For the second time in their 30 year history, the Napanee Raiders are Ontario Hockey Association Clarence Schmalz Cup champions.
As an added cherry on top, the Raiders were able to do it on home ice, closing out the Grimsby Peach Kings 3-1 in Tuesday’s Game 5 at the Strathcona Paper Centre.
Players marked the occasion by skating laps around their home ice as Queen’s We Are The Champions blared through the SPC’s speakers.
“It doesn’t really get much better than this,” said Raiders assistant captain and Napanee native Ryan Casselman. This marked the second junior championship in his career, having won the RBC Cup in 2017 as a member of the Junior A Cobourg Cougars. “Cobourg was definitely fun winning it, but doing it in your hometown, nothing beats it. Especially to go out on top, this was my last junior game, you can’t really ask for more than this.”
Their backs against the wall in the must-win game, the Peach Kings came out strong, dominating the time on attack for much of the first half of the opening period. Nicholas Nabuurs was strong in net, shutting down Grimsby’s offense while his Raider teammates found their legs. Napanee finished strong in the first, outshooting the Peach Kings 13-8, though neither side was able to find the back of the net.
The Raiders’ offense was in full swing by the second, but still couldn’t solve Grimsby goalie Riley Maskell, who stymied Napanee’s snipers with quick footwork, stacking the pads to cut off the corners.
Napanee’s Reid Humphrey broke the shutout just shy of the midway point of the second, scoring a power-play goal, much to the delight of the majority of over 1,000 people in attendance. Austin Labelle picked up the assist.
His goal seemed to settle the nerves a bit as Greg Powles potted another for Napanee just over three minutes later. Liam Mroueh was credited with the assist.
Napanee’s 2-0 advantage held into the final intermission but the Peach Kings weren’t willing to go quietly. Brady Cranwell roofed a shot in the top corner just 2:46 minutes into the third to set up a tense finish. Evan Brown earned the assist.
The Peach Kings came close to tying the game late in the third on a wrist shot deep within Raider territory. The puck took an odd bounce right in front of the net but quick reactions from Nabuurs allowed him to flash his glove and catch it.
“I kept my eye on it the whole time and lucky enough it just went in my glove,” said Nabuurs.
“When we came out in the third we wanted to keep the lead at all costs,” said Nabuurs. “The first goal was a tough one, they made a really nice play on it. After that we didn’t know how many more opportunities we were going to get so we just had to bare down and do every single thing to keep it out of the net.”
Napanee’s defense, such a huge component of their 20-1 playoff run, settled in and held the Peach Kings to just six shots over the final 20 minutes. Desperate for the tying goal, Grimsby went with the extra attack and continued to pressure in Raider territory before Napanee’s Evan Foley broke free and skated the entire length of the ice to tap in the empty-net goal. Nerves almost got the best of him however as he momentarily botched the empty net shot, fanning on his first attempt before recovering just in time to tuck it over the line.
“I was panicking,” said Foley. “I flubbed it a little bit, but once it goes in then there’s no better feeling.”
Foley, along with assistant coach Mat Goody, was among a quartet of former Port Hope Panther players who played in various seasons from 2015-17, each time losing in the Schmalz Cup finals.
“It’s been too long,” said Foley. “When me, Harry (Cam Harris), and (Dayton) Kent, Powles came over we knew this would be a contending team. Now that we’ve actually done it, it’s pretty surreal.”
Much of the rest of the core of this Raider team was with the club last year, when they saw their record setting season cut short by a shocking Game 7 defeat in the Tod Division semifinals.
“It was definitely disappointing for sure,” recalled Casselman, who finishes the 2019 playoffs with 18 goals and 12 assists in 21 games. “I think we really realized what it takes to win, even though we only went one round. We stuck with it. We lost Game 2 (of the Schmalz Cup this year) but we were patient, never got too high, never too low. Our memo was we haven’t won anything yet, you’ve got to battle every game.”
That persistence paid off, as the players re-wrote the story and etched their name into franchise history.