It's been quite the post-season for local OHLers playing out of town.
A product of the Sudbury Minor Hockey Association (SMHA) and former member of the Rayside-Balfour Canadians, Hamilton Bulldogs forward Giordano Biondi is in the midst of experiencing the thrill that is the Memorial Cup tournament.
Former teammate and current Kitchener Rangers' sharp-shooter Mitchell Martin was a big reason why the seventh seeded team in the Western Conference were able to take down the vaunted London Knights in the first round of the OHL playoffs and give the Windsor Spitfires all they could handle.
Meanwhile, across the border, the Flint Firebirds had not so much as won a single round in the playoffs in their first five years in the league - a stretch of time that predated the arrival of local product Zacharie Giroux and a host of others.
Finishing fifth in regular season team scoring (60GP - 14G - 34A) and adding another 11 points in 19 post-season encounters for the team that finished with the second most points in the West, Giroux is now part of a group that simply cannot wait for the 2022-2023 OHL season to begin.
"We knew that we wanted to break the streak - and we knew that we had the team to do it," said Giroux, now 19 years old and coming off his first full season in the league, a victim of the Covid induced break in 2020-2021.
"It was just a matter of everyone doing everything that we can to get the result that we wanted - and that was to get the win at the end."
For as much as Giroux joined the likes of Brennan Othmann (97 pts), Amadeus Lombardi (59), Riley Piercey (58) and Gavin Hayes (49) in a year in which the Birds were but six points back of the Spits, Flint was not necessarily built with a 2021-2022 championship run in mind.
"We had a really young team this year, with just one player who had ever played in an OHL playoff game," noted Giroux. "For sure, it was a learning experience for us. Going into next year, we know what the playoffs are like and just how much of a grind that it is."
"That should help us next year."
As has been noted at various levels of hockey these past few months, the formula for success at this time of year is hardly a new one. "We focused on finishing our checks and making sure that we were getting pucks out," said Giroux.
"When you finish checks in a seven game series, the opponents will get tired and banged up, that's for sure. That was kind of our mindset, doing all of the little things. We have a high offense team so as soon as we play good defense, we knew that we would get our chances offensively."
On a personal level, the takeaways for the younger brother of Minnesota Wild prospect Damien Giroux were immense. "I was able to build my confidence up," said Zacharie. "Going that deep in my first year in the OHL is definitely something special."
"And being able to contribute on and off the ice, whatever role the coach would put me in, just doing everything I could for the team, that was special."
"In the playoffs, you're just doing whatever you can to help, to be honest," added Giroux, a third round pick of the Firebirds in 2019. "Whether that be shutting down a first line or being on that first line, trying to score goals."
"You try and do the best that you can on the ice and hopefully it changes the game."
While the year-end memories were special, so that was a game-winning short-handed goal versus the Erie Otters back on October 14th that cracked the TSN Highlights of the Night.
The simple truth is that there was a lot of growth, both on and off the ice, for Zacharie Giroux this year.
"There were so many things that I needed to do, to learn," he said. "Knowing how to recover your body, the importance of stretching, something I didn't do when I was young; or going into the cold tub or on the bike to flush your legs after a game."
They are lessons to be carried with him as the Firebirds enter the fall as legitimate Western Conference contenders.
"I hope to bring more to the table, whether that is scoring points, being a leader - I definitely want to capitalize on more of my chances - and be sure to let the new guys how tough it is to win a championship."
Thankfully, Giroux and company will share that knowledge now armed with the experience of understanding exactly what it takes to win a series or two at the toughest time of the year.