Only three more days remain until Stride Place is taken over by the best Junior A hockey players in the country.
The Collingwood Blues punched their ticket to the Centennial Cup tournament last weekend by winning the Ontario Junior Hockey League championship. Head coach Andrew Campoli says they actually had the longest road of any team to earn their spot in the national tournament.
"Throughout the playoffs, we played against four different teams. Four really amazing teams," Campoli explains. "Our final series was against Trenton (Golden Hawks), who was one of the hardest-working teams in the playoffs. They actually took out the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, who were the second-ranked team in Canada for a number of weeks. We went into that series knowing we had to work hard every night to get the outcome that we wanted. It took us five games but our last three games actually went into overtime. We are happy to be on the winning side but all respect to the Trenton Golden Hawks. They were a fantastic opponent."
While it only took the Blues five games to dispatch the Golden Hawks, just one of their four wins came by more than two goals. Campoli believes this will bode well for them heading to the Centennial Cup.
"If you want to win a championship, you have to win 2-1 or 3-2 hockey games. The one-goal hockey games," says Campoli. "I don't think you'll ever get into a series in the finals where you have four 5-0 or 5-1 games. At that point, every team is close (to the same skill level). There's a lot on the line, and there's a lot of emotion and energy tied into that."
Collingwood was led in the playoffs by Dylan Hudon, Mark McIntosh, and Ayden Dooley, who all averaged at least a point-per-game. The Blues had two more players who were just one point shy of that marker, however, the head coach believes their biggest strong suit is on the other end of the ice.
"We understand that defence wins championships. We have the lowest goals-against-average in the OJHL playoffs but we're also a very deep team," Campoli continues. "We're not a team that can run two lines. We want to run all four and all six D. We knew that we needed depth, and we knew that we needed various players to take on different roles. The goal for us is to make sure that each player buys in and plays their role. We did that in the regular season but now I think the dial has to be turned up to ten."
Campoli adds they only had two players on their entire roster who didn't find the back of the net during their 18-game playoff run, speaking to the team's depth. He says even though they are confident in their ability, they don't really know what to expect at a tournament of the Centennial Cup's stature.
"With COVID, we ended up losing a lot of the over-agers throughout the years. For us, we don't really have anybody who has Centennial Cup experience. A lot of our players have won stuff in minor hockey but no one has won anything at a junior level. We now have 25 champions that won the OJHL but that's the only accreditation we have at this level. We understand that this is a best-versus-best tournament. When we get to Portage, everyone we're meeting there is a champion in their own right. So, we have to have a different mindset going into this tournament."
He notes the whole team is aware of how rare an opportunity like this can be and adds they don't plan on taking it for granted.
"A lot of us know that there are not many chances in life to play on a national platform. There are six games to win a national title, that's all it takes, six wins. So, where the playoffs was more of a marathon, this national championship is more of a sprint," Campoli continues. "There's not one game or one shift we can take off. As long as we stick to our brand and our gameplan, I think we'll come out okay. Regardless of all the excitement and nerves, I think we just have to sit back and enjoy it. This is something that we're going to remember for the rest of our lives."
The Blues will play in the first evening game at the Centennial Cup tournament on May 11, when they battle the Steinbach Pistons.