It’s been lurking in the shadows all season. Now it’s time to step into the glare of the spotlight.
The fact Fort Frances is hosting the OFSAA ‘A/AA’ boys’ hockey championship beginning Tuesday and running through Thursday has been comparable to waiting for Christmas morning to arrive for the Muskies.
Head coach Jordan Sinclair insisted the defending provincial champs had to do all they could to put thoughts of the glory days to come out of their heads until they earned their 10th-straight NorWOSSA crown with a 4-1 win over the St. Thomas Aquinas Saints in Game 2 of the best-of-three final last Tuesday in Kenora.
“Obviously, it’s very exciting that we’re hosting this year,” said Sinclair, whose team was awarded the top seed for the 16-team tournament after posting a 14-1 regular-season record and then a 4-0 mark in the playoffs (part of an overall record of 36-10 this season).
“It’s in the back of your mind the entire year and you try hard to keep it there,” he noted.
“But once in a while, it makes its way to the front.”
Sinclair is elated his players get the chance to vie for a provincial championship in front of what will be the “Madhouse in the Memorial,” with expected sell-out crowds of more than 1,100 people on hand for the Muskies’ preliminary-round and–hopefully–medal-round games at the Ice For Kids Arena.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the players will remember for the rest of their lives,” he remarked.
“The most important thing for them to remember is to enjoy the moment,” Sinclair stressed.
“Are we prepared? We had a few games against International Falls this season that had good-sized crowds, so that helps.
“Can you really prepare yourself? Not really,” he added. “It’s like trying to prepare for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
“The atmosphere is different,” he noted. “The kids will have energy and adrenalin going through them and it’s going to feel like everyone in that crowd is on your team.
“I remember ‘Keno’ [assistant coach Ken Christiansen] talking to guys from teams that came here the last time it was held in Fort Frances , and they were telling him they couldn’t believe the crowds and that it was like the Muskies were already starting the game up 2-0.”
Fort High already had a free pass into OFSAA as the host squad–not that anyone wearing black-and-gold was interested in using it.
“It was so important to go in as champion and not going in having missed winning the title,” said Muskie veteran forward Chase McGuire after putting on a shooting clinic in Game 2 against the Saints with a hat trick of almost identical 15-foot wrist shots all before the end of the second period.
“You want the team to be reaching its climax going into OFSAA and be ready to put its best foot forward,” he reasoned.
“I wasn’t any more locked in than usual,” noted McGuire, who beat Saints’ goalie Brandon Scott at 1:16 of the first period, then sandwiched goals at 4:57 and 19:24 of the second around Cam Gushulak’s bullet off a feed from his cousin, James Gushulak, at 9:08.
“[Scott] left the same hole every time,” he remarked. “I would slide over and he would open a hole over his shoulder.
“I had to go to the bench after the third one and go talk to ‘Keno’ because he’s the one that told me where to put it.”
Muskie goalie Matt Booth almost had his second-straight shutout against the Saints save for Matthew Prouty’s marker at 13:50 of the third.
“It feels pretty good to win back-to-back,” said Booth, the winning goalie for the second-straight year in a clinching game in Kenora, also doing so last season in closing out the Broncos.
“We’re going into OFSAA the right way,” he stressed. “We wanted to show we weren’t just the host but we deserved to be there.”
The Muskies will have a strong core of 10 players who tasted championship success last year back to help defend the title.
But rookie forward Brett Kenny was clear the newer guys are ready to do their part to make it happen.
“We’ve come a long way from the beginning of the season,” noted Kenny, whose line including Mikel Ward and Kaden Nelson earned ever-increasing minutes as the year progressed.
“We’re going to be going in as defending champs and the rest of the teams coming will be looking at us as the big guys,” he noted.
“Now we have to keep going and win it all.”
Two of those teams will be very familiar to the Muskies.
The Saints are seeded ninth as the NorWOSSA representative–earning that designation due to facing the already-qualified Muskies in the final.
The other will be the Dryden Eagles, who topped the visiting Sioux Lookout Warriors 7-6 in a one-game playoff Sunday to fill out the field as the 16th seed.
Such a showdown became necessary after the Eastern Ontario Secondary School Athletic Association champion La Salle Black Knights (Kingston) and the runner-up St. Joseph’s Jaguars (Renfrew) both declined their invitations–despite previous warnings from OFSAA officials to teams across Ontario not to do so.
This comes only two years after the Muskies travelled to the exact same area when EOSSAA hosted the tournament.
“It’s insulting to us but it also doesn’t make any sense,” said Sinclair.
“If you’re a competitor, this is what you play for,” he reasoned.
“My personal wish is that [OFSAA] would do something about it,” Sinclair added. “Maybe tell them for the next one, two, three, four years, they don’t get to qualify for OFSAA.
“We go every year and usually that’s anywhere from 15-25 hours away, and having it here, it’s the best OFSAA experience there is and it’s not even close,” he noted.
“It is what it is,” Sinclair conceded. “But if there were serious consequences, the teams would show up.”
The Muskies, who will play all their preliminary games at the Ice For Kids Arena, find themselves grouped in Pool ‘A’ with two complete strangers and one established adversary.
Fort High opens play Tuesday at 11:15 a.m. against the 14th-ranked O’Gorman Knights (Timmins), then faces the 12th-seeded Immaculata Saints (Ottawa) at 7:30 p.m. after opening ceremonies at 7:15.
“I have no idea about those teams,” Sinclair admitted.
The seventh-ranked Holy Cross Crusaders (St. Catharines) will be the Muskies’ final preliminary-round challenger on Wednesday at 9:15 a.m.
“[The Crusaders] are at the all-Ontarios more often than not, so I expect them to be a very good test,” said Sinclair, who was clear he wasn’t lending much credence to his team’s lofty ranking or the seeds handed to anyone else.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t mean a thing,” he remarked.
“You’ll find some teams have records containing 60 games and some that have just eight games,” he noted.
“There’s a real imbalance there.
“It’ll be nice for the guys to tell their kids and grandkids 50 years from now that they were ranked No. 1,” Sinclair said.
“The older you get, the better you were.”
Sinclair is confident he’ll have a fully available roster for the first game–even with Ward and veteran forward Kendyn Faragher suffering injuries in last Tuesday’s NorWOSSA clincher.
Faragher was hurt on his second shift of the game when he tried to go past his defender, who slammed his shoulder into the boards and left him wearing a sling after the game.
“It’s just right on the end,” said Faragher, pointing to the affected area.
“I’ll be playing.”
Ward, meanwhile, sustained a hard hit in the final minute of the game that also left him with a wounded arm.
“For Kendyn, it looks good–it’s not a tear or a separation, although he will probably need a week off,” Sinclair said.
“If he really needed to, he probably could have finished the game, but by playing with it, it could have become worse.
“Mikel got banged up at the end of the game and has some soreness and won’t take any contact for a week,” added Sinclair.
“But he should be all right, too.”
The rest of the top five seeds include last year’s top-ranked team in the Holy Trinity Titans (Courtice) at No. 2, followed by the St. Mary’s Crusaders (Hamilton), the Belle River Nobles (Belle River), and the Campbellford Flames (Campbellford).