Even the greatest of teams start with the humblest of beginnings. The story of the Erie Otters begins with the lowest of lows.
Flashback to the 2011-12 season. The Otters were at rock bottom. With just 10 wins in 68 games that season, they clearly owned the league’s basement with no competition in sight. Things couldn’t have been any worse in Erie for their hockey club.
A Silver Lining
If there was a silver lining in all this, it’s that they hit rock bottom at the exact right time. A 15-year old prodigy was granted exceptional status by the OHL so he was eligible for the draft that spring. You may have heard of him. His name was Connor McDavid.
Of course the Otters made McDavid their top pick that spring. It was at that moment that the seeds were planted for what happened Friday night in Erie. Things were finally looking up, even if it would take some time to get there.
That following season, there was improvement. The Otters added nine wins to their total from 2011-12. Their 19 wins was the second-lowest total in 2012-13. That meant another high draft pick was coming to Erie. You may have heard of him. His name is Dylan Strome.
The pieces started falling in place. That 2012-13 season was the rookie seasons of McDavid, Kyle Pettit and Darren Raddysh. Pettit and Raddysh joined in the midst of the Otters’ bad days. So did a new coach. After Robbie Ftorek came someone you may have heard of. That was Kris Knoblauch.
Then the kids grew up, really fast.
The Beginning of the Rise
The 2013-14 season marked the beginning of fruitful hockey in Erie. Led by the likes of McDavid, Connor Brown and Dane Fox, the Otters won 52 games, a 33-win improvement. They went from second worst to second best, only to run into a buzz saw known as the Guelph Storm in the Western Conference Finals. Erie was gone in five games but knew the best was yet to come.
The Otters followed up their 52-win season with a 50-win season. It was good enough to win their division. However, they were underdogs to the mighty Sault St. Marie Greyhounds.
That didn’t stop the Otters from giving everything they had and taking it to the Greyhounds. Led by McDavid and company, the Otters upset the Greyhounds in six games to win the OHL’s Western Conference. Now just one hurdle remained between them and a championship.
It was not meant to be however. After devoting their energy to the Western Conference Final, the Otters couldn’t overcome the swarming defense of the Oshawa Generals. Once again, the Otters were ousted in five games. This marked the end of the McDavid era in Erie. Many started to wonder if a championship was ever in the cards for the Otters. You knew he wasn’t coming back as the NHL came calling. What would happen in the coming years?
Despite McDavid, the pieces were still there. That season, rookies Taylor Raddysh, Kyle Maksimovich, Patrick Fellows became major contributors. Then came the greatest surprise of all, an undrafted rookie by the name of Alex DeBrincat.
One More Chance?
It seemed the Otters had one more legitimate chance to do this thing. Strome was back after the Arizona Coyotes returned him to juniors. The line of DeBrincat-Strome-Raddysh was ready to dominate the OHL. In 2015-16, they did just that, finishing with 52 wins and 105 points. They owned home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Things started well for that team. The Otters won their first two rounds, setting up a clash with their archrivals the London Knights. Given how the regular season went, everyone expected this series to go the distance.
Matthew Tkachuk, Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak had other ideas though.
They steamrolled the Otters and everyone else in their path. The London Knights swept the Otters out of the playoffs thus dashing another 50-win season. If there were questions about a championship before, there were even more questions now. Surely a team in today’s OHL couldn’t accomplish a fourth-straight 50-win season, not with the likes of Strome and others not returning.
What happens next is why the story of the Erie Otters is incredible in ever sense of the word.
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) May 13, 2017
The Best Was Yet to Come
Let’s set the scene coming into 2016-17 for you. This team had many questions. Goaltender Devin Williams’ OHL career ended. The crease seemingly belonged to Jake Lawr. Travis Dermott was ready for the AHL. We thought Strome was destined for the Coyotes. Jake Marchment’s OHL career ended. We thought a regression was due.
Not if Otters GM Dave Brown had anything to say about it. As it turns out, Brown is one of many unsung heroes in this story. This is where things get really good for the Otters.
From top to bottom, from management to players, everyone had a part in what came next. Whether it was the things a player had to overcome, or the decisions management made, they all worked in perfect unison to make Friday, May 13, 2017 a night that will live forever in Erie hockey history. We will highlight the different stories to give you a sense of just how important it was in this championship.
GM Dave Brown
We’ll begin with GM Dave Brown. I mentioned above he was an unsung hero in this story. His decisiveness in making necessary moves is one of the main reasons the Otters are champions.
Goaltending was a consistent issue with the Otters late in the playoffs in earlier seasons. If the Otters even hoped to compete in the future, they needed an upgrade. Brown pulled the trigger on a move to bring Sudbury goaltender Troy Timpano to the fold. After Jake Lawr continued to struggle, Brown didn’t hesitate to bring a quality backup in. He acquired Joseph Murdaca from Mississauga for a 14th round pick in 2018. We’ll get into more detail about this tandem later on.
Brown reached a crossroads. Strome was back. The Otters had a shot at this thing. Brown made the final decision that brought this championship to fruition. He owed it to his veterans to give them a chance to reach their dream of a championship. For the first time in his tenure with the Otters, Brown declared all-in. He was willing to give up some future pieces for the chance to win. He made two moves that will forever cement Brown’s legacy.
He first brought eventual Finals MVP Warren Foegele on. This cost the Otters Brett Neumann and a third rounder. Not a bad price for that investment. Then Brown went even further, bringing in former Memorial Cup winner Anthony Cirelli on board. This cost the Otters six draft picks, two of which were conditional. Again, a very small price to pay when you consider Cirelli scored the OHL Championship winning goal.
Dave Brown did everything that a GM could do for his team. No wonder he is so respected in the league and in his locker room. He saw needs. He addressed them swiftly. He gave his team the necessary tools to win. Brown is the unsung hero of this team.
That is just the beginning of this story.
The captain of the Erie Otters endured many different kinds of battles in his Otters’ career. He immediately tasted playoff defeat when his career started. He enjoyed the honor of being selected third overall in the NHL draft. Maybe he wasn’t coming back to Erie.
Not only did it happen once, it happened twice. Questions came up about how he would handle these demotions. In each case, he handled them with the utmost professionalism, stating that he had never won a championship before. He had clear goals in mind.
Strome once again flourished in the regular season, helping the Otters hold off the Owen Sound Attack in the standings to earn the top seed. He continued to produce in the playoffs, even if it wasn’t always flashy. There was a time in the playoffs were Strome’s play clearly dropped off. Many wondered if he’d hit a wall.
Turns out he played through a lengthy illness. Once he got over that, his play returned to his normal levels. No matter what was going on around him, Strome kept things in proper perspective. He grew as a leader and will now be forever remembered as the captain of these Otters who won a championship.
I mean, what more can be said about this season’s Red Tilson award winner? Teams passed on him twice. Many said he couldn’t keep up. Others said he was too small. All that did was motivate him to score 50 goals in three-straight seasons, including 65 this season. He followed that up by leading the league in playoff scoring.
Many wondered where the Otters would get offense post-McDavid. DeBrincat ensured that goals were never hard to come by for this team. His consistent perseverance brought the Otters to a level that few thought they could reach.
Remember when many questioned Raddysh’s game? Oh he doesn’t try hard enough. He’s not giving it his all. Those couldn’t be more wrong. Raddysh used his time with Tampa after the draft to become a better professional. It clearly showed this season.
He finished 2016-17 second in scoring, only to his teammate DeBrincat. He improved in all areas of his game. He got rewarded with a spot on Team Canada at the World Juniors. Who saw that coming before it happened?
In the clinching game for the Otters, he scored a hat trick to force overtime, including a goal with under two minutes left with the goalie pulled. His clutch performance and constant improvement helped the Otters win this championship.
This is perhaps my favorite story of the year. He joined the Otters the season they won just 19 games. Things did not get off to a good start. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Raddysh endured many ups and downs throughout his Otters’ career. Those moments set him up for this season’s massive breakout. Not sure the Otters are here today without the season Raddysh just had.
He was both defenseman of the year and overager of the year. His play especially on the offensive end brought the Otters to new levels. He also grew professionally. You could tell he was a changed player this season. It’s no wonder many teams are looking to sign him to a contract after the Memorial Cup.
The defining moment for me was in Game 4 of the OHL Finals. Mississauga forward Michael McLeod delivered a wicked slash on Raddysh’s leg that caused the stick to break. Raddysh couldn’t put any weight on the leg. There were many questions about his future availability.
So what does he do? He comes back to the game and helps give a lift to his team to win a decisive Game 4. He didn’t miss a beat in Game 5. That’s called playing through pain and doing what it takes for your team. The Otters benefited from Raddysh. So will the NHL team that signs him.
Many Other Heroes
Every Otter played their part. Whether it was Kyle Pettit overcoming several injuries and playing a key defensive role in this season’s Otters team or Patrick Fellows doing the same thing and playing his role perfectly, no job was too small for this team.
Remember the London series? Goalie Troy Timpano let a few goals in. This forced coach Kris Knoblauch to put Joseph Murdaca in twice. Murdaca stonewalled the Knights which allowed the Otters to complete improbable comeback. Murdaca even started the Owen Sound series and played well. Then Timpano was given the net back. He responded in a way that helped give the Otters confidence no matter who was in net.
There was never any strife between Timpano and Murdaca. These former roommates are great friends and were happy for each other when they each got their chance. Their stability is a huge part of this championship.
The list keeps going. Ivan Lodnia played a defensive role in his draft season. Although his numbers suffered, it helped the team win. Gera Poddubnyi overcame visa issues and played a bigger role later in the playoffs. Christian Girhiny was willing to do the little things like drive the net to help his team find success.
TJ Fergus helped anchor the top defensive pair. It was never flashy, but it was usually effective. Jordan Sambrook found a new level of offensive to help spark the team at key moments. Erik Cernak became a reliable shutdown defender once he returned this season.
Mitch Byrne played the role he was asked to on the third pair, helping balance the pairs out. Owen Headrick gave the team mobility when he decided to join the Otters late in the season. They didn’t lose at first with him in the lineup.
Cam Lizotte was willing to play forward to help the team. Ryan Martin, Josh Wainman, Carson Edwardson, Cade Robinson and Hadyn Hopkins didn’t play in many games, but were certainly ready to step in if a need arose. That doesn’t get much attention, but it’s just as important because they accepted their role for the good of the team.
That’s the thing that will always be remembered with this Erie Otters’ team. Thanks to the leadership of Kris Knoblauch and his coaching staff, the players always did what was asked of them. They overcame several obstacles throughout the season. It all led to them getting the ultimate payoff.
Not Done Yet, and Never Forgotten
Although many wrote the Otters off before the season, this team believed in themselves and their abilities. They fought for everything they got. They did it the right way. And now they will live forever in Erie hockey history because everyone played their part.
And yet, this is just the beginning. The Memorial Cup awaits them. Their first game is Saturday May 20th in Windsor.
The 2016-17 Erie Otters. It started with drafting Connor McDavid. It ended with an Anthony Cirelli overtime goal. They are OHL champions. Nobody can ever take that away from them.
This team will never be forgotten. It helped bring a city fall back in love with their hockey team. There’s no greater story than that.