One of the most difficult experiences in sports is the aftermath of a championship game.
That stark contrast that was on display in the aftermath of the 99th Mastercard Memorial Cup championship game when the Windsor Spitfires defeated the Erie Otters 4-3 at WFCU Centre on Sunday night illustrated that fact.
While the home team celebrated on the ice with their family and friends, a handful of broken-hearted Otters players took questions from the media.
“You have to give Windsor credit, they played great,” Strome, ruing the narrow loss coming as it did for him in the same season he was also part of Team Canada who lost the gold medal at the World Junior in a shootout. “…but (I feel) like we’ll be champions with (our team) and I will never forget that.”
For other Otter players, they will someday soon hold their heads high, comforted by the fact that they had four consecutive 50-win seasons under head coach Kris Knoblauch and emerged as OHL champions in the final year of that string.
But on Sunday the pain was simply too fresh.
“It just wasn’t enough,” said Canadian Hockey League player of the year Alex DeBrincat, his head bowed. “It’s disappointing we didn’t win but it’s still a great season for us. It’s just really tough to swallow right now.”
Strome took little consolation from winning the Stafford Smythe Trophy as MVP. In a telling and classy gesture, he said Windsor goalie Mikey DiPietro, was more deserving of the honour.
“It could have went to any number of guys,” he said. “It could have gone to their goalie, he was unbelievable all tournament…but everyone wants that big cup and we got one (the Robertson Cup) and I’m really proud of our guys in the room, we battled hard and it could have gone to six or seven guys on our team too.”
Another sub-theme to the Otters season was the Raddysh brothers, Taylor and Darren. Both emerged as legitimate elite players this season in two vastly different manners.
Taylor Raddysh was a dominant offensive player who may well have been the second-best player in the OHL this season behind DeBrincat. The younger sibling had 109 points despite being away for more than a month at the World Junior, where he was one of Team Canada’s best players in a silver-winning effort.
But Darren Raddysh’s rise may have been even more dramatic. He won both OHL awards for top defenceman and overage player and is expected to sign an NHL contract as a much sought after free agent.
“When I first came here, I think we won 19 games,” he said. “Now we almost reeled off 19 wins in a month and eventually won an OHL championship. To see the progression, it’s cool.”
The connection between the two siblings was evident after Sunday’s loss, when Darren tried to put it in perspective the journey with his younger brother.
“He’s my best friend and to be able to go through this with him was just really cool,” said Darren Raddysh.
Darren Raddysh said it was difficult to explain or understand how his team played a very effective game and yet still came out on the short end.
“I’m not too sure,” he said on what could have been the difference. “I thought we dominated the game. We had a lot more shots than they did. It just comes down to bounces, I guess. If that last (hit post with a little more than a minute left) goes in, it’s 4-4 and we’re going to overtime. It’s the way hockey goes and we have to live with that.”
The legacy this group of Otters players leaves behind is considerable. The much talked-about four 50-win campaigns, two OHL final appearances and one Robertson Cup speak for themselves. When the dust settles, as many as a half-dozen Otters are expected to one day suit up in the NHL.
It’s also telling that this team became a better squad after Connor McDavid and his generational impact graduated to the NHL two years ago.
Talk of bright futures, simply couldn’t assuage the pain of losing on Sunday.
“I don’t really know,” said Strome, the strain evident on his face when he was asked if he took solace that his team was still OHL champions, even if they lost the national championship final.
“I love these guys like brothers and it just really hurts right now.”