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Victoria Royals up for the challenge against 'all-in' Kamloops Blazers

Victoria hosts Kamloops on Friday and Saturday
Logan Stankoven and the Kamloops Blazers visit Victoria on Friday and Saturday. KEVIN LIGHT, VICTORIA ROYALS

The Kamloops Blazers will wear their usual blue and orange Friday and Saturday night at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre against the Victoria Royals. But maybe green and white should be their true colours. That’s because the Blazers are playing the Philadelphia Eagles’ game.

It is generally believed in the sporting business that the high of winning a championship brings with it about four to five years of grace, a period in which the team’s fan base will be satisfied with almost any result, because of the golden-glow hangover from the championship. The 2018 NFL Super Bowl champion Eagles, after a dip, are right on target five years later in re-engaging their fans with another possible Super Bowl run this season.

That’s why the Blazers, who have an automatic berth as host, have gambled their immediate to medium-term future on winning the Memorial Cup this year with one of the most monumental trades in Western Hockey League history. The Blazers this month sent a staggering 10 draft picks, including their first-round selections for 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026, to the Everett Silvertips for defenceman Owen Zellweger and forward Ryan Hofer. Eight of 10 WHL prospects draft selections given up by Kamloops are in the first-five rounds, including four in the first round, the 2023 second-round pick and 2025 third-rounder. The Blazers also sent a veteran and three young players to Everett in exchange for Anaheim Ducks-prospect and two-time Canadian team world junior championship gold-medallist Zellweger, named WHL top defenceman last season, and the proven 20-year-old forward Hofer.

“It was an eye-opener and [Blazers] have definitely gone all-in,” said Royals GM and head coach Dan Price.

“Basically, they have to win this year, based on that trade. That comes with a lot of ­pressure.”

The Blazers lead the B.C. Division and are third in the Western Conference at 26-9-6. They are 4-1 this season against Victoria but at least the ­Royals were able to end a 24-game ­losing streak against Kamloops with that lone victory.

This is not an enviable match-up for the Royals (13-27-5) against three Blazers players from Canada’s 2023 gold-medallist world junior championship team this month in Halifax — Zellweger, Caedan Bankier and defending WHL and CHL MVP Logan Stankoven.

“We know this is a huge ­challenge against a team that is at the apex of it trajectory and at the peak of its winning cycle — and with depth now added to that with the trade,” said Price.

“The pressure is all on them.”

Well, yes and no. Victoria is also under the gun, but at the other end of the table. While the Blazers are guaranteed to be in the Memorial Cup, the Royals would simply be happy with a playoff berth after missing out last season and placing last previous to that in the WHL bubble season. The Royals, with 23 games remaining, are tied with the Kelowna Rockets for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Western Conference, but the Rockets hold three games in hand.

“We focus on our internal demands,” said Price.

“We want to play hard, but relaxed.”

Injury woes to key players continue to dog the Royals, however. Victoria captain and San Jose Sharks-signed defenceman Gannon Laroque has missed the past five games and remains day-to-day after recently returning from summer surgery, the effects from which apparently still linger. As expected, Laroque made an immediate two-way impact upon his return to the blue line with two goals and five points in four games, but has so far been limited to just that this season.

Canada U-18 forward Brayden Schuurman missed the recent four-game road trip and is doubtful for this weekend. Blue-liner and former top-10 first-round WHL prospects draft pick ­Austin Zemlak, who also missed the road swing, is still out while second-round WHL draft pick Carter Dereniwsky is now listed as day-to-day ­following a lengthy absence.

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