You can’t buy the kind of experience the defending champions bring into the Mac’s.
Fresh off its first tournament title in franchise history and on the heels of back-to-back trips to the final the Rocky Mountain Midget AAA Raiders enter the 40th annual Mac’s Midget Tournament as one of the prohibitive favourites.
“Last year when we won the whole team bought into the system the coaches wanted us to be in,” said captain and third-year Raider Breanne Trotter. “We worked as a team, we didn’t get down if we were down a goal, we just worked together.”
Rocky Mountain edged Saskatoon in an overtime thriller to claim the 2016 banner. The Raiders finished just shy of lifting the trophy 365 days earlier at the 2015 tournament only to fall in the championship game by a 5-1 score to the Northern Capitals out of Prince George.
“We were off our game,” Trotter said. “There were a lot of rookies on the team that year and playing in the Saddledome, on the Flames ice was a big deal for everyone.”
Those skating under the bright lights of an NHL arena for the first time had the benefit of second-hand experience one year ago in the 2016 final.
“They (the veterans) really had a lot of experience with the situation,” said Raiders centre Laura Jardin. “They guided us through the pathway, we were able to learn from what they had experienced and do it better the next year.”
Nine players return from last year’s championship squad on what is a veteran-laden Rocky Mountain team featuring a dozen Grade 12 students.
The back-end features three rookies including Okotokian Sydney Trotter while the forward group has been revamped with the likes of Okotoks’ Josie McLeod and Grande Prairie import Athena Hauck skating on the wings.
“This year we’re bigger, stronger,” said Raiders head coach Paul Pozzi. “I think we gave up a little bit of speed, but we gained size and skill. The rest of them are all one year older and that helps.
“We’ve got a very experienced team and we’re going to push them hard to be at their best.”
On paper the Raiders are in the toughest of the two female divisions.
Populating Pool 7 alongside the hosts are British Columbia’s second-ranked Fraser Valley Rush as well as the Regina Rebels and Swift Current Wildcats, the third and fifth-ranked squads, respectively, out of Saskatchewan.
In the crossover match Rocky Mountain tackles Saskatchewan’s top-seed Prince Albert.
“It’s a good group, top-to-bottom there might be a little differential there,” said Pozzi. “But we’ve got a lot of returning players, a lot of Grade 12s and we know what it takes to get there.”
The Raiders are fresh off a silver medal at the Mandi Schwartz Memorial Tournament at Notre Dame, one of the elite female hockey competitions in the country, earlier this month where a 3-2 loss to Lloydminster in the championship game was the only blemish.
“We’re a little mad we didn’t win that tournament,” Trotter added. “We will have that fight going into this tournament.”
The top two teams from both pools move onto the semifinal round with a spot in the New Year’s Day championship tilt at the Dome on the line.
Rocky Mountain opens its tournament versus Swift Current on Boxing Day.
“Our game is pretty strong right now,” Jardin added. “We have a lot of strong first-years and we just keep pushing every day.
“It’s a last hurrah, to go out with a bang and have this last minor hockey experience before we go away to university.”
Raiders vs. Swift Current Wildcats. Dec. 26, 3 p.m. Max Bell #2.Raiders vs. Regina Rebels, Dec. 27, 5:45 p.m. Max Bell #2.Raiders vs. Fraser Valley Rush, Dec. 28, 6:30 p.m. Max Bell #2.Raiders vs. Prince Albert Northern Bears. Dec. 30, 12:15 p.m. Max Bell #2.Championship game, Jan. 1 12 p.m. Scotiabank Saddledome.