It didn’t end with a flurry of Austin Stock saves, holding off a late charge by the Ayr Flames to secure a one goal victory in the deciding game of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association finals.
The Kings playoff run didn’t end with a Riley Grimmon overtime goal or a Nathan Steen shot block.
It also didn’t end in heartbreak with the Kings lined up on the blue line as the Flames were awarded the 2020 OMHA title.
In the end, the playoff march of the Prince Edward County Lehigh Bantam Kings was halted with an announcement by Hockey Canada as the COVID-19 pandemic took care off all the dreams of Ontario’s minor hockey players playing late into the spring and hoping their club would be the ones awarded the iconic ‘RedHats’ that signify an All-Ontario championship.
On Saturday, the OMHA offered a silver lining to the dark cloud that will hang over the players still hoping for a positive resolution to their playoff hopes by announcing the finalists set to face off for minor hockey supremacy would not see their season end in vain.
To make the most out of the situation, the OMHA will be awarding the title of Co-Champion and presenting RedHats to all of the teams that reached the Finals of OMHA Playdowns presented by Egg Farmers of Ontario in 2020. Each of the two finalists (110 teams) including the Bantam B squads in Prince Edward County and Ayr from the 55 Playdowns will receive RedHats. Egg Farmers of Ontario will be helping fund the additional RedHats to mark this unique and special occasion for all players and teams.
“Our goal is to be positive and proactive in a trying environment by rewarding the players and teams who deservedly made it that far through the highly competitive Playdowns,” said Ian Taylor, OMHA Executive Director. “It’s a simple gesture, but hopefully a meaningful one, as well.”
Amongst the Kings, it may not be the ending they were looking for when the team broke training camp in early September but there will be a banner hanging at the Lehigh and Huff Estates Arenas that recognize an OMHA championship, Prince Edward County’s first in about two decades.
Kings skipper Chris Rice said he like a number of staff and players found out Saturday morning the OMHA had decided to go the co-champions route and reward all the teams left standing at the abbreviated end of the play downs.
“It’s good but it’s still hard to digest. We’re so happy the players are going to be recognized and they can wear those red hats around the community with pride knowing they beat every team they played against during this playoff run. Still, it’s going to feel like there’s unfinished business for us for a while,” the bench boss said. “One thing is for sure-I know we will never forget this playoff run.”
The Kings swept through the Ennismore Eagles in three games in the opening round of the 2020 OMHA playoffs to earn a trip to the quarterfinals against the Elmvale Coyotes.
The locals would need an extra game against the squad from just outside of Barrie but managed to tame the Coyotes in Elmvale 3-0 in Game 4, backstopped by Stock and his first shut out of the post season.
In the OMHA Semi Finals, the Kings would drop the opener in Listowel but came roaring back in Game 2 to double the Cyclones 4-2.
The clubs would split the following weekend’s games at Lehigh Arena with the Kings taking Game 3 Fri. March 6 in overtime thanks to Reese Kleinstueber’s tally and then falling to the Cyclones by a reciprocal 2-1 score on Sat. March 7 in Game 4, setting up a winner take all on Sun. March 8 in Listowel.
The Kings would get a pair of goals from Ben Smith en route to a 4-1 win which Chris Rice held up as the club’s best overall performance of the season.
“We thought it was a good group and we really developed nicely as the season and playoffs went on,” the coach said. “That last game in Listowel was a tremendous effort from everyone in the line up. Everyone had a role to play, they knew what it was and they went out and executed perfectly.
Afforded the opportunity to expand on each player in the Kings lineup, Chris Rice started with the goaltending and said Stock was very good this season.
“He was good and determined this year and he knew he was going to be the guy. With that comes the pressure but he handled it very well. I know that before Game 5 in Listowel he stood up and told the team he was winning this hockey game no matter what and the players believed him,” said the coach.
Backing up Stock was PECMHA Local League netminder and affiliate player Nolan Gurnig who filed the other net during practice and stayed ready in case an injury befell Stock.
“I was incredibly impressed with Nolan’s determination and he was always the first one to practice,” Rice said. “He just wanted to get better every time out and without him, I know our practices wouldn’t have been nearly as good.”
On the back end, club captain Liam Rice was the anchor of the squad and filed the role as the Kings stud defenceman, able to take on puck moving abilities as well as provide a punishing physical presence.
That leadership by Rice served the club well as the balance of the defence corps was certainly was green as grass as rookies Charlie Smith, Keagan Zantingh and Issac Krentz all took regular shifts.
“(Smith) was consistent all season long and for whatever he lacked in polish, he more than made up for with physical play and true grit. He’s a guy I wanted out there to make a play or clear the puck at a crucial time.”
The coach said Krentz came into his own in the post season and increased confidence led to better decisions with the puck.
“(Zantingh) played the best hockey of his life at the end of the season and he came an extremely long way over the year. His development was of the charts and his size was a really big asset to us once he learned how to effectively use it,” the coach added.
Veteran Mackenzie Moyer was moved from the forward group back to the blue line partway through the season and provided the Kings a second seasoned puck carrier to help with zone exits.
The coach said moving Moyer back allowed the staff to move second year King Steen up to the forward ranks and the big winger offered the locals a physical presence in the corners and in front of the opposing net.
“It provided us with a lot of flexibility and we would alter our game plan if we needed to and move Steener back to the blue line if we ran into injuries or penalty trouble,” Rice added.
The club’s captain said the development of the entire group of defenceman was a key to the Kings playoff success and it was built earlier in the 2019-20 campaign.
“There was a lot of trust that built up over the season back there and you have to be able to trust your teammates to make the right decisions and the right choices in the heat of battle,” Liam Rice said.
Up front, Grimmon, as lethal a goal scorer as there was in the Eastern Ontario Minor Hockey League loop this season, helped pace the Kings offence.
Rice said the production out of Grimmon never really slowed down.
Against the best or the worst clubs in the EMOHL and into the playoffs, Grimmon could consistently light lamps in arenas all over this part of Ontario.
“It didn’t matter who we were up against, he was always around the net with the puck and he had a knack for scoring the big goals at the key times,” Chris Rice added.
Pivot Garret Kempers saw his expected role on the club change to more of a set up role and more of a focus on checking and penalty killing.
The coach likened the PECI student to recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Guy Carbonneau who was one of hockey’s best defensive forwards during his prime.
“He was great in Game 5 at centre as he set up Ben for both those goals and always had the presence of mind to get back and help,” Rice said.
Forward Ben Smith rose to the occasion in the playoffs but it was never more evident than in the final game.
“Moving him to the wing really paid off in that final game of the semis and I know the staff was really looking forward to seeing what he could do in the finals,” the coach said.
Kleinstueber never had a bigger moment in the playoffs when he electrified over 600 fans in the pivotal Game 3 overtime win over Listowel at Lehigh Arena, jamming home a loose puck from the goal crease early in the extra session.
Kieran Young came back to rep this season and Rice said the lanky Picton product quickly got acclimated to contact hockey early on in the season and became a steady physical presence in the post season.
“He scored a lot of timely goals for this team and was one of our top penalty killers,” said the coach.
First year forward Liam Philip played for OMHA champion Quinte AAA Red Devils last season and was the top rookie forward on the club.
Chris Rice said the winger, despite being a first year bantam, brought fire, intensity and sandpaper every shift and was a spiritual leader in the dressing room.
“He was an awesome player for us all year and led the way in a lot of games,” Rice said. “He could change the momentum of a game in one shift.”
Fellow rookie Dakin Jones also brought an offensive flair to line up but Rice said he was most impressed with how the first year winger was able to hone his defensive responsibilities as the season wore on.
Finally, despite being small in stature, Jordan Doxtator had the biggest heart of all the Kings this season according to the coach.
“The smallest guy on the team with the biggest heart. I called him David the Goliath killer because he would go out there and lay a big hit on the biggest player on the other team and would come back to the bench smiling,” the coach said with a laugh. “He’s totally fearless and I wasn’t afraid to put him in a crucial situation defensively.”
Chris Rice thanked his entire staff including team manager Heather Zantingh who was “The best manager I’ve ever had as a coach” as well as bench staff Adam Smith, Dan Kempers, Trainer Peter Moyer and assistant trainer Brad Grimmon.
The club’s captain said it’s been an emotional wringer for all the players who avoided talking about the abrupt end to the season.
“I’m pretty sure everyone of us cried ourselves to sleep the night we were told hockey is over and we as players didn’t really talk about it too much afterwards because it was too upsetting,” Liam Rice added. “Most of us were really happy on Saturday when we heard the news but there’s still some difficulty with it because we all wanted to find out if we really would have been the overall OMHA champions. Most of us won’t be together and this might be the very last time this exact team will ever be together so it’s going to be tough when we get back to the rink for next season.”