It's been a long two years, but the stage is set and the quest for glory begins.
The Vancouver North East Chiefs are set to face-off against Canada's best boys' under-18 AAA programs at the 2022 Telus Cup in Alberta.
Several communities are represented on the roster, including Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore, Belcarra, Burnaby, New Westminster and Ridge Meadows.
And history could be in the making for the program and for B.C.'s governing body for the sport.
The Chiefs captured the BC Elite Hockey League (BCEHL) title for the first time since 2015, won the Pacific regional spot in the national championship — the first B.C. team to do so since 2014 — and could be the first B.C. club to win it all in 40 years.
Vancouver North East is squaring up with the Quebec regional champion Cantonniers de Magog at 5:30 p.m. Pacific time today (May 16), and will play five matches before the playoffs.
"We’ve been prepping a lot, pre-scouting teams and going over video," goaltender Oliver Ashton-Auyeung told BC Hockey. The 16-year-old Coquitlam product led all BCEHL netminders with 18 wins in 22 regular season games.
"We’ve also been working our special teams. It’s nothing we haven’t done before."
If Vancouver North East finishes in the top four after the round robin stage of the six-team tournament, they'll advance to a semi-final and earn the chance to get to the gold-medal match on Sunday (May 22).
To get to nationals, the Chiefs defeated the Calgary Buffaloes 2-1 in a best-of-three regional series.
That followed a 26–4–1–5 regular-season record and first place in the B.C. standings, eventually claiming the Cromie Memorial Cup at the end of the playoffs.
"Am I surprised we got it done? No. I have a tremendous belief in this group of players and staff," said Chiefs' general manager Greg Harding in an earlier interview with the Tri-City News.
"I believed in this group of players and staff. I know how hard they work each day, I know how much time they put in each week to be prepared but we had to face some really tough opponents."
Harding says navigating the COVID-19 pandemic was frustrating with players being limited to a handful of games in that two-year span.
But, in a way, he believes it brought the team together.
"We have developed our players as individuals and as a group. [...] would have been easy for everyone last year to just go through the motions and put in little effort because it was only six games and then nothing but practice for five months," he said.
"The players came in and worked each day; the coaches and I were able to keep them engaged and enjoyed coming to the rink each day."
The last time a B.C. team won the Telus Cup was in Burnaby Winter Club in 1982 — led by Vancouver Canucks legend Cliff Ronning.
The Vancouver North East Chiefs' national-championship schedule is as follows (all times are Pacific):
- May 16 = 5:30 p.m. vs. Cantonniers de Magog (Québec)
- May 17 = 4 p.m. vs. Notre Dame Hounds (West)
- May 18 = 2 p.m. vs. Sydney Rush (Host)
- May 19 = 9 a.m. vs. Moncton Flyers (Atlantic)
- May 20 = 10:30 a.m. vs. Mississauga Reps (Central)
All games are being played at the Pason Centennial Arenas in Okotoks, Alta.