Sports Hockey

Memorable, magical 0

IAN SHANTZ

We can fret, hum and hah about the playoffs later.

Today, let's celebrate a show of success that will go down in history as one of the most undeniable, undisputed, top-notch regular seasons a team has put forth in the history of the grand old Ontario Hockey League.

We're talking about the Barrie Colts, who ended the 68-game portion of the season on Saturday the same way they opened it, followed it up and followed it through: with a win.

Give the Colts 57 wins on the season, 116 points and the best points total the league has witnessed save for the London Knights and their stellar 59-win, 120-point campaign in 2004-05.

Indeed, 2009-10, while not over yet, has been a thing of beauty for the boys rocking the horseshoe; in many ways, it's been pure bliss.

From the moment they crushed Owen Sound by a touchdown and more on opening night, to the moment they doubled up Saginaw to clinch 11 straight wins, a franchise record, to the moment they doubled that with 22 wins -- the league's second-longest win streak -- to Saturday night, when the Colts raised their sticks in salute of the roaring fans at the Barrie Molson Centre on hand for the it's-not-over- yet-folks type of moment, this season has belonged to Barrie.

There have been hiccups, like when overage forward Matt Kennedy took a blow to the head in a well-documented incident in a game in Windsor, forcing him to the sidelines with a fifth concussion. Or when the same Kingston squad that lost 4-2 here Saturday rolled over Barrie by a 6-2 score back in January, the Colts' most lopsided of nine losses on the year.

Beyond a minor miscue here or there, however, the regular season played out perfectly, if not a bit unrealistically for the Colts.

Perhaps this Barrie season can best be compared to Colts forward Alex Hutchings flying down the ice for a short-handed goal, 11 times: it strikes you as out of this world.

It's a season you want to shove in a bottle and cover with an immovable cork.

"There is no bottle, otherwise there'd be a lot of teams doing it," said Barrie head coach Marty Williamson, in his sixth season as coach of the major junior hockey outfit.

Every player, coach and staffer in the room can share in this record-setting campaign.

"When they go out and work hard for you every night -- and there's nights when I'm giving them heck and they're not happy -- but they keep working for each other and for this organization ...," the coach said. "I think we're all very, very proud of what this team's done."

As country music blared from the dressing room following Saturday's win, the truth of the matter is that the players who helped make this regular season so memorable are excited for the big do-see-do that is the playoffs -- where winning matters most -- but equally so for the regular-season ride that had just come to a thrilling end.

"It's just an unbelievable feeling," heart-and-soul captain Stefan Della Rovere said. "I don't think anybody expected us to be breaking franchise records and to become the second-best team in the entire history of the OHL."

Knowing this would be their shot-at-it season, the Colts loaded up from the get-go, bolstered the lineup with the likes of Luke Pither and Bryan Cameron before acquiring workhorse defenceman T.J. Brodie and Nick Crawford, then Kennedy, all-world defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, goalie Mavric Parks and toughguy Zac Rinaldo.

Those moves surely tipped the balance. But stacked or not, opponents don't mail in wins and the Colts had to earn it.

"Having that target on our backs definitely made us a better team," said Kennedy, a Horseshoe Valley native who joined the team down the stretch after four seasons in Guelph. "There's not one team in the league that showed up and gave a half-hearted effort against us, so it's forced us to get better."

And with so many superstars swirling about, it forced each player to buy into the various systems, despite the significance of the role, in order to make it work.

"Everyone came out one game at a time and just had fun with it," said Della Rovere, a fourth-year Colt. "Whether it was just doing the grind work or putting the puck to the net, I think everyone filled their roles to perfection."

Whether it was overage forward Cameron setting a new franchise record with 53 goals on the year, Crawford winding up with a crazy plus-51 rating, Hutchings' 11 shorties -- two shy of an OHL record -- or unheralded Chris Wiggin providing a spark with a booming bodycheck, everyone played a part.

So, celebrate the regular season today.

After all, tomorrow's just around the corner. And the playoffs is always where the real fun begins.

"What we've done up until this point in the season is obviously a great accomplishment for us and we're really happy with what we've done," Kennedy said. "But starting (Thursday), it doesn't matter what we've done so far. It's a new season."

For those keeping track, the Colts, who'll enter the postseason ranked first in the Canadian Hockey League, are in good company.

That 2004-05 Knights team won the Memorial Cup, as did last year's regular-season champion Windsor Spitfires, who finished with 115 points.

ishantz@thebarrieexaminer.com


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