The Oshawa Generals celebrate (Photo by Aaron Bell/CHL Images)
They may not have had any world junior talents or a lot of award-winners, but the Generals did their working-class home proud by grinding their way to the top of junior hockey.
QUEBEC CITY - Thanks to Anthony Cirelli's two goals, including the overtime marker on a rebound against Kelowna, the OHL's Oshawa Generals are Memorial Cup champions. Battling a Rockets team with two Canadian world junior gold medallists and a player who spent the first half of the season in the NHL, it came down to the undrafted rookie center and goaltender Ken Appleby, who has been snubbed countless times in his junior career.
With Kelowna trotting out Edmonton Oilers prospect Leon Draisaitl (the tourney MVP) and blueline stars Josh Morrissey (Winnipeg) and Madison Bowey (Washington), the Generals had their hands full. The Rockets outshot the Generals by a wide margin on the night and dominated possession for long stretches, but Oshawa prevailed thanks to smothering team defense and lights-out goaltending.
“We were always confident," said New York Islanders pick Michael Dal Colle, the team's top NHL prospect. "We didn't have any world juniors or anything like that, but we knew if we played our way we had a chance to win. Appleby obviously held us in and he deserved to be MVP. He's everything. Without him, we definitely wouldn't have made it to the Memorial Cup and he's awesome. I hope he gets drafted.”
Though he has been passed over twice, there is interest in the 6-foot-4 netminder and it goes without saying that Appleby's stock has never been higher. He was named the tournament's outstanding goaltender (a foregone conclusion) and even though he probably should have more honors at this point in his junior career, the netminder wasn't going to dwell on any of that now.
“It's unbelievable," Appleby said. "We're champs. We finished first, we won the very last game of the year and it's unbelievable what this team has achieved all year.”
A lot of credit is due to coach D.J. Smith. He took a group devoid of national team experience (Dal Colle, Cole Cassels and Michael McCarron all had good resumes but didn't make the world juniors) and molded it into a punishing juggernaut that wiped out Erie Otters phenom Connor McDavid in the OHL final and then swept the round robin at the Memorial Cup. With NHL teams opening their eyes to all sorts of new talent, it's hard not to imagine Smith getting some attention after what he has done in Oshawa.
“He's an awesome coach," Dal Colle said. "He turned things around here. He came to Oshawa three years ago, they were on a losing streak and he turned it around quick. That's a testament to his coaching ability.”
And of course, just to give the last-ever hockey game at Le Colisee a fairytale ending, it was the undrafted rookie Cirelli who closed the building less than two minutes into overtime. Not bad for a kid who played major midget last season. So what was he doing this time last year?
“I was already halfway through my summer program workout at the gym," Cirelli said. "I didn't expect to be here at all. I always thought about it in the back of my head. It's been a dream of mine to win this trophy and it's a dream come true today.”
So while they weren't exactly a group of misfits, the Generals also weren't a glamorous group of world-beaters. But beat the world they did.
“We were a true team," Smith said. "At the end of the day, we were the best team.”