It was a fortuitous trade in December that sent Brandon Bruce to Alberta, where he suited up for the Brooks Bandits in the AJHL and became a national champion five months later.
Bruce, a Cranbrook native, joined the ride and helped the Bandits towards a league title, runner up honours at the Western Canada Cup, and eventually, the team’s first-ever RBC Cup, which was hosted by Summerside in P.E.I.
“It feels pretty amazing, that’s for sure,” said Bruce.
“…I think it worked out to playing nine months of playing hockey and our playoff run, was probably—we started in March and we just ended in the middle of May, so it was definitely a long haul, that’s for sure, but you prepare for it all year, you work hard all year to make those kind of runs.”
The RBC Cup—like the Memorial Cup—is the pinnacle of Junior A hockey which is earned in a tournament featuring winners of regional leagues around the country.
The RBC Cup tournament features winners of the Western Canada Cup (Surrey Eagles, BCHL) and the runner up (Brooks Bandits), the winner of the Fred Page Cup (Truro Bearcats, MHL) and winner of the Dudley Hewitt Cup (Minnesota Wilderness, SIJHL), along with the city’s host team (Summerside Westside Capitals, MHL).
The right winger has bounced in and out of WHL and Junior A hockey, spending his first year of junior eligibility in Swift Current with the Broncos as a 17 year old, before moving to the Merritt Centennials of the BCHL.
He returned for his second full year with the Centennials this season, but got shipped to the neighbouring province when the Bandits acquired him in a trade.
“It was bittersweet,” said Bruce. “I had to leave behind the friends that I made in Merritt, but it was a great opportunity to go to a great team and play with some great players there as well.”
The Bandits rolled through the AJHL playoffs, rallying from a 3-2 series deficit to defeat the Okotoks Oilers in seven games in the third round, and going on to defeat the Spruce Grove Saints in five games for the league title.
“That was a really tough series and a lot of adversity to get through, being down 3-2 (in a series) to a really good hockey club,” said Bruce.
The Club moved on to the Western Canada Cup, which featured the winners of the Junior A leagues in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which was held in Nanaimo.
The Bandits had a 3-1 round-robin record, which put them into the Championship final against the Surrey Eagles, where they fell 4-1.
“We didn’t play our best hockey, and when that game was over, especially with that tournament style—it’s not a playoff style—you have to have a short memory and the guys in the room, we lost to Surrey, we knew they were going to RBC and we knew we had one more game to try and get there.
“It was kind of like a mental reset.”
Because of the tournament format, they were pitted against the Yorkton Terriers in a page playoff system to determine runner up honours with the second RBC Cup berth on the line.
“Their season was on the line, our season was on the line, that was a real intense game,” said Bruce.
The Bandits won 1-0, booking their ticket to P.E.I.
It didn’t get any easier in Summerside for the Bandits, which posted a round-robin record of two wins and two losses, which was enough to put them into a crazy semifinal against the Minnesota Wilderness.
After two periods, the Wilderness were ahead with a 4-2 lead.
Then the Bandits went to work.
RJ Reed scored a powerplay marker early in the frame for the Bandits, but the Wilderness held onto a one-goal lead as time ticked down.
With netminder Michael Fredrick on the bench in the final minute, the Bandits buzzed in the offensive zone and were rewarded when Dakota Mason tied up the affair with 18 seconds remaining in the contest.
Mark Reners was the overtime hero for the Brooks squad, catapulting them into the RBC championship game against their hosts, the Summerside Western Capitals.
It was another wild finish for the Bandits, which rode a 2-1 lead from the first period throughout most of the game. The Capitals pulled their goaltender at the end of the third period for an extra attacker, however, Cam Maclise found the back of the empty net to seal it up for Brooks team.
“When Cam Maclise scored that empty netter, that’s when it really starts to hit you, like, this is real, we’re going to win, this is the national championship,” said Bruce. “Its a pretty amazing feeling, to know that the work you put in all year and you train for all summer that this is it, you’re going to win.
“It’s an incredible feeling.”