The Stanley Cup likes to think of itself as the most difficult trophy in all of sports to win.
But the Memorial Cup would beg to differ.
The Canadian Hockey League playoffs began last night across the country. And with them, an epic post-season march that will culminate with the awarding of the Cup in late May in lovely Saskatoon. It is the most challenging trophy to capture in all of sports.
Some major junior players were as young as 15 when the quest for the Memorial Cup began last August (yes training camp starts in the summer). Some will be as old as 21 when their season inevitably ends. The majority of these young men were born and raised in Canada, but more and more American-born players are making their mark in the CHL. And every team has one or two European-born players gracing their roster (don’t tell Don Cherry).
Despite the diversity in age, background and skill level, they share a common bond: to win the Memorial Cup for the community they represent. Along the way, they sacrifice their time, their youth, their bodies. Throughout the season, major junior players spend as much time on the ice as their NHL idols. Off-days are a rarity at this level. On non-game days, they have on-ice workouts, spend time in the weight room, or perform some sort of community service. Some days they do all three. All of this is performed while attending high school or being enrolled in post-secondary courses. This is a requirement, not an option.
An elite level player, one who advances to the Memorial Cup, can expect to play upwards of 100 games in a season. This could include as many as 72 regular season games, a handful of pre-season games, possibly World Junior Championship games, special events like the Subway Super Series, as many as 28 playoff games, and up to six games in the Memorial Cup.
And if you’re thinking this is all done with the comfort of first-class travel, you’re dead wrong. Long bus trips, especially in the Western and Quebec leagues, are commonplace. Along the way, they are responsible for their own equipment, and they’re even required to help the equipment managers load and unload the bus.
They pay isn’t exactly great either. Players receive a weekly allowance that ranges from $35-$125 a week.
Some life, eh?
Actually, it’s a pretty good existence, all things considered. These young adults are playing a game they love, in front of fans who worship them, all with the promise that their efforts might lead to an NHL career that could fulfill their wildest dreams.
I’ve often maintained that CHL playoffs hockey is the best, most pure form of the sport you’ll ever witness. The game is played with a youthful exuberance that is absent at the NHL level. Players are not as concerned with their next contract, rather they are playing for the first contract. And that’s a powerful motivator for a young man.
So too is the promise of a Memorial Cup ring, which will forever serve as a symbol for winning the most elusive trophy in sport.