Here we are again, our final destination of the OHL season. The J. Ross Robertson Cup is polished and ready to be hoisted for an 86th time, either by the Guelph Storm or the Ottawa 67’s. Neither organization is a stranger to this stage, with the Storm claiming three OHL titles, their first coming in 1998, and the Ottawa 67’s also collecting a trio, their first in 1977. This won’t even be the first time we’ve seen these two OHL teams square off in the final.
The year was 1998, and the OHL final was truly a matchup of the two best teams in the league. Guelph finished with an OHL-best 90 points, a record of 42-18-6, tops in the Central Division. Ottawa was close behind with 89 points after a 40-17-9 season which saw them win the East Division. Between the two teams in the postseason, they went a combined 16-1 before meeting in the final with the only loss coming to Ottawa at the hands of Owen Sound after a 5-4 decision in game one of the quarters.
As you would expect, both teams were led by an impressive cast of players. The Storm had Brian Willsie and his team-best 45 goals from the regular season ported over into 10 goals for the playoffs, second most in the league. Joining him was future New York Rangers first round pick Manny Malhotra, captains Jason Jackman and Chris Hajt, eventual Kalamazoo Wings legend Nick Bootland, and sophomore goaltender Chris Madden among others. On Ottawa’s side, their balanced offensive charge was paced by a 34 goal season from Mark Bell. He was complimented by crafty forwards Troy Stonier and Daniel Tessier, with two future NHL defenders in Brian Campbell and Nick Boynton on the back-end in addition to an impressive 64 point season from veteran defender Sean Blanchard.
For as much talent as there was on each side, the 1998 OHL final was a series that lasted just five games. After Guelph took a 2-0 series lead to make it 10 straight wins in the playoffs, Ottawa dismantled them 8-1 in game three. But the Storm bounced back to win game four 2-1 before closing out the series in five after a 4-3 victory with a late third period championship-winner from Willsie. Guelph would go on to lose in the Memorial Cup by a 4-3 final to Portland in overtime.
Zoom ahead 21 years later, and although so much has changed with both organizations, there’s still a few similarities. The first being George Burnett, the only man to have a front row seat behind the bench for both series. Burnett had a short and sweet stop with Guelph in ’98 after spending five seasons coaching professionally in the NHL/AHL. After Guelph’s Memorial Cup final run, Burnett was quickly summoned back to the NHL where he spent two more seasons as an assistant with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Roughly two decades later, Burnett came back to join Guelph as their head coach and general manager for 2017-18. Over his last two seasons, Burnett has helped turned Guelph into a championship contender from a bottom-half OHL franchise.
But the turnaround didn’t come without it’s bumps in the road and a massive overhaul. After finishing seventh in the West in 2018, the Storm were expected to finally be a contending team again this year with a developing core including Dmitri Samorukov, Ryan Merkley, Isaac Ratcliffe, and Cam Hillis. But by early December, the Storm were just an average team. After an early five game win-streak got Guelph off on the right foot, they descended into a stretch of mediocre and inconsistent hockey. Between October 13th and December 13th, the Storm went 8-9-6 with just one two game win-streak to their credit. Then on December 14th, Guelph made their first trade in a number of league-altering deals that saw San Jose Sharks first round pick Ryan Merkley get sent to the Peterborough Petes for Pavel Gogolev and five draft picks. Then just days later in a more minor move, the Storm cast away the second overall pick from the 2017 OHL Priority Selection in Tag Bertuzzi to Hamilton for a trio of picks.
After sitting for a couple weeks after trading away one of their top defencemen, Guelph started to reload heavily leading up to the deadline. The Storm brought in MacKenzie Entwistle from Hamilton, Fedor Gordeev from Flint, and most notably Sean Durzi, Zachary Roberts, Nick Suzuki, and Markus Phillips in two separate deals with the Owen Sound Attack. All together, Guelph brought in six players between January 5th and 9th while sending away three of their own and dumping a whopping 19 drafts picks.
With a heavy haul at the deadline, Guelph went 21-7-2 from January 10th until the end of the season. They lost no more than two games in a row, which happened only once in that timeframe.
Another similarity to the ’98 OHL final is that one team has a perfect postseason record on the line. However, this time it’s the Ottawa 67’s who come in with an immaculate 12-0 run. Much like Guelph, everything for Ottawa started back in 2017-18 when head coach Andre Tourigny and general manager James Boyd entered the equation. Ottawa finished 8th in the East and were quickly eliminated in five by Hamilton in the first round, but there was legitimate belief that Ottawa would be prepared for a run in 2018-19. Clearly that belief came to fruition, but it wouldn’t look the same had it not been for two breakout seasons from Austen Keating and Tye Felhaber. After a decent 52 point season, Keating increased his output by 37 points while Felhaber saw a 39 point increase for an overage season in which he hit the 50 goal mark in just his 47th game.
Unlike Guelph, the Ottawa 67’s can’t say they’ve powered through a stretch of mediocre hockey. They finished the year with 50 wins and 106 points, a new franchise record, losing no more than two games straight. Remarkably, the 67’s still had one of the youngest rosters in the league when it came to average age in December, largely in part due to Felhaber being the lone overage player at the time. The 67’s made just two moves involving players around the deadline, but it made them a noticeably more experienced group. Noted winner Kyle Maksimovich was brought in from Erie for Austen Swankler and four draft picks, while another overage player in Lucas Chiodo was acquired from Barrie in exchange for the rights to Shaw Boomhower and another two draft picks. Both these trades addressed a need for Ottawa to improve their surprisingly average special teams. Ottawa’s power play finished 8th among OHL teams in the regular season at 23% but has since shot up to 39% in the playoffs, while their penalty kill has seen a more modest increase from 77% to 80% in the postseason.
Ottawa’s biggest move came well before the deadline. December 4th, 2018 was a key date in Windsor Spitfires history as they completed a long-rumoured trade of their star netminder Michael DiPietro to the 67’s. DiPietro was one of six full-time OHL goalies traded this season, but commanded the most in return by far. Ottawa gave up seven draft picks, five of which were second rounders, and the rights to Egor Afanasyev to bring in the OHL’s all-time shutout leader. The trade began a string of events that snowballed into a wild stretch for DiPietro that saw him start for Team Canada at the World Juniors, get called up to the NHL, and finally win his first OHL playoff series with a brand new organization. Ottawa still has one of the OHL’s winningest goalies in Cedrick Andree, but there’s no doubt who they’re turning to now that the final has arrived.
One thing Ottawa didn’t do all year was make any changes whatsoever to their blueline. After trading away Peter Stratis the year prior, dealing Carter Robertson to Owen Sound in September, and welcoming 2018 third round pick Alec Belanger to the team, the 67’s changed absolutely nothing to their d-corps. Ottawa was the only team in the OHL that didn’t acquire, trade, or cut a defenceman from their roster after September.
The OHL season often becomes a chess match between general managers. As it wears on, changes are made, both minor and major, to set teams up for long-term or short-term success. The result is a wide ranging number of paths to get to the same point. That’s what we’ve got here, two teams from two conferences who have taken nearly opposite routes to get to the OHL final. One team overhauled the roster after a dry stretch to throw everything at a winning season and came back from dead to rights twice in the playoffs. The other looks astoundingly close to the team they started with while adding experience and goaltending en route to a dominant season and historically successful playoff run to this point.
But this is junior hockey, and anything can happen. Maybe history repeats itself from 1998. Maybe a perfect postseason run is possible. Maybe we’re in for something we’ve never seen before.