ESTEVAN, SASK. – The national championship might be going to Brooks with the Bandits, but one coach felt the Bow Valley's love and support during the juggernaut hockey team’s run for the title.
The Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the top junior team in Canada, defeated the OJHL’s Pickering Panthers 4-1 for the Centennial Cup on Sunday (May 29) in Estevan, Sask., winning back-to-back national championships in the process.
A rare feat for players and coaches alike, Canmore’s Evan McFeeters, Bandits assistant coach, said being with this exceptional group and sharing in its accomplishments has been the highlight of his career thus far.
“The emotions are just flowing because it’s a lot of work to lead up to that,” said McFeeters. “Just to hoist [the cup] and say we accomplished our goal of being the best team in the entire country, it was amazing.”
An assistant coach in Brooks for the past two seasons, McFeeters spent five seasons prior in Canmore as the Eagles' assistant coach and assistant general manager.
On the Bandits bench, the hometown boy never had to look too far for support from the mountain communities, especially during its latest run to the top.
“The support I personally got from the people in the Bow Valley throughout, even after the Canmore series and Okotoks and Spruce Grove, there were people from the Bow Valley who travelled to games to watch. I saw them in the crowd,” McFeeters said. “It just means a lot for me to come from Canmore and still have that support.”
Brooks journey to its back-to-back National Junior A Championship started against the Eagles in the second round of the 2022 AJHL playoffs. The big sticks of Brooks were relentless against the Eagles, outscoring the hometown club 31-9 for the 4-0 sweep.
Brooks didn’t put away its sweeping brooms for the south finals against the Okotoks Oilers though, and promptly dusted them in four games.
For the AJHL’s biggest prize, the Inter Pipeline Cup, it was a rematch of the 2018-19 finals – the last time the cup was won – against the Spruce Grove Saints.
The Bandits came in on a runaway train and won the cup in five games.
By winning the Inter Pipeline Cup, the Bandits qualified for the 2022 Centennial Cup from May 19-29. The previous time Brooks won was in 2019 before the pandemic and when McFeeters was on the Eagles.
McFeeters said going into the tournament he felt the weighing expectations to succeed.
“We never discussed defending the title ... but there was certainly pressure being the favourites going into the tournament and a lot of eyes on us,” said McFeeters. “We made sure our guys blocked out all that extra noise and focused on playing our style of hockey because everyone was looking for us to make a mistake or falter.”
Placed in Group A in the 10-team tournament that showcases the junior champions from across Canada, Brooks rolled through preliminary action, going 4-0.
In the semifinals, the AJHL’s top team crushed Collège Français de Longueuil of the LHJQ, 11-2, to advance to the finals.
In the all-or-nothing championships, McFeeters said it felt like a Brooks home game with the Bandits mega fans making the trip to cheer them on.
With crowd support and Brooks hogging the puck all night where they out-shot the Panthers 28-4 through two periods, the top club was still down 1-0.
However, the Bandits' big guns couldn’t be silenced in the third and chipped away at then Panthers' defence and goalie Zachary Roy to score four times including goals one and two only being 14 seconds apart.
“We had confidence we were going to break through,” McFeeters said. “We had the puck the entire night, but going into the third period we knew the time was ticking. We felt in the room if we could get one then they would have to change their style of play and they’d have to get another goal, which would open it up and give us a bit of an advantage to pepper their goaltender who had an unbelievable night.”
With the victory, Brooks claims its third Centennial Cup in franchise history and is only the third team to have won at least three national titles.
After nearly three months of non-stop post-season, McFeeters said he's soaking in community celebrations after a highly successful season before getting back at it.
"It's going to be the shortest off-season ever," he said. "We're back at it in something like 80 days."