Like many NHL fans, until recently I had little experience or understanding of the amateur levels of the game. I knew the top prospects that had already been selected by NHL clubs and always made it a point to familiarize myself with the draft rankings put out by Central Scouting, The Hockey News and Corey Pronman, but until a few months ago, these names were no more than stat lines and the assorted opinions of others.
Inspired by a pre-season trip to London Ontario, to take in part of a prospect tournament featuring young players affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, I made it a point to immerse myself in the OHL. And much like one would go about learning a new language, I did just that. On close to a weekly basis, with the grudging understanding of my wife and the assistance and graciousness of the front office staffs of the Guelph Storm, Oshawa Generals, Barrie Colts, Mississauga Steelheads and Niagara Ice Dogs, I became one with the Ontario Hockey League.
Thanks to both their relative proximity to my home as well the talent that dotted their respective rosters, I tended to gravitate towards games in either Guelph or Oshawa. Perhaps it helped that, no matter where I went, the home team always – always – won, with no exceptions.
Although the OHL has only 20 teams, two thirds the total in the NHL, just like in the best league in the world, 16 teams make the postseason. The two teams I had witnessed most had both qualified as the top seeds in their respective conferences. As the playoffs began, Oshawa made quick work of Mississauga in the first round, and then swept Nick Ritchie and the Peterborough Petes in the second round, but were swept in turn in the semifinals by the North Bay Battalion, recently relocated from Brampton and who had entered the postseason as the number two seed in the East.
Guelph, on the other hand, made the finals without undue difficulty. They knocked off the Plymouth Whalers in five games in round one, despite star forward Robby Fabbri missing all but 35 minutes of the series, as a check to the head in game one which sidelined him for over a week. With Fabbri back on the ice, the Storm crushed the Memorial Cup host London Knights, once again in five games. The number five was magical again in the semifinals, as the Storm, coached by longtime two- way NHL forward Scott Walker, defeated Connor McDavid and the Erie Otters.
The OHL Finals, known as the J. Ross Robertson Cup, began last Friday in Guelph. The Storm and the Battalion split the first two games, both going to overtime. The two teams represented a contrast in styles with Guelph playing a free-flowing game, as befitting a team loaded with potential professional talent. North Bay, on the other hand, plays a far more structured game, one that has been referred to by some scouts as a trap. They do not lack for talent, but they were not quite the same draw with talent hounds as their opponents.
As the series shifted to North Bay, the Battalion started strong in front of their hometown fans, taking a 3-2 lead into the final minute of game three. Shockingly, they failed to capitalize, with recent Minnesota Wild signee Zack Mitchell equalizing with 30 seconds left in regulation while former Carolina Hurricane second rounder Brock McGinn followed with a stunning winner 19 seconds later. Still reeling, North Bay were humiliated in game four by a score of 10-1, as 14 skater from Guelph found their names on the scoresheet.
All of which led us to Friday night, May 9, 2014, with the Guelph Storm only one win away from their first title since 2004. The game started slowly, with the puck mostly in North Bay’s end, but relatively few strong scoring chances for Guelph. While the Battalion were able to escape real danger, they had little luck over the first 10 minutes getting any significant penetration in the Guelph end.
The aforementioned Fabbri, thought by many talent evaluators – including this author – to have cemented a slot in the first round of the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, struggled to impose himself on North Bay, showing that although he plays a bigger man’s game, he still lacks the size necessary to succeed in the NHL, as his upper body strength was found lacking on offensive zone faceoffs. Fabbri is listed at 5-10”, 170lbs, but tends to play as if he’s 6-4”, showing no fear against larger opponents, whether in open ice, or in the dirty areas. Unfortunately, fearlessness cannot help a player win a faceoff against someone who can easily outmuscle him. With a little more than five minutes remaining in the first, Blue Jackets’ first rounder Kerby Rychel, whose father and former GM Warren, was in the building, received a two minute minor penalty for a check to the head. On the ensuing power play, North Bay opened the scoring, with Dallas Stars prospect Nick Paul scoring on a wrist shot after Brendan Miller did well to hold the puck in on the blue line after an attempted clear by Guelph.
Undaunted, Guelph, who had been controlling the run of play, equalized less than one minute later, with Brock McGinn firing a slap shot past is checker and under the crossbar past North Bay goaltender Jake Smith, after skating in from the blueline to a favorable position high in the slot. McGinn, the youngest of three hockey playing brothers (Jamie and Tye are both in the NHL) is a good prospect in his own right, showing strong possession skills, good speed and an above average shot. On the whole, Guelph was the stronger squad in the first 20 minutes, but North Bay entered the intermission with a 2-1 lead as 2015 eligible prospect Brett McKenzie was credited with a goal off a deflection near the crease with exactly one minute to play.
The Battalion started strong in the second, pushing play through a lopsided attack, which generally saw all three forwards trying to enter the zone on the same side of the ice. While this helped them enter the offensive zone with protection, it gave Guelph an easy out in that they could simply push the puck to the opposite side and clear with relative ease. Just before the 5:00 mark of the second, Riley Bruce, a mammoth 17 year old defenceman on North Bay, took an interference penalty. While this could have stifled his team’s momentum, captain and new member of the San Jose Sharks organization, Barclay Goodrow, stole the puck from former Dallas Stars first rounder Jason Dickinson as the latter was skating it through the neutral zone. The pivotal steal was not the only play of that type by the North Bay forward, who uses a very cerebral and active game to make up for his relative shortcomings as a skater. Goodrow, who signed as an undrafted free agent, collected his lot, walked in on the Guelph net alone and slipped the puck through the five hole of Justin Nichols, the Strom’s veteran goaltender, an unassisted shorthanded marker which served as the coda to a strong junior career.
Down 3-1 against a team that employs a modern day trap, Guelph’s players would not have been excused for beginning to look ahead to game 6, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins were doing against the New York Rangers at the same time. After all, they had three chances to win a single game. With exactly one minute to go in the second, the momentum shifted back to the home team, never to return. Upon receiving a crisp feed from the dynamic Fabbri, who can set up teammates just as well as he can set himself up, Maple Leafs’ prospect Matt Finn, the Storm captain, fired a strong wrist shot high to the stick side of the goalie while skating diagonally towards the net from the top of the point, to bring the score to within a single goal. Finn, while seen as more of a puck mover going forward than a power play quarterback, has shown over the course of the season that his shot can be an effective weapon after all. Through 40 minutes, even though they had been outshot 25-18, the Battalion were still leading, 3-2.
With the onset of the third period, the old hockey adage about the need to roll four lines came to the fore. While nine Strom forwards and all six defencemen received regular shifts for the entirety of the 60 minutes, by the third period, North Bay had reverted to their best five skaters for every second shift – and those shifts were longer on average than those of their teammates. Goodrow, Paul, Devils’ prospect Ben Thomson and the defensive pairing of Marcus McIvor and Dylan Blujus (a former second round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning) carried the bulk of the load for their team while Scott Walker was able to counter with fresh legs more often than not. Blujus is a promising young defenseman, showing the ability to consistently move the puck out of trouble quickly and effectively. That all being true, even promising players need a breather to stay fresh. Guelph dominating the shot clock in the third (13-8) was no accident. Not only were the Storm dominating in raw numbers, but in the quality of their chances as well. Detroit prospect Tyler Bertuzzi (Todd’s nephew, and a veritable apple from the tree) and Fabbri both failed to capitalize on grade-A chances in the first half of the period as the Storm sought an equalizer.
North Bay kept bending and bending, and at the 15:31 mark of the period, they finally broke. The dynamic line of Fabbri, Mitchell and Rychel had created a rash of chances in the dirty areas near the Battalion crease and the latter scored on a second chance cycling behind his teammate to pick up an open puck and fire it home. Above all else, Rychel has offensive awareness and strong hand-eye coordination which enable him to capitalize on chances from in tight.
Although they were now on equal terms for the first time in well over 30 minutes of play, the Storm did not abate and continued to rain shots down on the North Bay net. With 27 seconds to go, on a play remarkably like the one that ended with a puck in the net four minutes earlier, Kerby Rychel scored again, as the tired Battalion squad could not clear the puck from in front of their net and the unguarded future Blue Jacket was able to push the puck across the red line after coming in behind his digging linemates. Crushed, the Battalion were unable to counter in the remaining seconds of regulation. Fabbri, who had assists on each of the final three goals by his team, giving him 28 points in 16 playoff games (remember, he missed most of the first round), was named OHL Playoff MVP moments after the final buzzer sounded and the Sleeman Centre, packed to the brim and beyond, exploded with the type of ecstasy that is only found when fans united behind their hometown team, see that squad achieve the ultimate glory that team sports allow.
In winning the J. Ross Robertson Cup, the Guelph Storm have advanced the Memorial Cup, which begins in London, Ontario in one week’s time, and your author will be there along with today’s heroes, the host Knights, the WHL champion (currently being contested between the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Portland Winterhawks) and the QMJHL champs (one of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar or the Val d’Or Foreurs).