This was never going to be a “normal” season for the Ottawa 67’s.
Emerging from a pandemic-related absence that stole away a potential Memorial Cup run in 2020, and an entire season in 2020-21, it was obvious that this years iteration of the team would face a unique set of challenges. COVID-19 was still present, after all, and while the virus would put obstacles in the way of the 2021-22 Barber Poles, it would just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Following three seasons of success, Head Coach André Tourigny moved on to a well-deserved opportunity with the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, and left the 67’s without a coach. It wouldn’t take long to find a replacement, however, and as luck would have it, the new Ottawa bench boss would be just as decorated as his predecessor.
Dave Cameron, of both OHL and NHL fame, returned from a stint in Austria to coach the 67’s, and the Canadian World Junior team, at the request of his friend, and Ottawa General Manager James Boyd. Though Cameron ensured that there would be no drop-off in quality behind the bench, along with the addition of Assistant Coach Marty Dagenais, he knew that a difficult task laid in front of him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team that’s been off this long, so I think that the challenge of it is it’s going to really test our patience,” Cameron said at the beginning of training camp, “You have to get back at it, you have to practice, you have to get into the daily routine again. That takes time.”
“I think there’s going to be some unknowns that are going to pop up that we didn’t think of that affect us, but I think it’s good to go through this year, because now you have a whole group that are probably at the same starting point.”
Cameron may have been understating it, a bit. 17 different players made their OHL debuts for Ottawa. Among them were imports Vinzenz Rohrer, and Vsevolod Gaidamak, as well as recent draft picks in Brady Stonehouse, Luca Pinelli, Chris Barlas, Matthew Mayich, and Thomas Sirman, to name a few.
Despite all this, however, the 67’s turned heads to begin the season, and even found themselves cracking the Top 10 of the CHL rankings, at one point. A torrid start from Gaidamak, along with relative veterans in Jack Beck, Jack Matier, and Will Cranley saw the Barber Poles win nine of their first 15 games, and find themselves hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference.
An injury to Beck, however, began a cascade of players dropping from the lineup, and put an end to the momentum that Ottawa had enjoyed out of the gate. They struggled through November and December, heading into the Christmas break.
“The break could not have come at a better time. This is a chance to refocus and regroup,” said Assistant Coach Norm Milley, at the time. “You have to believe in the process, and sometimes that can get lost when you are on a slide.”
Unbelievably, things got worse from there.
In the midst of the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship in December, the plethora of 67’s attending the tournament were dealt a cruel blow. The Omicron variant of the virus began to sweep the globe, and the World Juniors were no exception. Cameron, Boyd, Strength Coach Sean Young, and Equipment Manager Chris Hamilton saw their gold medal hopes with Team Canada dashed, upon the tournament’s abrupt cancellation. After a strong start with Team Austria, Rohrer too was called home, ending his own bid for international success.
The news wasn’t all bad, however, as the word soon came that reinforcements were on the way.
After signing his entry-level contract with the Ottawa Senators, highly-touted forward Tyler Boucher joined the Barber Poles, and despite a brief absence due to injury, immediately boosted the 67’s roster with his combination of skill, and punishing physicality.
Soon, too, came the return of Beck, who didn’t miss a beat, finishing the campaign as the only member of the 67’s with over a point per game.
The youngsters, however, still were the focus of many down the stretch, highlighted by Rohrer. The Austrian ended the year as the Barber Poles’ leading scorer, and found himself called to the CHL Top Prospects Game, in early March.
Rohrer notched an assist at the game, and was a vital component of the 67’s winning some key games down the stretch, and securing the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference standings, heading into the postseason.
In a heated first-round battle with the North Bay Battalion, the 67’s were ultimately defeated in four games, but befitting of the season itself, this was no ordinary “sweep”. Three of the four games were decided by one goal, and Ottawa could just as easily have been the team doing the sweeping.
“I have no qualms about the way this hockey club played in the last four games and in the last six weeks,” said Cameron after Game 4.
“Our building blocks make this exciting moving forward. I can’t teach competitiveness. The credit for that is in their DNA. These are competitive kids.
Rohrer echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“It’s hard to believe our season is over, but we don’t have a lot of regrets in this series,” he said. “Every player in this room fought hard for 60 minutes of play. I think we should be proud of that. We know we have a team that will be very strong next year.”
Following an OHL Draft that saw Ottawa select elite defencemen Henry Mews, and Frankie Marrelli in Round 1, the Barber Poles now look to a season that should yield a bit more in the way of the ordinary.
With the issue of an experience out of the way, perhaps a bit more in the way of expectations, as well.