Four days after finishing a gruelling playoff run that saw them win the WHL championship, the Edmonton Oil Kings spoke to reporters on Friday with just four days until they take on their next challenge: trying to win the Memorial Cup.
“We enjoyed it for a day or two, and I think our focus is right back on next week out east,” captain Jake Neighbours said.
“I think we’re ready for it.”
On Monday night, the team hoisted the Ed Chynoweth Cup after an impressive 2-0 win in Game 6 of their series against the Seattle Thunderbirds. The Oil Kings finished the WHL playoffs with an incredible 16-3 record.
On Tuesday, the team will face off against the Shawinigan Cataractes in their first game of the Memorial Cup tournament.
The tournament sees the host city’s junior team (Saint John Sea Dogs) and the winners of the WHL, OHL (Hamilton Bulldogs) and QMJHL (Shawinigan) championships compete against one another for a national championship.
“The expectation (to win) is there. We put it on ourselves,” Oil Kings general manager Kirt Hill said Friday. “I think in that locker room, the expectation at the start of the year was to win a championship.
“If you look through our roster, we built this group to give ourselves the best opportunity, we feel, to win a Memorial Cup, and that’s been our goal since Day 1.”
Oil Kings forward Carter Souch is from Edmonton and has played for the team for five seasons now. He said he has been a part of some memorable teams, but “this one’s up there for the most special group I’ve ever been a part of.”
“It’s been said all year, we’re a group of brothers,” Souch told reporters. “It’s awesome coming to the rink every day.
“We’ve achieved one goal and we’ve got one more to go.”
On Friday, Hill provided an update on injuries the team is dealing with. Forwards Brendan Kuny and Dylan Guenther were injured in the series against Seattle. Hill said Kuny will be available to play, but Guenther, a key offensive producer for the team, remains out.
“(I) feel for him,” Neighbours said.
“He’s such a competitor and such a key player on our team, and he wants to be out there and competing with us.”
“We’re going to do it for him,” Souch said while commenting about how the team will step up to try to make up for Guenther’s absence. “It’s tough to see (him miss this).
“He’s probably one of the hardest working guys I know.”
Hill took over as GM four years ago and has built an impressive roster on which several players have already been drafted by NHL clubs.
During the season, he added to an already deep core of talent, acquiring key players like forward Justin Sourdif and defencemen Luke Prokop and Kaiden Guhle via trades. On Monday, Guhle was named the WHL’s playoff MVP.
“You look back to guys that we had to move on from and who were pieces in other deals… some of those deals weren’t easy to make,” Hill said. “But, ultimately, the guys that we got were huge pieces for our group and gave us a chance at a Memorial Cup now.
“I think almost every move where we brought a guy in here at some point, in the playoff run and especially in the finals, they contributed significantly. So that was big for us.”
Hill said with COVID-19 resulting in the WHL playoffs being cancelled the previous two seasons, and with a number of Oil Kings nearing the end of their junior hockey careers, he felt he owed it to the players to make the roster as strong as possible ahead of the post-season.
“I mean, they’ve given back to our organization so much,” he said. “We owed it to them and we owed it to all the staff that have been here the past four years.”
Neighbours said having a team with so many skilled players has taught him and his teammates about what it takes to be successful.
“No matter the talent level, no matter the skill level, everyone wants to win,” he said. “Anytime you win a championship, teams will talk about sacrifice. I think that’s part of it as well — sacrificing, whether it be points, minutes, things like that.
“When you have a team as deep as ours, sacrifices are going to have to be made. Our team’s done a great job of that all year — having that next-man-up mentality. ”
Oil Kings head coach Brad Lauer said there will be distractions but his team is determined to be focused on the task at hand when the Memorial Cup tournament gets underway in New Brunswick next week.
“Every family member’s going out there, every billet’s going out there, all the friends are going out there,” he acknowledged, adding the players will also get to enjoy some “downtime” there.
“(But) this is a business trip… the same approach we took going into the playoffs.
“We”ll do our very best to keep the guys focused.”
Lauer added that his players have demonstrated maturity over the season and he believes they are up to the task of hunkering down for another championship run just days after the last one ended.
“The leadership that we have in the room, they understand,” he said. “These guys know what they want to do.
“They believe in each other, they support each other… They challenge each other every day. They have fun with each other very day. It’s a tight team.”
Neighbours said with COVID-19 impacting junior hockey in different ways over the last two years, the memorable playoff run his team has been on has him and his teammates feeling gratitude.
“I think at the end of the day, you just have to be grateful,” he said. “That’s something we were taught over the pandemic: things can be taken away from you with the snap of a finger.
“So it’s exciting. We’ve got fans back in the building, we’re playing exciting hockey and I mean this is what you want as a junior hockey player.”
Guhle played in the 2019 Memorial Cup when he was a member of the Prince Albert Raiders. He said one of the things the experience taught him was that “you’ve got to be ready to go every game” in such a brief tournament.
“You can’t really afford too many big breakdowns,” Guhle said. “It’ll be fun.
“We’re excited for the challenge.”
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