In the midst of a division-leading season, St. Albert's U18 AAA Nektar Raiders shuttled down Highway 2 last week for one of minor ice hockey’s most storied and competitive events: The Circle K Classic.
Inaugurated in 1978 as the “Challenge Cup”, the tournament ran for decades as the “Mac’s” before adopting it’s current name last fall. The annual event, which attracts up to 100,000 spectators over the course of its seven day span, draws some of the most prestigious AAA hockey programs throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe.
The Raiders opened their effort on December 27th with a tight, high-scoring 6-5 loss to AEHL divisional rival Edmonton Jr. Oilers Blues. The next day, St. Albert suffered a 4-2 loss to the Burlington Eagles before ending round-robin play on a high note with a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Hawks.
In playoffs, the Raiders bested the hosting Calgary Flames 5-3 before being eliminated by the Edge School, another Calgary-based club, in a 4-2 divisional semi-final loss.
But despite their failure to advance to the final round of competition, there were a number of dazzling personal successes that came out of the tournament. Forwards Tyden Redlick and Bradley Gallo led the team in scoring with 6 points throughout the event. Raiders blueliner Matthew Gomez also had an impressive showing, netting 4 points and being named to the tournament’s First Allstar Team.
Historically, St. Albert’s minor hockey teams have had a number of exceptional performances at the tournament, including first place finishes in the 2018 boy’s tournament and 2009 girl’s tournament — the latter of which ran from 2004 until 2017 before being discontinued due to declining registration.
This year players travelled from Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, Arizona, and Hungary — in addition to provinces across Canada — to participate in the games.
Steeped in generations of history, many of the tournament’s veterans have gone on to become household names in the world of hockey. Zach Parise, Mikael Backlund, and longtime Edmonton Oiler Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are just some of the seasoned NHLers who have won the tournament’s MVP award.
And while every edition of the tournament promises to showcase the next generation of gifted players, 2022 had an especially momentous tenor as it marked the event’s return after two years of COVID cancellations.
The Raiders will resume league play again on January 7th as they face off at home against Grande Peace, and then on the road against Lloydminster on January 8th. The Raiders are currently the top-ranked team in the AEHL’s North Division with 17 wins, 5 losses, and a tie in 23 games played. The complete Raiders schedule, as well as comprehensive league standings and player statistics, can be found on the AEHL’s website.