SASKATOON - The 2013 MasterCard Memorial Cup won't be short on intriguing storylines.
First there are the hosts who want to make amends for an up-and-down season. Add to the mix a record-setting powerhouse from Nova Scotia, a club from Ontario that scored in the final second of Game 7 to advance, and a team from Oregon that used a coach's suspension as a rallying cry.
Oh, and then there's three of the top prospects for this year's NHL draft, not to mention at least five others who could go in the first round.
The annual 10-day tournament to decide the Canadian Hockey League championship begins Friday with the host Saskatoon Blades taking on the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights in a game that features teams that took very different routes to get here.
The second matchup of the round-robin format goes Saturday with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League meeting the Portland Winterhawks of Western Hockey League.
The Blades' 2012-13 campaign included a rough start, an 18-game winning streak and a shocking first-round sweep—all of which were documented by a reality television crew that tracked their every move.
The Knights, meanwhile, cruised through the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs before finding themselves down 3-1 in the OHL final against the Barrie Colts. London fought back to win three straight, clinching the league title in dramatic fashion when Bo Horvat scored with less than a second to go in the deciding game to give the Knights a 3-2 win.
The Blades will have not played a game in 51 days when they step onto the ice at Credit Union Centre against the OHL champions, while the Knights come in having clinched their league title just four days earlier.
"Since we were awarded (the tournament) a year and a half ago the focus was on the start of the Memorial Cup," Blades coach Lorne Molleken said. "We're all excited to get things underway. Our players, I can tell you, they're tired of practising.
"We're ready to play."
Knights coach Dale Hunter is also confident his team will be ready, despite the travel and quick turnaround.
"We had a tough series against Barrie," he said. "That's what hockey's all about. You get three or four days rest and they're kids. If you're a hockey player all you want to do is play games so I think they'll be anxious to play."
London, which won the Memorial Cup as the host back in 2005, lost in last year's final in overtime to Shawinigan.
"Every game is like a Game 7 here. It pretty much controls your destiny for the rest of the tournament," Knights forward Max Domi said. "Last year were we a pretty young team.
"We look at ourselves as a pretty experienced group and we're expecting big things."
Following Friday's opener, Saturday will provide a mouth-watering game for scouts and fans alike. The matchup between Halifax and Portland will feature Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones, ranked as the No. 1 North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, and Mooseheads forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, who sit at No. 2 and No. 3.
The Mooseheads suffered only six losses in the regular season, a record for the QMJHL and just one shy of the all-time CHL mark.
The No. 1 team in the country rolled to a 16-1 record in the playoffs, but Halifax coach Dominique Ducharme says his team is taking nothing for granted in Saskatoon.
"Wins and losses are just a statistic," he said. "There were some close games and we played against some pretty good teams.
"We know the three other teams are solid and we're starting against Portland and we respect all three opponents and know we're playing a good team. Our guys are really ready to go and it's going to be an exciting game, but at the same time you need to be in control."
On the Winterhawks side, apart from Jones' standout campaign, the team had to deal with the season-long suspension of coach and general manager Mike Johnston for transgressions that included providing flights to players' families and a cell phone for the team's captain.
Travis Green, an assistant under Johnson, took over the club in his absence.
"If anything it brought our team closer together," said Green, who led Portland to the Memorial Cup after it came up short in the WHL final the previous two seasons. "Usually when you have a coaching change it's because you're not doing well and the coach gets fired. This wasn't case."
Although the Mooseheads-Winterhawks game is being hyped, Green adds there will be plenty of entertainment leading into the final on May 26.
"I think all of the games are going to be marquee matchups," he said. "The media like this game with the top-ranked players that are playing in it.
"I think Halifax plays a style similar to what we play, a lot of speed and it should be a really exciting game."
Apart from Jones, MacKinnon and Drouin, the tournament also includes top prospects like Horvat (ranked No. 15 by NHL Central Scouting), Domi (No. 19), London defenceman Nikita Zadorov (No. 22), Portland forwards Nicolas Petan (No. 33) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (No. 36) and the No. 1 goalie in North America, Halifax's Zachary Fucale.
"This tournament is going to be an exciting one. Last time I did my math there's probably eight to 10 players on these three teams that will be drafted in the first round," said Molleken, who doesn't have the same young star power as the tournament's other three coaches but instead relies on rolling four lines. "It's going to be great hockey and we have to bring our A-game each and every night."
The four teams play each other once and need at least one victory to have a shot at advancing to the knockout round. The top team in the round robin goes straight to the final on May 26, while the second- and third-place clubs play in the semifinal on May 24.
The format makes getting off to a fast start crucial.
"There's no seven games that you can rely on," Fucale said. "Every game is almost a do-or-die and that's what makes it exciting. As a hockey player you come into games and you want to be the difference maker. We have 25 guys in the room there that really want to do that."
Notes: A tiebreaker game, if necessary, would be played May 23. ... Halifax and Saskatoon have never won a Memorial Cup. Portland won in 1983 and 1998, while London was the top junior team in Canada in 2005. ... The Knights have been named as the hosts for next year's tournament.