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Rekindling a playoff matchup that has some history
2024-03-31

As OHL post-season play kicked off Thursday night and my mind harkened back to playoff series of years gone by, I was reminded just how convoluted the lineage of some junior hockey franchises might be.

Perhaps not so much for the Sudbury Wolves, who kicked off play in what was then Ontario Major Junior Hockey League for the 1972-1973 campaign and have remained in place now for more than fifty years – though the shift has been made from the former green and white jerseys and the Cooperalls are no more – mercifully.

Still, it’s easy to forget that the Wolves franchise was actually the former Niagara Falls Flyers group purchased by local businessman Bud Burke from legendary hockey man Leighton “Hap” Emms.

On the other hand, and as has been the case in outposts ranging from Brantford to Hamilton, from Guelph to North Bay, the Mississauga region has been host to a couple of different incarnations of OHL teams, even as the franchise now prepares for a move to Brampton in September.

The current Mississauga Steelheads owe their existence to the return to Ontario junior hockey of the iconic brand that was the St Michael’s Majors, welcomed back to the OHL as a new franchise in time for the 1997-1998 season after an absence of more than 35 years.

Such as been the stability in the OHL that when the Brampton Battalion and Mississauga Ice Dogs were added to the fold the following year, bringing the league to a total of twenty teams, that number would remain intact right through to the current campaign.

That said, teams have moved and monikers were rebranded, both of which are part of the story when it comes to the first round playoff battle now before us – with plenty of interesting anecdotes along the way.

The current Sudbury – Mississauga matchup marks the fifth time these franchises have met in post-season play, with the southerners coming out on top on three of the four previous occasions.

Many a Wolves fan still recalls the collapse in the spring of 2001.

After finishing in second place in the Eastern Conference, just one point back of the Belleville Bulls, the Bert Templeton-led Wolves dispatched the Barrie Colts in five games and were on the verge of a conference final, up three games to one on the Toronto St Michael’s Majors following a 9-2 win on the road that featured a four-goal effort from Fedor Fedorov.

But with coach Dave Cameron cutting his teeth behind the bench of the Majors, the GTA squad reeled off victories of 4-2, 3-1 and 3-1 – despite being badly outshot in each and every one of those three encounters, to overcome a Wolves team that had been pieced together for a lengthy playoff run.

Much had changed three years later as the teams met again.

The 2003-2004 season marked the debut of a seven year run for one-time team star Mike Foligno as head coach of the Wolves, his team advancing to the playoffs on six different occasions. But with the Wolves securing the eighth and final playoff spot with 61 points in his rookie year and the Majors topping the conference with 85, not much was expected of the Pack that March.

Following a 2-0 loss on the road, the gritty Sudbury lads served notice they would be no playoff pushovers, recording a 2-0 win of their own as Rafal Martynowski and Bobby Chaumont found the back of the net while Patrick Ehelechner turned aside 31 shots for the shutout.

Even after dropping the next two contests by scores of 3-1 and 2-1, the Wolves were down but not out – given an injection of life and energy when Zack Stortini scored in double overtime to lift the visitors to a 4-3 win – only after Chaumont forced OT with his tally with 47 seconds to play.

Though the emotional surge helped lift Sudbury to a 4-0 win in game six, talent would eventually prevail as St Michael’s capitalized on their home ice advantage, posting a 5-2 triumph in game seven in a clash that featured a rare goaltender goal from Justin Peters.

The 2011 chapter of this post-season rivalry would again feature an upset on the part of the Nickel City squad – albeit not against the now Mississauga St Michael’s Majors. With Trent Cull in year one of his time at the helm of the Sudbury entry, the team that had undergone plenty of roster shuffling – most notably the John McFarland for Michael Sgarbossa trade gem – finishing in 7th (62), well back of the top duo of Mississauga (108) and Ottawa (93).

Yet it was this spirited crew that toppled the 67’s in four straight, including a pair of overtime wins (Andrey Kuchin and Mike Lomas with the GWGs), but were unable to maintain that high in round two, summarily dismissed by the Majors in four straight.

Finally, in a series that likely does not qualify as particularly nostalgic, the Wolves would find themselves somewhat flipping the script from 2011 in 2019. With Cory Stillman in his sophomore season as the man guiding the ship and Quinton Byfield averaging nearly a point a game in his rookie OHL campaign, Sudbury surged to fourth place with 91 points.

But in what might be an all-time record, the Mississauga Steelheads slid into fifth place – albeit an astounding 20 points back of the Wolves. That gap was apparent as Sudbury took down their divisional rivals in straight games by scores of 5-2, 3-2 (OT), 5-3 and 3-1.

Nolan Hutcheson emerged in game one, netting a hat trick while Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen turned aside 29 of the 31 shots that he faced. Game two would see David Levin net his second goal of the game 6:38 into period four to extend the series lead to 2-0 and seemingly take the wind from the sails of the Steelheads.

Byfield scored twice in game three, four different players lit the lamp in game four, but when all was said and done, the Wolves were no match for the Ottawa 67’s in round two, beaten in four straight – albeit with a game four classic that required more than 110 minutes of hockey before Tye Felhaber broke the hearts of the Sudbury faithful in the third overtime session.

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