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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

2016 MEMORIAL CUP PREVIEW

The Red Deer Rebels exited the Western Hockey League playoffs on a Friday night in late April, and on Monday morning, coach Brent Sutter ordered his players back to the gym.

There was no time to dwell on the disappointment of a third-round elimination at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings, the eventual league champions. The Rebels still had another chance at post-season glory in the Memorial Cup, a tournament they were hosting in less than a month.

"There was disappointment, but we hit the reset button and prepared for the next challenge,'' Sutter said in a recent interview.

While Brandon was playing in the league final, the Rebels' past three weeks have consisted of off-ice workouts, team practices and trying to simulate as much game action as possible.

The four-team tournament that brings together the champions from the Ontario Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Western Hockey League, along with a host city, to battle for a national crown - will include the London Knights, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, Brandon Wheat Kings and the Rebels.

Rebels defenceman Haydn Fleury says that entering the tournament with so much time off isn't ideal, but it hasn't affected his confidence.

"We just have to believe in ourselves, anything can happen,'' said Fleury. "We can compete with anyone.''

Rarely is a host team successful at the Memorial Cup, especially if they've been waiting for the tournament to begin.

Seven of the last eight champions have also won their league titles, with the 2012 host Shawinigan Cataractes being the only club to lift the trophy after bowing out in their league playoffs.

The 2007 Vancouver Giants won as hosts after falling in the WHL final, while the Kelowna Rockets hoisted the Cup in 2004 despite a third-round exit from the WHL post-season. Since Sutter and the Rebels won the 2001 Memorial Cup, only the 2005 Knights have been league champions and Memorial Cup hosts at the same time. London also hosted in 2014 and went winless after bowing out of the second round of the OHL playoffs.

"It's a hard tournament to get to, so it's a huge honour to host,'' said Fleury. "I know our team's confident at home, we had a good record.

"We would have liked to have come in as champions but we'll do our thing.''

The four major junior teams will play at the Enmax Centrium in a round-robin format to decide a champion.

"Every game is like a Game 7, every game is big,'' said Sutter. "You have to be ready when the puck drops.

"This is the pinnacle of the 2016 season and it's your last crack to show what you are.''

Red Deer finished the WHL regular season sixth overall and made the Eastern Conference final while Brandon is No. 7 in the CHL rankings. No. 1 Rouyn-Noranda is making its Memorial Cup debut while No. 3 London is back for the fourth time in five years.

The Rebels will open the tournament Friday against London while Rouyn-Noranda and Brandon will play their first game Saturday. The final is set for May 29.

(Canadian Press)

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