THUNDER BAY – Anthony Biniaris says it’s time to put the city back on the hockey map.
It’s been long enough since the Thunder Bay Major Midget Kings have won a national championship, 22 years to be exact, said defenceman Anthony Biniaris, listed by Hockey Canada as a player to watch on the host side.
The Kings, who lost out on a regional title earlier this month, losing to Tisdale in overtime in the championship match, come into this year’s event mostly off the national hockey radar.
That’s not a bad thing, Biniaris said.
“I think we like that underdog mentality, because normally the host team is that underdog. But we’re ready to shock some people and make us proud,” he said Sunday, after a final practice at their Fort William First Nation Arena home.
The Kings are one of six teams vying for the title this week at Fort William Gardens, a lineup that includes past winners like the Toronto Young Nationals, the Calgary Buffaloes, the Tisdale Trojans, and the Magog Cantonniers, who last year won silver.
The Halifax McDonald’s round out the six-team tournament.
Forward Gareth Aegard says the lead-up to the Telus Cup has been a lot of work, but the games to get there and the hundreds of hours of practice have been put in. Now it’s time to see how they stack up against the nation’s best.
“We’re all just kind of itching for Monday night,” said Aegard, adding being able to compete in Thunder Bay for a national title is about as good as it gets.
“I think just having it at home is just extra special, being able to show everyone in town, our friends and family. It’s a chance of a lifetime, being able to participate in a national championship. We’re looking to win, we’re looking to do whatever it takes.”
Unlike the other five teams taking part this week, the Kings spent most of their season playing out of the U.S-based North American Prospects Hockey League, taking on teams from St. Louis, Nashville and Colorado Springs, putting up an impressive 13-6-1 record and sweeping five playoff games to capture the Dixon Cup.
They went on to an appearance in the Telus Cup West Regional final, falling a goal short of winning the title, after sweeping Kenora earlier in the Hockey Northwestern Ontario playdowns.
Goaltender Jordan Smith, a ninth-round pick of the Peterborough Petes in 2017, said from his perspective, success this week will only come of the Kings can maintain their composure on and off the ice, with all the distractions that come with taking part in a national championship.
“We have to just be calm and not look too far ahead. Everyone has to buy into the system,” Smith said.
“Of course the hockey is what we’re here for, to win a national championship. But there are going to be lots of distractions and fans and lots of noise going around. We just have to keep focused. We have a job to do.”
The Kings are making their fifth appearance at the Telus Cup, which was known as the Air Canada Cup until 2003, four other Thunder Bay teams having also earned berths at the event between 1975 and 1988.
Coach Darren Nicholas, whose son Evan captured a SIJHL title on Saturday night with the Thunder Bay North Stars, said it’s been a year-long process to get the team ready for the Telus Cup.
“It was an interesting dynamic knowing that we were going to be here. We’ve been on the kids for most of the year about our standard of play and let’s not just play as good as we need to, let’s play as good as we can,” Nicholas said.
“We’ve been able to do that more often than not. We’ve had a really good year and we’ve shown all year in the big games we’ve responded nearly every single time.”
The Kings open play Monday night against Calgary at 7:30 p.m.