Tillsonburg Hurricanes' 2016-17 inaugural GMHL junior hockey season ended Feb. 16 after a one-game playoff against Oshawa, who earned the South Division's eighth playoff seed and the right to play No. 1 seed Niagara in the first round of the GMHL Russell Cup.
The Hurricanes trailed 3-1 going into the third period, but rallied to tie at 3-3. Oshawa pushed ahead 4-3 with seven minutes remaining, and added an empty net goal with one minute left to clinch a 5-3 victory.
"It was emotional for a lot of the guys because it was their last season playing junior hockey," said Hurricanes' GM/Owner Ian Ellis. "There was a lot of tears after the game in Oshawa. But just a wonderful group of players. They come from such good families - you can tell that."
Ellis said he contacted hundreds of players before the season Greater Metro Junior Hockey League started, and the three values he stressed when having meetings with parents and players was 'trust, honesty and integrity.'
"We talk about that in the full meeting with the parents. Those are the values that I try to bring into my everyday stuff... and it seemed to connect with the families that follow the same type of values. It makes it easier having a team of good-mannered, mature players. A lot easier. So there was a game-plan in that area - bring in good, respectful players."
Niagara swept the best-of-five first-round series against Oshawa (Feb. 17-20), winning 13-0, 12-3, 11-0, and play No. 4 seed North York in the second round (South Division semifinals).
While Niagara was sweeping Oshawa, the Hurricanes were having a year-end gathering.
"We knew some of the players were booking flights home, so we got that organized right away," said Ellis. "It was very emotional. These guys bonded so tight. Really, we're only missing a couple players from the beginning of the year. But overall this is the same group and they built a relationship that I personally have never seen in junior hockey - this one was unique. They overcame a lot of obstacles. Guys getting hurt, suspended... but they all stuck together. It helped build this friendship that they had.
(Coach) Jason (Dopaco) got a lot of hugs, because he put so much time into this."
The GMHL entry draft in May will be the team's No. 1 priority going forward.
"We took a week off, and coach is already texting me saying he's already itching to get back at it," said Ellis, who was was expecting a two-week 'vacation' from hockey.
Ellis, on behalf of the team, thanked Mayor Stephen Molnar, the Town of Tillsonburg, and the Town Staff for their support throughout the season, and the Tillsonburg Community Centre for its support.
"Everybody did a fantastic job," said Ellis. "I look at this season as a success. We built our foundation to grow and we're hoping to at least make the playoffs next year. Looking forward to it."
Ellis also thanked their fans, who were dedicated followers of the team through their first-season ups and downs.
"Tillsonburg is a hidden gem," said Ellis.
Looking ahead to the 2017-18 season, the Hurricanes hope to have about 30 billet beds for their junior hockey team.
"We're increasing the players' billet fees to $500-525... at least $500, per player, per month," said Ellis. "That should make it a little easier billeting a player. We ran $425 this past year and it was a little light. It covered the bills, but I think there was still a little money coming out of the billets' pocket."