The possibility of winning a national junior A hockey championship was always a major draw for Winnipegger Hughie Hooker when he left home for Brooks, Alta., last fall.
What he didn’t count on was the pain and suffering he would have to endure before being able raise the Centennial Cup with his Brooks Bandits teammates in Estevan, Sask., Sunday afternoon.
The Bandits, an Alberta Junior Hockey League powerhouse, won their second consecutive national title with a 4-1 victory over the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Pickering Panthers in Sunday’s final.
The 5-7, 165-pounder did not play in the final and dressed for only one tournament game after starting the season as a key cog on Brooks’ blue-line corps.
Hooker played on an injured knee for the first half of the 2021-22 season before he was diagnosed with a torn MCL that required surgery on Jan. 20.
"Going into the season, knowing I’m not 100 per cent healthy and knowing that I might not be 100 per cent healthy for a while was definitely tough," said Hooker Tuesday afternoon, hours before the team was to be honoured with a championship parade, the team’s third Cup celebration in the last decade. "And then finally figuring out that I need surgery and that I’d miss probably the rest of the regular season and parts of playoffs, it was really tough."
The injury, considered minor at first, was sustained during a pickup basketball game with friends in the off-season.
"I could skate after about two months, but the most difficult part I think has just been trying to get my knee back to the point where it was before I got injured and trying to build all the muscle back that I lost throughout the year because I haven’t been able to use my knee fully," said Hooker.
He had six goals and 21 points in 24 games as the Bandits roared out of the gate, dominating the AJHL en route to a 52-6-2 regular-season record and a 12-1 mark through the league playoffs. The AJHL champs proceeded to go unchallenged at the Centennial Cup, winning all six games.
“Going into the season, knowing I’m not 100 per cent healthy and knowing that I might not be 100 per cent healthy for a while was definitely tough.” – Hughie Hooker
"He did a real nice job getting himself back and ready to play and then he was just a bit of victim of circumstance," said Bandits’ GM and head coach Ryan Papaioannou, who has won three national titles and six league crowns since taking charge of the club in 2011. "We had to add a defenceman while he was out and we had a pretty pretty good six that were going but I’m really really happy that we got to get them back into at least one game."
Hooker did not return to the lineup until the final preliminary round game, a 4-0 whitewash of the host Bruins, but he appreciated the support of his teammates, including fellow Manitoban Hunter Wallace.
"Just even being able to get out there for one game meant a lot," said Hooker. "And just the support from my teammates, too, was amazing. It was great to be back out there and for them to just be so happy for me."
"It was great to be back out there and for them to just be so happy for me.” – Hughie Hooker
Brooks’ stacked lineup featured 17 players with NCAA Division I scholarships in place. Hooker hopes to add himself to the list of NCAA-bound players next season.
"Before I knew I had to get surgery I was in a position where I was looking at maybe getting a few offers but it definitely slowed the process down a little bit," said the 19-year-old Hooker, who was born in Kenora, Ont., and raised in Brandon before moving to Winnipeg as a 10-year-old. "But I can come back next year and be even better than I was before, so I’m not too worried."
Wallace has already secured a NCAA scholarship at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., but he’s expected back in Brooks for another year of seasoning in 2022-23.
The 19-year-old forward from Oak Lake had 18 goals and 40 points in 58 regular-season games.
"He’ll be a first line player for us (next season)," said Papaioannou, who expects to lose about 15 players from this year’s championship squad. "He had a huge role this year on both the power play and penalty kill and he’ll be one of the main focuses of our team next year."
Wallace, in his rookie junior season, got an early indication that the Bandits were embarking on a special season.
"I think our home opener when we won 17-0 over Blackfalds (Bulldogs), it opened my eyes," he said. "I thought, ‘Wow, 17-0, this team’s legit.’ "
Brooks’ high-scoring offence chugged along at the Centennial Cup, outscoring its opponents 44-10 in six games.
"I think we expected to go in there and score goals," said Wallace. "Obviously some of the scores were bigger than we probably exepcted but then again, we’re a super offensive team that puts the puck in the net."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.