The Memorial Cup is the pinnacle of Canadian junior hockey, the greatest prize.
But like every other championship in 2020, it too has fallen to cancellation following the COVID-19 viral outbreak.
On March 23, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) announced it was cancelling the Memorial Cup tournament, and subsequently each of its member leagues’ seasons.
This chain of cancellations left Winnipeg’s newest hockey darling — the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Winnipeg Ice — with unfulfilled expectations.
With a 38-24-1 record at the time the WHL went on hiatus in response to the COVID-19 virus, the Ice had locked up a playoff spot for the first time since 2014-15, when the club was still in Cranbrook, B.C. as the Kootenay Ice.
For Ice forward Peyton Krebs, getting to the post-season was the goal, and to have that chance taken away stung.
“Really the season you look for is the playoffs,” he said.
“Everything you’ve worked towards in the regular season, those hard months of playing and doing everything to prepare for this time. To have that vanish in front of our eyes with one look was really tough.”
Fellow Ice forward Jakin Smallwood was similarly disappointed, thinking of the senior players for whom this was their last chance at playoff action and a potential shot at the Memorial Cup.
“Obviously it’s pretty disappointing for us and the whole league, especially the 20-year-olds who can’t continue the rest of their [final] WHL season,” he said.
“We’ve just got to be proud of what we accomplished this season so far and just keep that momentum going into next season.”
Krebs, too, had the 20-year-old players on his mind, but knew that while it wasn’t what the players wanted, the decision to cancel the remainder of the season was the right call.
“I think it’s for the benefit of everyone else around us and our families that we’re safe,” he said.
Looking back on the 2019-20 campaign, both Smallwood and Krebs thought the team was in a great position to succeed. Smallwood played in each of Winnipeg’s 63 games, contributing 14 goals and nine assists across that span.
Krebs meanwhile missed an early chunk of the season due to injury, but upon his return racked up 60 points — 12 goals and 48 assists — in 38 games.
“Just tried to add as much as I could throughout the season,” Krebs said.
“We had a great group, everyone got along really well. [I] thought at the end of the year we were playing great hockey, and it’s a lot of fun playing in Winnipeg for the first time and […] it was pretty special.
“The city embraced us pretty well and as we started winning more and more they showed the support.”
The Ice fared well in the club’s first season in Manitoba’s capital, and for the Alberta-born Krebs and Smallwood, the transition from B.C. to the Prairies was easy.
Krebs mentioned his billets and how great things were in Cranbrook, but called the move to Winnipeg “a fresh start for the organization and the team.”
“Obviously there was some adjusting to do for sure in terms of travel and obviously the rink we’re playing in,” he said.
“I think Winnipeg did a great job of kind of embracing us as much as they could and our management doing everything they could to provide us with what we needed to be successful.”
Smallwood, too, felt welcomed by the city, and is already looking forward to returning in the fall.
“Honestly [the transition] wasn’t too hard for me,” Smallwood said.
“It was kind of like the same system — I mean being in Cranbrook the year before Winnipeg we were still pretty far from home — so I was kind of used to it going into Winnipeg.”
“I enjoyed Winnipeg a lot […] the fans were great there and I’m looking forward to next season.”
Now left with an extended summer, the two can look toward training for the 2020-21 WHL season. Though they are in different places in terms of their professional aspirations, both players are still focused on making the NHL.
“The NHL is always a hockey player’s final goal,” Smallwood said.
“But just for moving forward I’ve just got to keep working hard and training hard and take every opportunity that I get, and just take advantage of it and make the most of it.”
Krebs — a 2019 first-round draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights — is not sure about plans with the big club, due to the NHL’s current status, but is heading into the summer aiming for a strong development camp and making the opening day roster.
“I’m expecting to go in there and do my best to make Vegas,” he said.
“That’s the ultimate goal, is to play in the NHL and that’s what I’ve got my sights on and I’m just going to work my hardest and do everything I can to make that team […] I want to play in the NHL next year and that’s my goal.”