March 31, 2014
When there was still a possibility of a Kingston Frontenacs-Sudbury Wolves playoff series, the joke went that the loser would reign supine as the Ontario Hockey League's most star-crossed, endlessly snake-eyes-rolling franchise.
So if you like narrative over analytics — understandable since the latter is hard, and who likes being reminded that math is a thing — the fortunes of the two Eastern Conference franchises over the last 72 hours have been savoury. The Wolves completed a slide from loading up the deadline by being sent packing in five games by the Barrie Colts, leaving a bleak outlook for next season in its wake. (Or put another way: Buffalo Sabres prospect Nick Baptiste is bound to be the most sought-after player on the trade market a year while everyone has a case of post-Memorial Cup year buyer's remorse.)
The Frontenacs, having missed on three consecutive chances to close out the Peterborough Petes and win their first playoff series of the 21st century, are giving the Wolves a run, in a matter of speaking. At least the Fronts still have Game 7 on home ice against Peterborough on Tuesday and one last chance to avoid an early spring.
It's never fair to any team's current players to shackle a team's historical record to them, whether it's the stone of the shame or the stone or triumph. The job of playing major hockey is hard enough as it is and a player's tenure last no more than five years. But it plays largely in the minds of the people who vote with their feet to have an OHL team in their city.
It's just odd the two would end up in similar springtime predicaments. Owner Mark Burgess' Wolves felt emboldened to load up on veteran players after a winning streak in December. That was the only month it finished above .500 under first-year head coach Paul Fixter.
From Bruce Heidman (@bheidmanSS):
The Wolves traded five second-round picks, talented 17-year-old rookie defenceman Stefan LeBlanc and useful import Dominik Kubalik for Carrick and Faksa. Carrick never seemed to fit in, and Faksa, despite his pedigree, wasn't the impact player the Wolves thought they got. Despite gobs of ice time, he scored but five times in 29 games in Sudbury, not even close to the 16 he posted in 30 games for the Kitchener Rangers prior to his arrival.
It will be interesting to see what happens from here over on Elgin St. Though there is plenty of blame to go around — the second-half collapse is as ugly as it gets in elite sport — it's hard to say if there will be a fall guy. President and general manager Blaine Smith is as loyal an employee as exists and head coach Paul Fixter had but a single season to impart his program.
The real losers in all this is the team’s championship-starved fan base. Through 43 years, the Wolves have but a pair of regular season division banners, not a single conference banner, and two trips to the league final. By any measuring stick, the track record is awful, worst in the league.
Worse yet, it’s back to rebuild mode next season with a slew of veterans gone and several fewer draft picks to restock the cupboard, almost guaranteeing a sell-off at some point next season to recoup at least some of the picks spent Jan. 9.
Oddly, this season's edition of the Wolves never seemed to capture the city’s imagination. There were fewer and fewer butts in the seats as the season wore on, despite a division-leading team in the building, a rarity in itself. Playoff attendance wasn't much better, as Wolves fans seemed to see the writing on the wall after the locals dropped the first two games in Barrie. (Sudbury Star)
Actually, Kingston, through its first 40 seasons, has only won one regular-season division title and has zero berths in the OHL final. The current Fronts, with surefire NHL first-rounder Sam Bennett and a high-tempo, high-scoring team, have generally revived OHL interest in the Limestone City, bumping attendance into the 3,800 range, a two-thirds increase from what it drew during its final season in the old Memorial Centre. (Obviously, some of that owes to group sales, comped tickets and new-building novelty at the Rogers K-Rock Centre, but a fact is a fact.) While Kingston hasn't won a playoff round during Doug Springer's ownership, it appears there is a renewed interesting in seeing whether that will change.
The Petes, of course, have agency in their comeback. Goalie Andrew D'Agostini is delivering a great series and the Petes' persistent forechecking seems to be taxing a Kingston defence corps that only runs four deep. Yet when the history is thrown in, it makes Kingston's three consecutive losses seem unreal. It led 3-1 early in Game 5 last Friday before falling 6-5 in overtime. It burst out to a 3-0 lead on Sunday — and centre Ryan Kujawinski, who wears the No. 17 of David Ling, the star of that one division-winning Kingston team, hit the crossbar in the second period with a chance to restore a three-goal spread — before fading and falling 5-4. One suspects people get into a sport more because of the narrative than the numbers.
Give Sudbury and Kingston credit. Whatever happens, there's a lot here for everyone's inner fatalist.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.