GUELPH, Ont. - Kerby Rychel knows what winners looks like. He grew up surrounded by them. He’d see them often at the rink and at his home in Tecumseh, Ont., just outside of Windsor where his dad, Warren, is general manager and part-owner of the Ontario Hockey League’s Spitfires.
It was there a young Rychel was able to observe future NHLers – Taylor Hall, Cam Fowler, Zack Kassian and Adam Henrique (to name a few) – win back-to-back OHL and Memorial Cup titles in 2009 and 2010.
Despite being around the victors, Rychel had no spoils of his own to show for it.
But that all changed Friday night when he scored two goals late in the third period to give the Guelph Storm their first OHL championship in 10 years. Standing on the ice after the game, the noise from the 5,015 fans at the Sleeman Centre was so loud Rychel could hardly be heard. The sheer joy on his face, however, told the story.
“I still can’t believe it,” said the 19-year-old shouting above the din. “I feel like I’m a dream or something. It’s crazy.”
His Robertson Cup-winning goal came with just 26.3 seconds left to give the Storm a 4-3 win over the North Bay Battalion in Game 5 of the championship series.
“I blacked out,” said Rychel of his celebration after the goal. “It’s the biggest goal of my life, honestly.”
Guelph forward Robby Fabbri, who is eligible for this year’s NHL draft, was voted as the OHL’s playoff MVP. The 17-year-old finished the post-season with 13 goals and 15 assists in only 16 games. He was one of the first players to mob Rychel, skating down the ice full-throttle, after the game-winner was scored.
“It’s probably one of the best celebrations I’ve ever seen,” said Fabbri, who is ranked 21st among North American skaters by the NHL’s Central Scouting service. “It was a great feeling chasing after him knowing we were 30 seconds away from a championship. It’s just a great feeling.”
“It was just raw emotion,” said Guelph captain Matt Finn of Rychel’s celebration. “That’s the way he plays – he takes it to the net and he’s just energy. He’s a little crazy, of course, but (expletive) he’s a hell of a guy and that’s just him.”
Rychel, a first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013, was a late addition by the Storm via trade from Windsor in early December, just prior to joining Canada’s world junior team. The decision to deal his own son wasn’t something Warren Rychel took lightly. After watching his son’s late-game heroics, Rychel was a proud father.
“He was basically on the auction block,” said the former NHLer of the deal that also sent defenceman Nick Ebert to Guelph. “There were four or five teams involved and (Guelph GM) Mike Kelly stepped up, and here we are.
“I think he was a calming influence coming in here and I know his off-ice preparation is second to none. I know he’ll be ready to go (at the Memorial Cup). I’m so proud of him.”
After joining Guelph, the younger Rychel said there was an adjustment period trying to fit in with a core group that had already been together for a number of years. It also took a while, he said, to adjust to head coach Scott Walker’s systems.
“They came in and they fit in,” said Walker of both Rychel and Ebert. “They didn’t have to be the superstars. We had lots of guys, but they came in and chipped in … could we have done it without them? Probably not.”
The Battalion took the lead early, and for 55 minutes it looked like they would going back to North Bay for a Game 6. The two quick goals at the end of the game were a particularly cruel form of déjà vu.
“You just watched Game 3 all over again,” said Finn.
In that game, the Battalion held a 3-2 lead with less than a minute left on the clock. The Storm scored two goals with 29 seconds remaining to steal a 4-3 victory from the Battalion. North Bay, underdogs from the Eastern Conference, never appeared able to rebound from that crushing loss.
“There’s no question that was probably the turning point of the series,” said Walker. “That really demoralized (the Battalion). I’m surprised they came out and played as hard as they did (Friday), because it was tough to overcome that one.”
The Storm were the best team in the OHL’s regular season, too, with a 52-12-2-2 record and 108 points.
The last time Guelph won the OHL championship was 2004. The Storm went to the Memorial Cup in Kelowna, B.C., but were knocked out of the tournament early, going 0-3. The closest they’ve come to a national title was in 1998 when they lost in the final to the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.
They’ll get another chance next week when they head to another Memorial Cup in London, Ont. The Storm eliminated their Western Conference rival London Knights in the second round of the playoffs, so they know the tournament hosts will be eager for revenge.
“We’re going to enjoy this for a couple of days,” said Rychel. “But that’s a big event. We’re definitely going to be ready.”