By Patrick King for the Canadian Hockey League
LONDON, Ont. – Chris Hajt saw just how far a homegrown team in Guelph could come to major junior hockey glory.
Hajt was a 19-year-old defencemen of the Storm in 1998. The group reached the MasterCard Memorial Cup final in Spokane, Wash. following the franchise’s first J. Ross Robertson Cup as Ontario Hockey League champions. The veterans from the team had finally reached the pinnacle after suffering some disappointing setbacks.
“We were 19-years-old, the core guys like Nick Bootland, Andrew Long, Brian Willsie, Jason Jackman,” Hajt said. “We had been on the team that lost (at the MasterCard Memorial Cup) in Peterborough three straight games two years previous. (In 1997) we had lost in the OHL semifinals in Game 7. We had had our disappointments in our runs where we’ve had some really great teams and that year we were able to find a way to be the top team in the OHL.
“It was pretty satisfying. And then we went on to the Memorial Cup and faced some adversity and were one goal away from winning it.”
But the Portland Winter Hawks got that goal the Storm were seeking, taking the MasterCard Memorial Cup in overtime in the final game.
Hajt knows the reaction well when people learn how the final moments unfolded for the 1998 Storm.
“It’s, ‘ah, so close. That must have been so hard, right?’” he relayed. “It was hard. It was disappointing. But with that group of guys, it’s a special moment in the same breath that you shared something together and still had the OHL championship. We were able to be champions in that way.”
Several players from that team now make their home in Guelph, where Hajt is a direct link to the franchise’s most successful season to date. Following his playing career, Hajt became an assistant coach and is now the assistant general manager in Guelph.
Having been here before as a player, Hajt recognizes that similar ingredients are spread throughout the lineup of the current Storm. A veteran team built around a core of 19-year-olds Matt Finn, Scott Kosmachuk, Brock McGinn with the additions of Kerby Rychel and Nick Ebert. The Storm are a homegrown team built largely through the draft, similar to the makeup of the ’98 team.
“The core of this team has been together for a few years and brought in other guys along the way that have been huge contributors to the team,” Hajt said. “A real close team. In ’98, we were no different than our group here.
The 2013-2014 Storm are trying to reach major junior hockey’s ultimate achievement. After winning the Storm’s third OHL championship two weeks ago, Guelph punched its ticket to the MasterCard Memorial Cup final on Sunday opening competition in London with a 2-0 record, then finished the round robin with a 7-2 win over the Knights to eliminate the host team.
They’re playing in the moment in London, unbeknownst to the fever pitch in their community. Their 52 wins are most in Storm history and the fandom they’ve created could etch this team in the memories of their beloved fans forever.
Hajt already sees how the members from the 1998 team are received by the loyal and passionate fans in Guelph. Bringing a national championship to a community is something its fans never forget.
“Those names get thrown around all the time when you’re in Windsor – (Taylor) Hall, (Ryan) Ellis, (Zack) Kassian,” said Ebert, whom the Storm acquired from the Spitfires in December. “They’re very special players and they had a very special group. It only comes around once in a while.”
This group of Storm players could do for Guelph what those Spitfires did for Windsor with MasterCard Memorial Cup championships in 2009 and 2010.
“If you look at the support from the city and throughout the playoffs, it was huge and I think it’s definitely something I’ll never forget,” Rychel added.
There’s but a fleeting moment of realization that this group is on the cusp of realizing similar glory. The players are trying to stay in a routine with time to reflect once the ride is over.
“They do understand what’s going on, but I think they’re a very focused team and very mature with leadership in the room,” Hajt said. “It’s a day-to-day thing; the old hockey adage you take every day as it comes.”
This homegrown version of the Storm is well-equipped to go that one step further than the 1998 team and cement its reputation in franchise lore.
“The perseverance of this team, the completeness of the team from the goaltending out,” Hajt said, “it’s definitely the best team (in Storm history).”