Strathroy Rockets Claimed Second Playoff Crown 20 Years Ago – by C. Scott Holland

It may be remembered as one of the best seven-game finals in the history of the West.  Back then it was known as the Western Jr. B Hockey League and it was split into east and west divisions.  The road to the title meant defeating two teams from your own division and meeting the other division’s winner.

Anyone who witnessed the 1996/97 playoff finals can say they saw one of the most competitive seven game-series ever played.  Only one game was lopsided – the rest were games which could have gone either way.

After having played an unbalanced 52-game schedule, the Strathroy Rockets rose to meet all challengers.  That task had not come overnight.  After rebranding themselves the Rockets in 1994, the team used a core group of returnees with a mix of newcomers that complimented what was already there.  That 1996/97 team had the West’s best overall record (34 wins, 13 losses, 3 ties and 2 overtime losses for 73 points). They scored 273 goals and allowed 192 against and had secured home advantage throughout the Western Jr. B playoffs.   It was the first time in their franchise history that they finished in first place.

Meeting the Aylmer Aces in the opening round, the Rockets went up 3-0, lost game four and won the quarter-final 4-1.  Up next on the slate was the St. Thomas Stars.  Like they did with Aylmer, the Rockets cruised to a 3-0 lead, lost game four and took the series 4-1.  Rodney Richard became a scoring phenomenon in the opening two rounds pacing the Rockets to their finals berth.

Their toughest opponent lay ahead against the Leamington Flyers.   In regular season play the Rockets won all four meetings (8-4, 7-5, 6-5 and 4-3 in OT), yet statistically the two teams were fairly even. The Flyers had a record of 31-13-3-5 and scored 276 goals and allowed 198.

Throughout the series fans would see plenty of penalties, goals, tussles and some strange things along the way including a trip to the Leamington Police station by the Rockets to pick up a teammate following a game as well as Bobby Orr making an appearance or two as he eyed several prospects including Leamington’s future NHLer Charlie Stephens.

Game one of the finals was a classic.  It was a triple overtime Sunday night affair at the WMMC which ended at 1:50 am, a short 10 minutes before curfew.  The teams quickly traded goals and the see-saw contest set the tone for the entire series including its highly physical nature.  With Leamington clinging to a 6-5 lead, rookie Rob McFeeters pumped the tying goal with just under two minutes left in the contest.  The first OT was pretty tame.  The second stanza featured some pretty plays and some players who got sidelined with co-incidentals.   Leamington had one powerplay chance to win it but failed.   With the third extra stanza underway and curfew looming, at 5:50 Jeff Stahlbrand’s blueline shot beat David Riddell to end to what is considered the longest playoff game in West history.

The series’ strangeness picked up in Leamington for game two.  Rockets’ player Ben Fryia was handed a game misconduct at 11:13 of the opening frame when he prevented Flyer Steve Mills from going to the Leamington bench.  Later the game ended with a line brawl as Mills would be pounded by Darryl Candy and Brandon Moffatt would battle the Flyers’ Aaron Setterington.   The Rockets won the game 5-3.

Game three was the cleanest game of the series. Strathroy made a 1-0 lead stand for about 35 minutes before the Flyers tied the game but future OHLers Dan Watson and Rod Richard notched goals six minutes apart to give the Rockets a 3-1 win.

Much like game one, game four featured plenty of tallies.  It was knotted 3-3 after 20 minutes, but Leamington surged ahead 6-3 in the second by tabbing three goals and ended on top 10-4. Brandon Moffatt and Aaron Setterington held a rematch of their game two bout with three seconds left in the game.

In game five, it was another close game as the two titans were tied 3-3 after three frames forcing the second game of the series into overtime.  Rod Richard would become the Rockets’ hero on this night when he drilled the game-winner at 1:02 of the second OT.

The Flyers returned home facing elimination and the teams played 20 minutes of back-and-forth hockey ending in a scoreless draw.  Early in the second period the Flyers gunned three straight goals in a four minute span.  Rocket Brodie Nadeau would break the shutout near the 14-minute mark of the third. The 3-1 Leamington win set up game seven back in Strathroy on March 30, 1997.

Boston Bruins’ legend and agent Bobby Orr was present and the Rockets filled the rink to capacity and put more people into the auditorium where they could watch a video feed of the game.  It certainly was one of the most exciting game sevens ever played.  Richard and Stahlbrand traded goals early.  Then the Rockets notched three unanswered goals as Chris Hare, Ben Fryia and fifteen-year-old Cory Brekelmans had the honours.  Hare’s and Fryia’s came 47 seconds apart.  But Leamington’s Tyler Sutherland cut the score in half by the end of the first.  Five minutes onto the second Charlie Stephens drew the Flyers to within one.

Six minutes into the third Leamington tied the game on Phil Fraser’s shot but just over a minute later Chris Hare put the Rockets ahead again with a quick shot off a faceoff win by his brother Kevin.  It would stand up to be the series winning goal.  This time the lead would stay but not before the Flyers had one final attempt to even it.  With one minute left, goalie Rob Bealleau was pulled for an extra attacker as Leamington had the Rockets hemmed in their own zone.  Several blistering shots were handled by Dan McIntyre and one clinked off the crossbar missing by a fraction.

The buzzer sounded and Rockets had won their first playoff title in 27 years.  Both teams were congratulated by Orr.  Flyer coach Vern Stenlund visited the Rocket dressing room wishing them continued success in the Sutherland Cup.

The list of players is amazing and to think that so many of them went on to better things.  A number of the players moved upward to CIS or NCAA scholarships, the OHL or played in Europe.  One of those players, Wade Clubb is a current assistant coach in the GOJHL.  Nine Rockets turned pro, 8 played in the OHL, 4 in the CIS and 3 earned NCAA scholarships.

The list of Rockets and Flyers who played that contest is amazing to see. The Flyers had Rob Bealleau, Tony Farias, Shawn Mather, Charlie Stephens, Nick Edinger, Dave Crawford, Jason Wilson, Brent Alent, Jay Anderson, Tyler Sutherland, Jeff Stahlbrand, Todd Chinnick, Steve Beneteau, Phil Fraser, Jason Maleyko, Rick Smith, Steve Mills, Aaron Setterington, Mat Coulter, Kyle Gabriele, Kevin Roach, Don Ashley and Richard Anderson.  Harold Konrad was the team’s general manager and Rob Williams was the assistant GM.  Vern Stenlund was the head coach along with assistants Wayne Jacklin, John Hoy, and Brent Webster while Joe Wickham, Michael Ropchan and Nelson Rutt shared the trainers’ duties. Bob Platsko, the late Floyd “Butch” Harris and Gary Mellow handled the equipment.

The Rockets consisted of Dan McIntyre and David Riddell in goal, defensemen Darryl Candy, Will Giles, Wade Clubb, Mark Bell, Cory Brekelmans, Dan Watson and Troy Travis.  The forward lines were Chris and Kevin Hare with Sean Nolan, Rod Richard centering “Big Bad” Ben Fryia and Brodie Nadeau, future Memorial Cup champ Joey Talbot with Swedish import Henrik Gustafasson and Rob McFeeters.  Everyone will remember the “Crash Line” with slick center Greg Benedetti between bombastic Joe Kinney and Brandon Moffatt – the innovator of “The Stomp”.  Ryan Wolf and Ryan Chapman in particular, were called into duty for injuries and suspensions.   Former NHLer and Team Canada 72 hero Pat Stapleton was the director of hockey operations.  Richard Kemp served as head coach with capable assistants Len Press, Ed Jeffrey and Jim Dalgity.  John Simmons was the general manager.

The team had several trainers and were among the first to have female trainers.  Terry Maltor, Corianne Linton, Jenna Garner and Chad Dawson filled those duties.  The late Joe Brooks was one of three who looked after the equipment.  The others were Tilman Joosten, Mike Pandur and Mike Brooks.  Jeff Turner was the team statistician, David Honsberger did the videography and Chris Soares was the “voice of the Rockets”.

Presently the reunion is slated to take place prior to the Leamington Flyers @ Strathroy Rockets game on Jan. 21, 2017. However, a special on-line auction is going on with various items gathered from the community.  Auction items can be viewed via a link on the Rockets’ Facebook page.  The auction runs from 8 am Jan. 9th to Fri. Jan. 13, 2017.  Winners will be contacted and payment will be made to the Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities.  It’s a great cause and monies raised will aid that charity.  (The auction raised over $2,200.)

Both of those 1996/97 teams were stocked with talented players.  The success stories are many but most of all the players, staff, volunteers and fans will live with some of the greatest memories of a lifetime – vying for a hard-fought playoff championship that went the full distance!

(photo by Colleen Wiendels Photography – (L to R) Tim Simmons, Pat Stapleton, John Simmons (in red behind Pat), Will Gilles, Richard Kemp, Wade Clubb, Mark Bell, Ed Jeffery, Brandon Moffatt, Chad Kemp, Chad Dawson, Ryan Chapman.)

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