A look back at the 2001 Air Canada Cup, the last time Canada’s National Midget Championship came to Prince George
April 24, 2017
by Paul Edmonds
The bus ride was uneventful, but memorable, probably the way most trips on the ‘Iron Lung’ should be when you’re 16 and travelling from home to another city in Canada.
After his Calgary Royals captured both the Alberta Midget Hockey League (AMHL) and Pacific Region championships, the next stop for Brett Pilkington was Prince George, B.C., for Canada’s National Midget Championship, the 2001 Air Canada Cup.
“We left Calgary on the bus and started driving,” Pilkington, now 33, says. “We stopped to eat and then drove into the bush. It felt like forever. I remember thinking ‘Where the heck are we?’ And then all of the sudden you drive out of the bush and you’re in Prince George.”
For Steve Bernier, the sojourn to northern British Columbia was similar in uncertainty, but completely different culturally.
After winning the Ligue de hockey midget AAA du Québec (LHMAAAQ) and earning the Quebec Region berth that automatically comes with the LHMAAAQ title, his Gouverneurs de Ste-Foy entered the tournament with some trepidation.
They were young, mostly 15-year-olds in an event usually dominated by players one or two years older, and a group of kids from Quebec City that spoke little English.
In fact, according to Bernier only one of them, Dominic Deblois, was bilingual. His father, Lucien Deblois, played 15 seasons in the National Hockey League with New York, Winnipeg, Montreal, Colorado and Toronto.
“For us at the time, we didn’t speak much English and felt pretty far from home,” says Bernier, 32, now a forward with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the top affiliate of the New York Islanders.
“For me though, it was like yesterday. I remember going to Prince George by plane. When you’re 15, it’s always special to fly. When we arrived, it was well organized and the rink was beautiful.”
Once the five regional teams and host Prince George Cougars began the 2001 national championship, it was the Royals that dominated the preliminary round with a 4-1 record, including a 5-2 victory over Ste-Foy.
Both teams advanced to the playoff round and easily cruised into the gold medal game with convincing semifinal victories. Calgary blanked the Toronto Young Nationals 6-0 and Ste-Foy posted a 10-1 victory over the Dartmouth Subways.
The stage was set for a cross-country final. After nearly 150 Midget teams across Canada started the year with the same goal in mind, only two remained with the opportunity to capture a national title.
The game would not disappoint. It was exciting, entertaining and electric.
“We knew we had a good team, but it was going to be tough to win,” says Bernier, who was taken 16th overall by the San Jose Sharks in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. “At that point, we knew how good we were in Quebec, but you never play against other provinces during the season, so we couldn’t wait to know where we stood when we got there.”
For Pilkington, it was a matter of his Royals coming together at the right time to advance through Alberta and the Pacific Region. Calgary, in fact, swept through the AMHL playoffs without a loss.
“We didn’t have the best regular season,” says Pilkington, who is now the sales manager for The Surveillance Shop in Calgary, after spending eight seasons playing college and minor pro hockey. “But we got hot about five games before the playoffs started and rolled from there.”
In the final, Calgary jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to a pair of goals from Matthew Williams-Kovacs, forcing Ste-Foy to play from behind and chase the game. The Gouverneurs bounced back to score three times in the second period – Jeff Cotton, Jean-Vincent Lachance and Dany Roussin – to take a one-goal lead into the third.
Pilkington tied the game 3-3 with 6:10 left to eventually force a pair of overtimes.
Early in double overtime, the puck found Bernier’s stick for the game-winner and Ste-Foy captured the national title for the fourth, and most recent, time in franchise history.
“We had a good shift in the offensive zone,” recalls Bernier, who was named Most Valuable Player.
“Marc-Antoine Pouliot (a 2003 first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers) got the puck on the wall. I was in front of the net. Instead of shooting it, he passed it to me. I went around the goalie and shot it with a backhand along the ice.
“I still have the play in my head. It could have gone both ways. It was a tight game. It was a very good game.
“I had a great tournament. When you’re young you don’t know any better. You want to score the goal. You want to be part of it. You have all those dreams. And when it actually happened it was the best feeling ever.”
Obviously, Pilkington’s recollection isn’t filled with the fondness Bernier has, but he agreed it was a fast-paced contest. The loss, though, still has a bit of a sting.
“To be honest we ran out of gas,” he says. “When you lose sometimes you try to blank it out. But I remember my feeling was one of exhaustion when it was over. Seven games in seven days, double overtime and emotions running so high. We just fell a little short.”
Like Bernier, Pilkington earned a distinguished honour at the tournament as Top Forward. Both agree the experience overall is special within their hockey careers and undoubtedly helped them continue in the game as players, while fostering great relationships, most of which are still solid today.
Pilkington went on to play four years at Bowling Green State University before turning pro; he played 193 games in a journeyman career, making stops in the AHL, ECHL, CHL and UHL.
“For me, it opened up a lot of doors,” says Pilkington, who is also an assistant coach with the AMHL’s Calgary Buffaloes. “I had a lot of choices and opportunities after that tournament. Teams from all across the west and various levels were after me.
“But it’s also one of those things to this day I can still name every guy on that team. I try to stay in contact with each and every one of them. The bond will be there forever. Some of my best friends in the world were on that team that I made from a young age.”
And for Bernier, who has played more than 600 games in the National Hockey League with six different teams, it was an experience that rivals only a 2012 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Los Angeles Kings as a member of the New Jersey Devils as his fondest memory in the game.
“It’s a tough championship to win. And to be able to do it, I’ll never forget about it.”