WINDSOR, Ont. — Alex DeBrincat walked down the hallway of the WFCU Centre, past the sound of the cheers and the clicks of the cameras and the celebration, and No. 12 for the Erie Otters was still dressed in his equipment, skates included.
The only thing the 19-year-old had taken off was his helmet.
"I don’t know how long it’ll take me to get undressed," said the kid who scored 65 times during the regular season, red-eyed, sniffing between sentences. "I don’t wanna take this jersey off."
Minutes earlier, late in the third period, when his Otters were down 4-3 against the Windsor Spitfires in the final of the Mastercard Memorial Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect and CHL MVP sent the potential game-tying goal off the post. Clang.
Another one followed with less than two minutes to go, off the stick of captain Dylan Strome, who fired a point shot through traffic that got tipped, and then: Clang.
That’s as close as the Otters came to the Memorial Cup in their first trip to the tournament for the CHL’s big prize, edged 4-3 on Sunday night by the hosts from Windsor, in a back-and-forth affair in front of a raucous and sold out crowd.
"A couple inches one way and it’s a tie game, that’s the way it goes," said Strome, from beneath a yellow and blue Otters ballcap, his jersey still on. He’d just won the tournament MVP trophy and yeah, it was an honour, but "no one cares about the MVP trophy," the Arizona Coyotes prospect said. "I think everyone wants that big cup."
Not too far away, a bunch of Spitfires were hoisting, skating around with and posing alongside that big cup.
"It’s a great hockey game," Strome added. "Just sucks to be on this end of it."
Had you taken a look at any of the Otters post-game, some with red eyes, others sniffling, all looking down at the ground or with vacant stares, you could tell it sucked. But Strome had that first part right, because it really was a great game.
This championship started like it was shot out of a cannon. Through two periods, the teams traded goals on two occasions less than a minute apart, and it was 3-3 heading into the third.
Windsor struck first when Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco scored on the power play, jumping on a puck that squirted out in front shortly after Otters goalie Troy Timpano tried to cover it.
Bracco hammered it home, and then threw himself into the glass while the sold out crowd went bananas.
But 49 seconds later, Strome tied things up. The Otters captain—whose 11 points here tied for the tournament lead—got a pass through traffic from Darren Raddysh, and wired it off the post and in, blocker-side.
Then No. 19 dropped into a low fist pump and yelled while the WFCU Centre fell silent.
The first ended with shots 13-12 in favour of Erie, and it was Warren Foegele who kicked in a Strome pass (and it counted) on an Otters power play, 5:32 into the second period, to give Erie its first lead.
But it didn’t last long. Just 52 seconds later, Spitfires defenceman and Jets prospect Logan Stanley tied things up—and it felt like the roof was going to blow off this place—when he floated a weak one in from the point that beat Timpano glove side.
The last time the Otters would enjoy the lead came at 12:41 in the second, when Erie’s T.J. Fergus fired a point shot that deflected off a Spitfires stick, and through DiPietro’s legs, to make it 3-2.
It took Windsor a little longer to respond this time—a little over two minutes—but they did, when Graham Knott wired a one-timer top shelf.
The winner came on a defensive breakdown for Erie, when Bracco threaded a pass to a wide-open Aaron Luchuk, at the 5:07 mark of the third.
"A few mental breakdowns there cost us goals," DeBrincat said. "They played well and we just couldn’t get it done." Then he took a deep breath.
"We’re proud of everyone in the room. It took us a long way to get here; it’s disappointing we didn’t win. It’s still a great season for us. It’s just a little tough to swallow right now."
Erie out-shot Windsor 35-22, but Spitfires goalie Michael DiPietro was outstanding (and he was the first guy Strome mentioned when he said the MVP trophy could have gone to a bunch of other players, other than himself).
"We dominated most of the game, we had way more shots than they did," said Erie’s fifth-year defender, Darren Raddysh, who was one of his team’s best players in the tournament, and who has yet to be signed by an NHL team. "It just came down to bounces, I guess."
Brother Taylor, who with Strome co-led the tournament with 11 points, said this loss was going to take some time to get over.
"It’s one of the biggest losses of my career, maybe even the biggest one," the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect said. "It’s definitely not fun."
That last four minutes or so—they don’t track ice time here, but the Raddysh brothers and Strome and DeBrincat were out there for most of it—the Otters came awfully close.
"I thought they played really hard," Otters’ head coach Kris Knoblauch said. "I thought we were tired, but the effort was definitely there."
When the buzzer went, Strome leaned on his stick and then fell to his knees, while DeBrincat was on one knee nearby, as Spitfires gloves and sticks flew through the air and the crowd went ballistic.
After handshakes, as the Spitfires continued to celebrate, the Otters left the ice.
Strome sat alone on the bench with his head down. When his name was announced as tournament MVP, the Otters captain skated out, posed unsmiling with the trophy, then brought it back at waist-level to the bench, handed it to a woman there, and walked down that hall to join his teammates.
"It was the most fun I’ve ever had in a hockey year," Strome said. "[We] just told each other we love each other, and we’re gonna be brothers and champions forever."
Even if it doesn’t feel like it right this second.
"We had a great season, one game that didn’t go our way, and it cost us the Memorial Cup," DeBrincat said.
Then he walked back down that hall, back past that Spitfires celebration, and he joined his Otters teammates for the last time.