.
For Grant, it is his first time back at the Mac’s since he played for the Bisons during the 2003-04 season.
The excitement became amplified Dec. 7 when the pools and schedules were released at the Westin in downtown Calgary. The Bisons are the host team in Pool 5 along with the Alaska Oilers, Greater Vancouver Canadians, Moose Jaw Generals and Red Deer Optimist Chiefs.
The leader after the round robin from each pool advances, along with three wildcard slots going to the next best records. Playoffs begin on New Year’s Eve with the championship running New Years Day (6 p.m.) at the Scotia Bank Saddledome.
For captain Brett Trentham, this will mark his third Mac’s tourney. Playing for the Bisons as an affiliated player two years ago, he looks to be a calming presence in the room this year.
“Guys are going to be excited when they step out onto the ice in front of these crowds. We got to control that and try to not get too fired up, because that’s when mistakes start to happen,” said Trentham.
Bisons head coach Sandy Henry has been involved with the Mac’s for two decades. Whether it was coaching his two sons, scouting and with the Bisons, Henry has yet to drink from the Cup.
“We like our team, we think we have a good squad, and if we play to our potential, then we have a good opportunity to get to the final,” said Henry.
Henry and his staff plan to work this tournament just like any regular season game. They plan to work both goalies, roll all four lines and have called up affiliated players Tucker Zdunich (forward, Foothills Bisons midget AA), defensemen Connor Bertamini (Rockyview Raiders minor midget AAA) and forward Mark Zachary (AC Avalance minor midget AAA).
The Bisons hit a speed bump this season when they faced three teams immediately below them in the AMHL standings. It was their first taste of stronger competition. Following a 3-0 loss to the second-place Calgary Buffaloes, Henry alluded to the only way to prepare for stiffer competition, was to go out and play the stiffer competition.
This tournament will provide their best competition to date and should leave behind the tea leaves revealing what this team needs to continue working on as they prepare for their playoff drive.
The Mac’s is a little bit of a Christmas catch 22 — on one hand, it’s one of minor hockey’s highly coveted trophies, on the other hand, teams don’t want to peak or burn out in the Mac’s with so much of the regular season at stake.
Only the 1980 Notre Dame Hounds went on to capture the Mac’s Cup and the Telus Cup in the same year.
The Bisons’ staff is trying to find the happy medium in putting forth the necessary effort to capture the Mac’s without burning too much energy, hampering their chances at returning to the Telus Cup.
But the Telus Cup feels like eons from now. The Bisons battle the Hungarian National U18 team Dec. 23 in Okotoks at the Pason Centennial Arena as a precursor for the tournament in what should be a thrilling week of hockey.
The fun begins Boxing Day when the Bisons take on their AMHL foe, the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs at Father David Bauer Arena. Puck drop is slated for 12:45 p.m.
Tourney stats, schedules and standings will be updated throughout the tournament on the Mac’s tournament website.