Flashback: RB Sabrecats

April 9, 2020

To be sure, from 1995-1996 through 2001-2002, there was no better team in the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League than the erstwhile Rayside Balfour Sabrecats.

A powerhouse entry, the then Rayside Balfour franchise was the class of the league in that span as it dominated opponents and rolled to seven consecutive NOJHL championships — and was all but unstoppable in the process.

After finishing atop the regular season standings in 1995-1996 with a league-best record of 37-5-2 under head coach Jeff Brick — finishing 15 points clear of the second place Sturgeon Falls Lynx — Rayside Balfour continued its roll in the playoffs.

Post-season play saw Rayside begin with a four-game sweep of the Elliot Lake Vikings.

Next up was a three team, double robin, semi-final that also featured Sturgeon Falls and the Timmins Golden Bears, which saw the Sabrecats and Lynx advance to the final.

In the league championship series it was close, seeing three of the match-ups decided by one goal, including two in overtime. But Rayside Balfour would end up taking the title in the minimum four outings.

Rayside would, however, fall short in Dudley-Hewitt Cup play.

Stepping in to coach the squad to the title in 1996-1997 was Ken MacKenzie, who held the position for seven campaigns, and guided the Sabrecats to the majority of their success.

MacKenzie, a three-time recipient of the NOJHL’s Red McCarthy Memorial Trophy as coach of the year, saw his Sabrecats produce six league championships, a trio of Dudley-Hewitt Cup crowns and three visits to the Royal Bank Cup Canadian National Jr. A championship tournament.

In MacKenzie’s initial year leading the Sabrecats, they were the elite of the NOJHL as they skated to a convincing 36-3-1 mark.

They were led by 100-point man and league most valuable Darryl Moxam, who later coached in the NOJHL, winning a title in 2005-2006 with the erstwhile Sudbury Northern Wolves.

Pacing the NOJHL that year with 296 goals, Rayside Balfour boasted the top four point-getters overall as well as eight of the top 10.

Goaltender Steve Fabilli saw the bulk of the action in net and had a 22-3-0 record between the pipes.

In the playoffs, Rayside dropped Elliot Lake in the semis, then took care of the Parry Sound Shamrocks to hoist its second straight league banner.

From there, Rayside moved on to meet the Milton Merchants of the Ontario Jr. Hockey League, who the Sabrecats handled in five games to capture their initial Dudley-Hewitt Cup as well as the first Central Canadian Jr. A crown for the NOJHL.

That earned them a trip to the Royal Bank Cup in Summerside, P.E.I.

The following year, Rayside produced a record of 35-3-2, then proceeded to dump Timmins and Parry Sound in the playoffs to rack up its third title in a row before falling to Milton in the Dudley-Hewitt finals.

It was much the same in 1998-1999 as a fourth NOJHL crown in succession was achieved by Rayside.
Among the six teams that competed in the NOJHL that season, Rayside once again finished in first, going 32-7-1.

In 13 post-season games, the Sabrecats won all but one to maintain their perch atop the NOJHL.

They ran into a roadblock at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup however, falling to the OJHL’s Bramalea Blues to end their season.

Moving on to 1999-2000, that campaign proved to be one of most dominant performances in league history.

A commanding force that year, the Sabrecats joined the 1989-1990 Sudbury Cubs as the only clubs in entire tenure of the NOJHL to go unbeaten in the regular season with both squads posting perfect 40-0 records.

They continued their excellent play as they steamrolled their way to yet another playoff championship, while needing just one game over minimum to add yet more hardware to their burgeoning trophy case.

This in turn set up a date with a familiar foe on the Dudley-Hewitt Cup trail in the also-powerful Milton Merchants.

Guiding the NOJHL as commissioner in those days was legendary hockey man Joe Drago.

In a previous interview with NOJHL.com, Drago fondly recalled the Sabrecats excellence in 1999-2000.

“When Rayside ended up meeting Milton in the Dudley-Hewitt finals, in those days it was a best-of-seven, and each arena was jammed every game. It was really good hockey,” relayed Drago.

“I was so proud of the Sabrecats when they beat Milton in that seventh and deciding game and from there, we went to the Royal Bank Cup in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2000,” Drago recalled.

Beginning the RBC with a thrilling 8-7 double overtime triumph over the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Hockey League, Rayside then doubled up the North Battleford North Stars of the Saskatchewan Jr. Hockey League 4-2.

Rayside then met the host Oil Barons in its third match-up where the Sabrecats dropped a narrow 4-3 decision.

Rebounding, Rayside countered by clipping the Cornwall Colts of the Central Canada Hockey League 5-4 to wrap-up the round robin with a 3-1 record and finish in a tie for first with Fort McMurray.

Semi-final action saw the Sabrecats and Chiefs meet once more and again the NOJHL representative came away victorious with a hard-fought 2-1 win.

However, Rayside’s at a dream season fell just short after the Sabrecats suffered a heart-breaking 2-1 setback against the hosts from Fort McMurray in the championship game.

Undaunted, the Sabrecats returned to the ice in 2000-2001 and reeled off yet another first place finish and their sixth consecutive NOJHL championship going 35-3-2 during the campaign.

In playoff action, Rayside put the broom to the Espanola Eagles and Sturgeon Falls in their opening two series, then took on the Soo Thunderbirds in a thrilling best-of-seven affair that would go the distance.

The Sabrecats went on to best the T-Birds 3-1 in Game 7 and earn them themselves another Dudley-Hewitt Cup appearance, this time vs. the Ontario-based Thornhill Rattlers.

As tight as you can get, that match-up would also go to a seventh and deciding game where Thornhill eventually prevailed, winning 3-2 in overtime to hand Rayside another tough season-ending loss.

Back for more on-ice success the following season, it was much the same for the Sabrecats as they went on finish in top spot, three points clear of the Thunderbirds, highlighted by the 118-point campaign produced by league-leading scorer Mike Vaillancourt.

Backed by netminder Eric Navarro, who led all league net-minders in goals-against average at 2.11 and save percentage at .919, the Sabrecats tacked on two more playoffs sweeps, which sent them back to the finals yet again where they would tangle with the Thunderbirds once more.

There, the Sabrecats went on to claim NOJHL title No. 7 in succession after taking the championship by winning in six games — with Vaillancourt earning the playoff MVP award.

They would then go on to best the first-year Dryden Ice Dogs of the Superior International Jr. Hockey League to add one more Dudley-Hewitt Cup title to their collection and punch their ticket to the Royal Bank Cup for the third time in six seasons as they headed to Halifax, N.S., for another attempt at that elusive national title.

However, with a banged up Vaillancourt, playing despite not being 100 per cent, Rayside could not get on track and went win-less, having to settle for a fifth place finish.

Alas, all good things come to an end and the Sabrecats record-setting run of NOJHL titles came to a close in 2002-2003 where they finished third in the standings at 30-16-2 before falling four games to two to the Thunderbirds — coached by Jim Capy — in semi-final play to conclude an incredible league championship run that remains unmatched to date.

(with files from NOJHL historian David Harrison.)

PHOTO: Ken MacKenzie, behind the bench of the Rayside Balfour Sabrecats.

What you think about “Flashback: RB Sabrecats”

  1. The player who scored the overtime goal for Thornhill to win Game 7 was the current Soo Greyhounds coach, John Dean! 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *