While there won’t be any meaningful hockey played at the Essroc Arena until the fall, that shouldn’t stop local residents from offering one more clang of the cowbell or one more shake of a noisemaker for the Wellington Dukes.
Long a source of pride in this county — and, as evidenced by the celebrations in recent weeks, the entire Quinte region — the Dukes gave their faithful plenty to cheer about this season by winning their third Buckland and Dudley-Hewitt cups and coming within 20 minutes of an elusive national championship. Those accomplishments are special in their own right, but when one considers the amount of change the club has seen over the past year and the adversity it faced, the accomplishments are that much more special.
First, one must consider that only six players returned from last year’s Dukes’ lineup. That’s a major turnover for any hockey club, let alone one expecting to contend for a national title. No doubt, it wouldn’t be an easy transition for any club to replace a competent long-term builder like Marty Abrams partway through recruiting season, or adapt to new ownership. The club had three different voices guiding their coaching decisions in Scott McCrory, Ryan Woodward, and current boss John Druce as well as a stream of players in and out of the lineup due to injuries or player movement. Any number of those factors could have been difficult for this group of young men to handle, but they managed like pros. Even a late season funk didn’t take the team too low. A decision to bring in some key players from the Junior B ranks also could have scuttled confidence, but instead, this group of Dukes bore down and realized they had a chance to do something special.
All of the staff members, ownership, and boosters who had a hand in shaping this year’s team also deserve credit for their individual touches in building a team that was able to bounce back in two consecutive Game 7 series and handle clubs like Aurora and Georgetown whom several pundits favoured heavily. To many, the Dukes’ big feat of coming back from a 7-1 blow that would have sounded defeat for any number of teams was just par for the course for this special group of men.
The players’ families, the billets and community members who sacrifice so much to help them adjust to life in the county, and, of course, the many dedicated fans also deserve a pat on the back for their support and dedication. The tragic crash involving the Humboldt Broncos earlier this year shed light on something special this community has long known about how junior hockey teams and the world around them can interact and lift one another to greater heights. Somewhere, the likes of Garry Lavender and Foster Bailey had to be smiling to see how their beloved community team was creating lasting memories and civic pride.
Though the Dukes may not have had the finale they had hoped for in winning the RBC Cup over the weekend in Chilliwack, there are hundreds of teams full of accomplished young hockey players who would trade anything to have had a chance to play in that game. The pucks just didn’t bounce their way in the third.
Still, the Dukes offered much to celebrate in representing their community, province, and region and one can’t help but think the playoff run represents a major building block for future prosperity. The summer months will quickly fade away and with renewed anticipation, the heroes in red, white, blue, and gold will be back on that Essroc Arena ice. They’ll be doing their best to honour a proud legacy that became more so because of the great group that formed in 2017-2018.