1996/97 Strathroy Rockets To Hold Reunion – by C. Scott Holland

The 1996/97 Strathroy Rockets were a special team that captured what was then known as the East Division of the Western Jr. B Hockey League title before battling the West Division champion Leamington Flyers in one of the most entertaining and nail-biting finals series ever witnessed in modern Western Conference history.

The groundwork for a reunion of that championship squad is now underway.

Those 1996/97 finals went the full distance of seven games and had it not been for a crossbar and goal post, the last game which Strathroy won 5-4, might have went to overtime. The WMMC was jammed packed and overflowing with over 1300 spectators including one of the greatest NHL blueliners ever – Bobby Orr.

Orr had good reason to be there. Both teams had a plethora of players who were desirable as draft picks to NHL teams.  Orr’s agency was pursuing a young Leamington Flyer rookie, who was being touted as “the complete hockey player”, Charlie Stevens.  Orr took up position behind the Flyers’ bench.

For Leamington, it was their second consecutive shot at winning the playoff crown. Yet the Rockets had made a remarkable turnaround from two horrendous seasons (1992/93 and 1993/94) by that season. Under the guidance of Pat “Whitey” Stapleton, the team shed their former moniker (Blades) in 1994/95 and began rebuilding. By 1996/97, the team found the right mixture of goaltending, defense, and offense which combined skill with grit and had a tenacious attitude when it came to winning games.

The road to the title was different back then.

The Rockets and Flyers were very similar teams. Both finished atop their respective divisions and both had explosive offenses along with tough defenses. Strathroy finished first overall in the WJB with 34 wins, 13 losses, 3 ties and 3 overtime losses for 73 points while the Flyers had a record of 31-13-3-5 for 70 pts. Leamington outscored the Rockets 276-273 but the Rockets edged the Flyers 192 to 198 in goals allowed.

The Rockets took only five games to win each of their first two series. They topped the Aylmer Aces 4-1 and then conquered the St. Thomas stars 4-1. It was the Stars who had tripped up the Rockets the previous season by taking their second round series 4-0. Strathroy became a finalist for what was then known as the Strath Auto Cup (playoff trophy) for the first time since 1968/69.

Game one in Strathroy gave the fans more excitement than they had ever imagined.

The see-saw opener proved that both teams were worthy of winning the crown. After 60 minutes of action it was knotted 6-all. The officiating crew wasn’t hesitant to whistle penalties in the first extra frame, but nothing was decided. A second OT began shortly after midnight and another 20 minutes of back-and-forth jousting still did not decide a winner. By this time, it was after 1 am and with league convenor, the late Bill Weir, on hand, the teams and officials were advised that no playoff game period could be started after the 2 am curfew.

It was a Sunday night and for the players and staffs work and school would beckon them come daylight.

The teams were allowed to start the third OT and finally at 5:50 Leamington’s Jeff Stahlbrand fired a blueline shot that broke the deadlock and ended the immensely long contest which stands as the longest West playoff contest ever.

Strathroy would edge the Flyers 5-3 at Leamington and then come back home to win 3-1. Game 4 back in Leamington ended as an unusual blowout as Leamington romped 10-4. It was in this contest that the Rockets lost the services of a player who got into an altercation with the ref when he, and his brother who were in the stands, kept the gate closed and would not allow them off ice. Tensions mounted and an unfortunate incident took place off ice stemming from the standoff. It caused one official to quit and the player was charged. In fact, after the game the Rockets had to take the team bus to the police station to pick up their player. Despite that ugly episode, The Rockets managed to take the series lead at home with 4-3 victory on Rod Richard’s tally at 1:02 of another double OT affair. But the Flyers rebounded with a 3-1 win on home ice to even the series 3-3 and set the stage for the game seven showdown.

The Rockets blasted three goals and jumped out to an early lead before the Flyers got rolling. It soon became a one goal contest and by late in the third the Rockets clung to a precious 5-4 lead. With tremendous pressure applied by Leamington in the final 90 seconds, the Flyers dinged the crossbar once and then a goal post both times just missing the tying goal by a fraction of an inch. When the final buzzer sounded Strathroy had won the title and advanced to he Sutherland Cup round-robin.

Bobby Orr entered the Flyers’ dressing and spoke briefly with the team.  The ever gracious losing coach, Vern Stenlund, paid a visit to the Rockets’ dressing room congratulating them and wishing them well in the Sutherland Cup.

It was a night and series for all to remember.

The 1996/97 Strathroy Rockets reunion is the brainchild of former player Wade Clubb, currently an assistant coach with the Waterloo Siskins of the Mid-West Jr. B Conference of the GOJHL.

He keeps in contact with many former Rockets from that era and one of them, Henrik Gustafsson, is so thrilled about it that he says, “I’ll hop on a plane anytime just to come back!”  As a 20-year-old “rookie” with the Rockets, Henrik, a Swedish import, solidified a dangerous third line for the Rockets with rookies Joey Talbot and Rob McFeeters.

Clubb has stated, “It will take place sometime in January 2017. We have got approval from the (Rockets’) board to go ahead. A rough idea of what will happen is that our 1996/97 team will play a charity game vs local celebs/other former Rockets in the afternoon. We’ll have a dinner-type of gathering with a silent auction for charity and then we’ll watch the current (2016/17) Rockets play.” Wade is hoping the team will schedule a game against Leamington when the 2016/17 schedule is done in late July of 2016. In the meantime, he is initiating things and trying to contact former club members.

Members of that championship team were: Dan McIntyre, David Riddell (goalies), Mark Bell, Dan Watson, Will Giles, Darryl Candy, Troy Travis, Cory Brekelmans, Wade Clubb (defense), Kevin Hare, Chris Hare, Sean Nolan, Brodie Nadeau, Rod Richard, Ben Fryia, Rob McFeeters, Joey Talbot, Henrik Gustafsson, Joe Kinney, Greg Benedetti, Brandon Moffatt and Ryan Chapman (forwards). Director of Hockey Pat Stapleton, coaches: Ed Jeffery, Richard Kemp, Len Press and Jim Dalgity, trainers: Terry Maltar, Chad Dawson, Corianne Linton, equipment: Joe Brooks, Mike Brooks, Mike Pandur, scout: Tom Wilson, statistician Jeff Turner, videographer David Honsberger and GM John Simmons.

Members of the 1996/97 Starthroy Rockets’ can contact Wade Clubb on Facebook or visit the Rockets’ webpage or Facebook page for further information and contacts.

It may seem like a long way off, but if it is like any other reunion, it will draw great interest and should be highly successful. Clubb, himself, sums it up best, “I can’t wait!”

(photo credit – Luis Duarte, Luis’ Photography)

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