The Ontario Hockey League is all about development and improvement through the ups and downs that come with any given season.
For Guelph Storm veterans Isaac Ratcliffe, Nate Schnarr, and Cedric Ralph this takes on a special meaning having endured some tough times as rookies before persevering through four seasons to be in a position to contend for the Wayne Gretzky Trophy in the Western Conference Championship Series.
“It’s been an exciting four years,” says Ratcliffe, the Storm captain who has 245 games of regular season experience since being chosen by the club in the first round of the 2015 OHL Priority Selection. “I feel like we’ve literally seen it all. To go from the bottom to the top. From my first year, all the way to the Western Conference Final, we’ve had a long journey these past four years and it’s really exciting to see how far this organization has come and how loyal the fans have been to us the whole time.”
Ratcliffe, along with Schnarr, Ralph, and goaltender Anthony Popovich were all members of the 2015 draft class who joined the team just one year removed from the Storm’s 2014 championship season.
“It was definitely humbling in my first year not knowing what to expect,” Ratcliffe says. “I think we had 13 wins my first season coming into most nights expecting to lose. Now we come in most nights expecting to win and it’s changed my mindset so much and given me both sides. Now that we’re here we know how to react in those situations and are better prepared to pursue our goal of winning a championship.
“The ownership, management staff, they all believed is us the last few years that this was going to be our year and it’s exciting to see where this will take us.”
Ralph played just six games during the 2015-16 season before a full 2016-17 campaign that was equally challenging for the Storm who missed the post-season a second straight time.
“Going from a team that wasn’t in the playoffs early on, it’s pretty cool to see our progress and finally get here,” he says. “I think a lot of the early memories are the ups and downs. A lot of the downs we had were good learning lessons for a lot of the guys on the team knowing that we just had to work hard and our time was going to come.”
Down 2-0 following the opening two games of the series in Saginaw, Ralph helped turn the tide in the West Final with a first star performance in Game 3 scoring a goal and an assist in Monday’s 5-2 win.
“It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” Ralph says. “Those early years was the time when you learn how to lose and how to win. Since then we’ve had a few additions to our team and they’ve helped us build towards what we want to achieve. To gain their experience has really helped us stay calm and focused.”
Some of those additions include Owen Sound Attack stars like Nick Suzuki, Markus Phillips, and Sean Durzi, along with Hamilton Bulldogs champions MacKenzie Entwistle and Jack Hanley.
But through it all, it was Schnarr who led the way offensively during the regular season with 102 points in 65 games to cap an impressive OHL tenure of progress.
“As a young player my first year on a team that kind of struggled and then to be in the Western Conference Final and have a chance to win it like we do, it’s a special feeling and really exciting,” he says. “I look back and it starts with the draft and that’s such a special day for everyone and to go to a great organization like the Storm was absolutely amazing.
“A lot of credit goes to the coaches and management when I was younger and everyone that helped me get to where I am. I only played six games my first year and I had the chance to develop in junior B and get better. I’m thankful for the opportunity I have today. We’ve got work to do but obviously at the end of the day our goal is to win a championship.”
The Storm hope to take advantage of another sellout Sleeman Centre crowd on Wednesday and push one step closer to that championship goal where leadership will undoubtedly be counted on again to deliver.
“To be recognized as a leader in this organization, especially after what we’ve been through, is an honour,” Ratcliffe says. “There’s so much talent on this team and leaders from other teams that has made my job easier. To be able to lead these guys to hopefully another championship, I’m excited for the task.”