It began in the third week of March and has played on until the middle of May. Thrills, spills and chills of the 2018 Ontario Hockey League playoff race towards championship glory have been plentiful.
In the title tilt featuring two teams representing historic steel towns, the no. 1 seeds from both the Western and Eastern Conference of the OHL have shown little separation as to which is the more deserving champion.
Only one of the Soo Greyhounds and Hamilton Bulldogs will carry the OHL crown into Regina, Saskatchewan for the 100th playing of the prestigious Memorial Cup tournament. Which only makes fans of both teams wish this was the OHL playing host to the Memorial Cup and that both the Soo and Hamilton were headed to the national tournament.
Speaking of fans.
How about a big cheer for supporters of both teams with the Soo playing host to capacity crowds of about 4,900 and bigger-market, bigger-arena Hamilton packing in more than 8,500 fans to watch a playoff game.
Many of these Greyhounds and Bulldogs will move on from the OHL and earn pay checks as professional players with a select few making it to the show that is the National Hockey League.
If the OHL as a league aspires to create excitement at high speed as much as it wants to set up pro and university opportunity for its players, it is doing a splendid job.
As there are those who believe that college hoops in the United States is more exciting than the pro game that is the National Basketball Association, the OHL just may have that same edge over the NHL when it comes to non-stop pace with feverish, frantic pitch and the energy of teenage youth.
Some of the teenagers will defy the odds that it takes to skate in the NHL and stay there beyond a game or two.
First round forwards from both the Soo and Hamilton appear to be on a step up towards playing in the NHL sooner than later. Morgan Frost of the Greyhounds is in the near-future plans of the Philadelphia Flyers and the St. Louis Blues are looking at making room sometime soon for Robert Thomas of the Bulldogs.
Others from both teams will get their chances at playing in the NHL as draft picks of teams with pro contracts.
As this type of season was expected in the Soo, there was no such hype in Hamilton where fans in the southern steel capital are just into their third season of the OHL Bulldogs, having been without this level of hockey since 1991 when the Dukes left town with little notice or care and moved to Guelph.
As the OHL has not felt in Hamilton before, the Bulldogs have become the talk of their town.
Though Hamilton has a prior history of OHL success on the ice — the Red Wings won the Memorial Cup in 1962 and the Fincups reprised the feat in 1976 — teams over the years have not come close to enjoying the fan and corporate support that the Bulldogs have.
Plagued by poor attendance, OHL teams and monikers have come and gone from Hamilton over the years.
There were the Hamilton Tiger Cubs from 1953-1960 followed by the Hamilton Red Wings from 1960-1974 and the Hamilton Fincups from 1974-1978. (The Fincups even left Hamilton for St. Catharines for one season only to return and then leave for good.)
Six years after the Fincups closed up shop, the Hamilton Steelhawks took to the ice in 1984 only to depart in 1988. Then came the Hamilton Dukes in 1989 and a quick exit in 1991.
The OHL vacated Hamilton after the Dukes relocated to Guelph and became the Storm in 1991. And the OHL went dormant in Hamilton until 2015 when owner Michael Andlauer purchased the Belleville franchise.
Now, in a well-planned, well-executed way under Bulldogs president and general manager Steve Staios, the OHL has made a definite and triumphant return to Hamilton, both on and off the ice.
At any rate, this spring’s playoffs in the OHL have not just been about the Soo and Hamilton. Heck no.
In the first round of the spring rite of OHL passion, the Owen Sound Attack eliminated the perennially powerful London Knights in four straight games. But it is worth noting that all four games in that Western Conference playoff opener were decided by one goal — twice in overtime.
No. 4 seed Owen Sound then went on to extend the top-ranked Greyhounds to seven games in the second round of the Western Conference play downs. In fact, with better goal-tending, Owen Sound might well have upset the Soo in that seven-game set.
Riding the superb, daring coaching of Todd Gill, it could be argued that Owen Sound actually out-played the Soo over the seven-game series. But goal-tending let Owen Sound down and one wonders if the Attack would have won the series if general manager Dale DeGray had opted to trade for Mario Culina instead of Olivier Lafreniere.
Not that Culina was without his moments to shine in this spring’s playoffs.
Never drafted to the OHL or the NHL, Culina back-stopped the Kitchener Rangers through three rounds of the playoffs before a heart-breaking, Game 7 overtime loss to the Greyhounds in the Western Conference finals.
An under-the-radar acquisition of Rangers general manager Mike McKenzie at the January 9 overage trade deadline, Culina — a Sault Ste. Marie native who was a backup goalie with the Windsor Spitfires through his first two OHL seasons — gave Kitchener spectacular net-minding and was the main reason it made it through three full rounds of the playoffs.
Obtained from the last-place Sudbury Wolves at the trade deadline, Culina not only gave Kitchener big-time play between the pipes, he attracted some overdue attention from some NHL scouts.
At the end of the OHL playoff road though is where two tidy, well-coached, well-structured teams met to face off for salvation from a playoff run that can induce multiple adjectives of glorious description.
As always, there can only be one team that advances when two are playing off for the right to move on.
But while only one team can win, it says here that both can be called winners.
Which brings us to the Soo Greyhounds and Hamilton Bulldogs — two winners in what has been a winner of an OHL playoff season.
PHOTO: OHL playoff action between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Soo Greyhounds. (Photo by Gary Yokoyama/Hamilton Spectator.)