An Erie feel­ing

Pow­er­house OHL cham­pion Ot­ters look like the team to beat at Me­mo­rial Cup tour­na­ment

The Province - - SPORTS | HOCKEY - TERRY KOSHAN

WIND­SOR — Kris Knoblauch doesn’t want the Erie Ot­ters any­where near the WFCU Cen­tre on Fri­day.

The Ot­ters coach knows, how­ever, he can’t re­ally stop his play­ers from watch­ing the open­ing game of the 2017 Me­mo­rial Cup on tele­vi­sion at the team ho­tel.

In fact, Knoblauch was cer­tain his cap­tain, Dy­lan Strome, would be glued to the TV.

“I know with Dy­lan I won’t be able to keep him away from the TV be­cause he loves hockey and he wants to know ev­ery sin­gle player, he might even be watch­ing how they win face­offs and all those ten­den­cies,” Knoblauch said on Thurs­day.

“(Gen­er­ally) play­ers see small win­dows of the game and they try to make an im­pres­sion from it, and usu­ally it’s not a cor­rect one.”

The host Wind­sor Spit­fires and the Saint John Sea Dogs, the cham­pi­ons of the Que­bec Ma­jor Ju­nior Hockey League, open the 99th Cup on Fri­day night; on Satur­day af­ter­noon, the On­tario Hockey League cham­pion Ot­ters will meet the Seattle Thun­der­birds, champs in the Western Hockey League, in the sec­ond game of the tour­na­ment.

There’s no clear-cut favourite. At the same time, it would be fool­ish to as­sume the Spit­fires, who have not played since April 4, when they lost in Game 7 of the open­ing around of the OHL play­offs against the Lon­don Knights, will be easy fod­der. The Spits not only have the ben­e­fit of play­ing in their home arena, but boast a ros­ter lit­tered with NHL prospects, in­clud­ing for­wards Jeremy Bracco (Toronto), Lo­gan Brown (Ot­tawa) and Gra­ham Knott (Chicago) and de­fence­men Mikhail Ser­gachev (Mon­treal) and Lo­gan Stan­ley (Win­nipeg). Cen­tre Gabriel Vi­lardi is the high­est-ranked player in the tour­na­ment for the NHL draft in June and likely will be a top-10 se­lec­tion.

If you had to pick one team to be crowned champs on May 28, though, it would be hard to ar­gue with the Ot­ters.

They’ve be­come a bat­tle­hard­ened group dur­ing the past sev­eral sea­sons, with pre­vi­ous post-sea­son fail­ings washed away by fi­nally win­ning the J. Ross Robert­son Cup, beat­ing the Mis­sis­sauga Steel­heads.

That’s not enough for Strome and his team­mates.

“I watched my brother (Ryan) play four years in the OHL and he never got this op­por­tu­nity,” Strome said. “It’s ba­si­cally a on­cein-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity.

“We’re a lit­tle bit ner­vous, a lit­tle on edge, and I’m sure this build­ing is go­ing to be loud and buzzing. Be­ing at the Me­mo­rial Cup is some­thing you want to do as soon as you get to the OHL.”

Strome’s ap­proach upon be­ing re­turned to the Ot­ters by the Ari­zona Coy­otes last Novem­ber was to con­cen­trate on lead­ing the club to a cham­pi­onship; in the pre­vi­ous three reg­u­lar sea­sons, the Ot­ters had won at least 50 games, but there was no play­off prize at the end.

“Dy­lan was dis­ap­pointed (with be­ing cut by the Coy­otes), but why wouldn’t you want to be in the NHL?” Knoblauch said. “I think he was mo­ti­vated be­cause of two things. We had been so close to win­ning a cham­pi­onship, so that was some­thing that he was ea­ger to ac­com­plish. The other one was gold at the world ju­nior. He came up one goal short of ac­com­plish­ing that (when Canada lost to the United States in the gold-medal game), so hope­fully we can ac­com­plish the Me­mo­rial Cup.”

A strong group — headed by Strome, Alex DeBrin­cat, who scores goals (167 in 191 games in three sea­sons) as com­monly as some peo­ple take breaths, and Rad­dysh broth­ers Tay­lor and Dar­ren — was so­lid­i­fied when gen­eral man­ager Dave Brown ac­quired for­wards Anthony Cirelli and War­ren Foegele in Jan­uary.

Con­sider that those six play­ers scored 15 of the Ot­ters’ 16 game-win­ning goals in the play­offs.

There’s no say­ing with cer­tainty what would have be­come of the Ot­ters’ sea­son had Strome not been re­turned or if he had lugged around a sour at­ti­tude upon com­ing back. DeBrin­cat, dis­ap­pointed at not be­ing a part of the U.S. team at the world ju­nior, put that aside as well.

For his part, Strome will leave noth­ing to chance in what will be his fi­nal week in ju­nior hockey.

So ex­pect him to do some hockey home­work on Fri­day night, find­ing a comfy spot in the team’s ho­tel lounge to watch the Spit­fires and Sea Dogs do bat­tle.

“Guys have dif­fer­ent things they do the day be­fore the game,” Strome said. “I’m a guy who likes to watch hockey, and there’s go­ing to be an NHL game on too.

“We’ve been through a long play­off grind, but we’re look­ing for­ward to start­ing.”

AP

Ot­ters cap­tain Dy­lan Strome raises the J. Ross Robert­son Cup af­ter Erie beat Mis­sis­sauga in the OHL cham­pi­onship ear­lier this month.

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