Hundreds of giddy fans beaming ear to ear packed the UCT Pavillion in Brandon on Saturday night, waiting for their beloved Wheat Kings to arrive with the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
"It was unbelievable," said Wheat Kings captain Macoy Erkamps. "Bringing it back to a huge crowd like that, words can't really explain the feeling we had walking off that bus with the trophy, going up on stage and having all the people chanting. It was something I'll never forget."
Like a lot of junior hockey teams in Canada, the players have built a significant bond with the city and fan base. That much was obvious as the Wheat Kings faithful crowded into the local community centre last weekend to celebrate their team's 4-1 series win over the Seattle Thunderbirds.
"They've been on this journey with us for the whole entire playoffs," said Erkamps. "Especially last year, so they were feeling that same pain as us."
That pain was caused by a devastating loss. Just like this season, in 2015 the Wheat Kings found themselves in the WHL finals. But instead of returning home with the championship trophy, they were swept in four straight games by the Kelowna Rockets.
"Losing last year was one of the worst experiences I've ever had," Erkamps recalls. "Just having that sorrow and sadness around the room."
But it seems like their heartbreaking defeat was a blessing in disguise. Using that shattering loss as motivation, the team came back stronger and better than ever.
"Coming back this year and winning it all just made it that much sweeter," notes Erkamps. "Losing last year just kind of paved the way for the guys this year. We had that attitude that there was no way we were going to lose again and that helped us out along the way. That experience was huge for our team."
It's been a hell of a season for the 21-year-old. Not only has he won a championship, but as his junior career winds down, he still has a lot of hockey to look forward to.
In early April, the Ottawa Senators announced that they had signed the over-ager to a three-year entry-level contract. As it so happens, Erkamps didn't realize he was close to inking an NHL deal until the last minute.
"(My agent) kept saying that there was interest, but nothing specific," said Erkamps. "I've just always been that sort of kid that didn't want to hear about that stuff. He wanted me to keep playing my game. Then when we were in Edmonton, he mentioned that there was a team talking and the next day he said that we had a deal."
The Senators were impressed with a lot of Erkamps' attributes, but they made it clear that it wasn't just his play on the ice that was worthy of a professional contract.
"Randy Lee was one of the first guys I talked to," said Erkamps, a native of Delta, B.C. "One of the things he mentioned was character. I can't say enough of Kelly McCrimmon and the coaching staff here; I think they put in a good word and (the Senators) heard that I was a good guy around the room."
A good guy around the room, indeed. Erkamps was named captain at the start of the 2016 season after sharing an 'A' with Morgan Klimchuk in 2015.
"I think last year, coming in, I was kind of the new guy," Erkamps remembers. "But by Christmas time Kelly said that they brought me in for leadership as well. Coming into this year I didn't expect to wear the 'C' or anything, but we did a team vote and the coaches had some input and it just worked out in the end. There's a lot of guys in that room that helped me lead this team to a big victory."
In the Senators' press release on the day they signed him, former general manager Bryan Murray noted that the young defenseman's game had taken quite the jump this season. Truer words have never been spoken.
After four average offensive campaigns, Erkamps nearly turned in a point-per-game season this year. With 71 points in 72 games, he was able to finish second amongst WHL defensemen in points and first in assists with 58. Brandon's top graduating player also finished second in scoring for defensemen during the playoffs.
"Coming in last year to (the Wheat Kings') systems, they like to play more of an offensive game," explains Erkamps. "As a defenseman, they want you jumping up in the play and being that fourth man joining the rush. Last year I don't think I was all that comfortable with it, just because it was new, but I worked on a lot of stuff in the summer and found an opportunity to play with Ivan Provorov and learn from him."
Erkamps also cites attending St. Louis Blues rookie camp in September on a free-agent tryout as a huge confidence booster.
Now with five years of CHL hockey under his belt, he's only got a handful of games left. The Wheat Kings will travel to Red Deer, Alberta, this week in hopes of capturing the first Memorial Cup in the team's long history.
For Erkamps, it would be an absolute storybook ending.
"It's probably easier for me to say now than it would be in the moment, but it would just mean the world to end my WHL career with the best thing that you could ask for. Coming into the league, you always dream of it but for it to be right in front of you is a huge opportunity. To bring it back to Brandon, I mean, it's hard not to fall in love with a city like this. In the playoffs the atmosphere is unbelievable. To share it with my family and my teammates, I couldn't ask for a better way to end it all."
Are you going to be watching the 2016 Memorial Cup?
|Yes, all of it||38|
|I'll tune in for the Sens prospects' games||106|
|I might watch the final||50|
|Not at all||80|