The host Blues are defending champions by name only when the 32nd annual Richmond International Midget Hockey Tournament gets underway Thursday morning.
A memorable run a year ago, culminated with the Blues winning the "AAA" title, marking the first time a Richmond team has hoisted the championship trophy in 14 years. Now the popular 58-team tournament, which attracts entries from across North America, will have a different look and so will the Blues.
To reflect the current rep hockey structure in B.C., the event will now feature four tiers to provide a better balanced competition. The Midget Major, Tier One and Tier Two gold medal games will take place on New Year's Eve at Minoru Arenas' stadium rink like they always do. A Tier Three final will be played on the same day at the RIC's Coliseum rink.
The A1 Blues will be among 20-teams competing for the Tier One championship. Richmond's roster has undergone a major overhaul with a number of players graduating, opening the door for nine rookies in the line-up. They also have a different look behind the bench with Bayne Koen taking over the head coaching reigns.
He brings plenty of experience to the position, have coached a number of teams at the junior "A" and junior "B" levels. He currently is an assistant with the Delta Ice Hawks and an instructor at the Palmer Hockey Academy.
"Glenn (Wheeler) approached me about doing it last year," explained Koen. "I was already doing some stuff with Palmer and there was a solid nucelus here.
"I have a good bunch of kids who work hard and the association has a handle on the way they want to go and what direction."
Richmond Minor is one of just three associations under the Pacific Coast umbrella that has rep teams from Atom to Juvenile playing in the top tier. Despite the youth movement and a rash of injuries, the Midget Blues are holding their own with a 4-4-4 record in league play, heading into the holiday break.
To focus on the task at hand heading into the tournament, Koen conducted a four-day training camp, starting last Thursday.
"I just thought it would be a good idea to get everyone together," he said. "It's a chance to go over our systems, special teams play and give ourselves the best chance to have a good run.
The players will enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off before a light skate on Boxing Day prior to their first game Thursday against Colorado's Arapahoe Ice Warriors at 5 p.m. at Minoru. The Blues round-robin group also includes Mat-Su Alaska Eagles U16AAA, Nanaimo Clippers and Vancouver Thunderbirds.
"We have slowly been getting guys back from injury and hopefully we will be healthy and ready to go," added Koen. "Hopefully we can defend the championship."