“They inspire me.”
Those words from Kitchener Rangers head coach Jay McKee after a Game 7 loss to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The Rangers fought back all game. They trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 on the road to the best home-team in the Ontario Hockey League.
With the 4859 Soo fans standing and cheering inside the final minute with their team clinging to the one-goal lead, the Rangers won an offensive zone faceoff, worked the puck around the boards, and Connor Bunnaman found an open Logan Stanley.
The Waterloo native’s wrister tied the game with just 52 seconds left on the clock to force overtime, which solved nothing.
Zach Kopacka scored four minutes into double-overtime to send the Hounds to the OHL Final with a 4-3 win.
“Throughout the whole playoffs, the adversity they went through, I can’t say enough about how proud I am of them,” said McKee.
“We talked about success not being in the end result. It’s about how much you give and being able to look in the mirror when the game’s over and being able to say you gave everything you had. I think every guy on this bench gave that.”
After the game, with Rangers players visibly upset hunched over at the bench, McKee and his coaching staff walked out on the ice consoling and congratulating their team.
“Sometimes when you give everything you have, it’s not enough,” said the second-year head coach. “That’s what sport is and that’s why you play.”
Austin McEneny, Kole Sherwood and Mario Culina all graduate from the junior ranks; all additions made throughout the year by general manager Mike McKenzie.
McEneny came over in a trade with Logan Brown from the Windsor Spitfires at the trade deadline. He was injured in the final game against the Sarnia Sting and didn’t see any Championship Series action.
Sherwood joined the team in October after being sent back to Flint from the American Hockey League. He led the team in goals in the postseason and was second in team scoring behind only linemate Logan Brown.
“Getting sent back was the hardest, but the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Sherwood postgame. “It was a tough first couple of months. I can’t thank the guys, the staff for giving me the opportunity. I’m so happy I came.”
Culina was acquired for an eighth-round draft pick from the Sudbury Wolves and was nothing short of exceptional between the pipes.
He finishes his OHL career in front of family and friends in his hometown, stopping 37 shots.
The Rangers will likely lose other players to the pro-ranks, with Adam Mascherin, Brown, Bunnaman, Givani Smith and Logan Stanley all possibly making the jump.
The Rangers wrap up the season with their first Midwest Division title since 2008.