RED DEER, Alta. – A couple minutes earlier, Mitch Marner was dancing in his skates. Now he’s ripping around the ice with a Go-Pro camera strapped to his chest and a massive smile on his face, a face that also features a wispy blonde playoff beard you have to squint to see.
Matthew Tkachuk still has the look of a teenager who can’t believe what he just did, and he’s been the recipient of at least 50 hugs in the last 20 minutes, including a jump-up-and-down circle embrace with his line mates to a tune with lyrics that include “like the ceiling can’t hold us.”
Even when he’s describing the goal that put the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies up 2-1, goalie Tyler Parsons has a smile on his face.
This is what it looks like when you start your season nine months ago, when there are 60 teams in contention for the biggest prize in Canadian junior hockey, when you have to win your regional league to qualify to get here, and when you and your London Knights teammates win it all.
This is what it looks like when you win your 17th straight – the one that matters most – in overtime.
“We’re unbelievably happy right now,” says Tkachuk, who had two goals in the 3-2 overtime win, including the winner.
Yes, we can tell.
“I’ll see what kind of footage I can get here,” says Marner, the Leafs’ fourth overall pick in 2015, pointing his camera up. “Here, I’ll give you a close-up.”
Forget asking Marner about next season right now, about whether he’ll be a Knight again after winning the CHL player of the year award, the MasterCard Memorial Cup MVP award (thanks to putting up 14 points in four games here), and the Memorial Cup, all in the space of two days.
“If I can win another one of these, I’ll be perfectly happy with that,” Marner says of the Memorial Cup, grinning.
Then, he skates off to get more footage.
It was happiness and relief on the ice Sunday at the ENMAX Centrium after the Knights kept their winning streak alive and knocked off the CHL’s No. 1 ranked Huskies in the MasterCard Memorial Cup final with an overtime victory in a game pretty much everyone expected London to win, and maybe dominate, after a 3-0 record in the round robin.
After Tkachuk scored the winner, he immediately thought to himself, “No way this has happened.”
So he checked, and he saw Huskies goalie Chase Marchand look up and skate up ice, and he saw his whole bench clearing. Then, he says, “I fell over myself, I was so happy.”
It was only about the third overtime winner of Tkachuk’s junior career, he figures, and his first this season. It’s the biggest goal of his career “by far,” and it comes at a pretty good time: He’s less than a month away from the NHL draft. He’s currently ranked No. 2 among North American skaters, according to NHL Central Scouting.
And Tkachuk scored it on a sprained left ankle, one he says made it difficult to play at all.
“But you can’t give up on the guys. They battle all year for you, and you have to do the same thing in return.”
On the winner, Tkachuk streaked down the left wing with speed, pulled in a little toe drag, then shot it over the sliding Huskies defender.
“Devo [Christian Dvorak] was going to the net, it actually might have hit off him,” Tkachuk says, wearing his black-and-white mesh-back hat that says Champions on it. “I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Goal’s a goal.”
A Memorial Cup-winning goal.
For a while, it looked like the Huskies were going to be giant-killers, streak-enders. It was back-and-forth all afternoon, with both teams getting chances. Rouyn-Noranda managed to shut London down completely on the power play, the only team to do so this tournament, despite drawing six penalties. Much of that had to do with the fine play of Marchand, who made 30 stops.
Tied at one heading into the third, the Huskies scored the go-ahead goal half-way through the period, when Julien Nantel, a Colorado prospect, hammered one home thanks to a perfect backhand pass from teammate Alexandre Fortin, to make it 2-1.
“I’m not gonna lie, it was nerve-wracking,” Tkachuk said, of those few minutes they were trailing.
But London tied the game with just over four minutes to go in the third, courtesy of their co-captain, Dvorak, the Arizona prospect who put in his tournament-leading seventh goal. Dvorak got a backhand pass from teammate Aaron Berisha from behind the net and he put it top shelf, blocker side.
Then Dvorak looked at his bench and pumped his arms up and down to get his team going.
“It was a big moment to tie the game up and give ourselves the chance to win,” Dvorak says. “To be on a winning streak like this and come up short? That would have been tough.”
But before this game started, had you taken in London’s off-ice warm-up, you would have no idea the Knights were feeling the pressure to keep this streak alive, to win their second Memorial Cup in franchise history.
Marner, in a green Knights dry-fit shirt that said “Respect All Fear None,” and sweats and socks and sandals, turned up the volume on their speaker. The players all stood in a circle on the rink’s concourse level, clapping and hollering, then Max Jones jumped into the middle and tore it up to the sound of Ice Ice Baby.
When Flo Rida’s Low came on – it goes: “shorty got low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low” – defenceman Brandon Crawley turned it into a dance-off with some moves of his own.
Both Jones, a forward, and Crawley, a defenceman, are draft eligible come June. Jones is ranked 14th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, and Crawley is 182nd. If dance moves were criteria, their stock would be on the rise.
More Knights joined the dance party, then trainer Doug Stacey took over, yelling instructions, including for them to continue busting moves. “Move those hips, boys!”
They did push-ups on each other, on walls, on the ground. They jumped as high as they could. High knees, jumping jacks, quick feet. They ran around and checked each other and Parsons threw some air punches.
When the music stopped, they all sprinted down the hall to get ready.
It was London who struck first, on a Tkachuk tip off a Marner pass. After the goal, Marner jumped up and down at least five times at the blue-line, and Tkachuk dropped into a low fist-pump.
While the goal was being announced – just 15 seconds later – the Huskies tied things up. Sharks first-rounder Timo Meier carried the puck around the net then fed one to captain Francis Perron, who was in tight and beat Parsons on a low shot in the corner.
After the Huskies made it 2-1, there was a feeling on the Knights bench.
“That goal by Christian Dvorak, you saw that coming,” Tkachuk says. “You knew a guy like that was gonna step up.”
Tkachuk didn’t know it’d be him who stepped up in overtime, though. In the stands, his mom cried (she never does that at hockey games). His dad Keith had taken off his hoody in OT because he was sweating so much.
Parsons saw the puck go in and he skated “as fast as I’ve ever skated in my life,” he says, “so I could celebrate with the boys.”
Marner actually didn’t even see the winner. He was in the middle of a change, setting into the bench, and only saw Tkachuk celebrate. And then: “I tried to get there as fast as I could,” he says.
It was Tkachuk who played the hero Sunday, not that he’d call himself that.
“No,” the 18-year-old says, laughing. “I’m not a hero. It’s just special to be able to help contribute and to end it off like this. Memorial Cup champions. 60 teams, we’re the champs.”
“We won 17 straight for a reason.”