The Shawinigan Cataractes, the only inaugural QMJHL franchise still running (they were formerly known as the Bruins and Dynamo), won their first championship in their 43-year history with a 2-1 overtime win over the OHL Champion London Knights. The Cats were a feel-good story, but perhaps very few fanbases see the joy in it to the extent that many of us do here in Ottawa.
It's hard to consider the Knights a rival of ours when we play in separate OHL conferences, but there have still been a number of events that have caused a dislike for them. The bench-clearing brawl at the Civic Center in January of 1969, the wild fight between then-OHL-superstars Darryl Sittler and Denis Potvin, the 2005 OHL Finals, Memorial Cup and ensuing skate machine incident that most of us remember all too well. You get the picture. We don't see London very often. But they haven't given us much of a reason to like them.
The entire OHL may have felt the same way this season, too. Before play even started for the 2012 season, center Max Domi had done everything in his power to try and circumvent the draft so that he could end up in London. To go along with a rough-and-tumble defence, the Rupert Brothers, Ryan and Matt, established themselves as two of the dirtiest pests in the league. The Knights were the team to beat all season, and when it mattered most, Shawinigan was the only team who could get it done.
Again, this isn't to say that Ottawa fans have an overbearing amount of hate for the Knights. But many fans in the Nation's Capital found themselves backing the host Cataractes, not because of a hate for London, but in consideration that their road to winning the Memorial Cup was nearly identical to that of the 1999 Ottawa 67's.
One flaw in the symmetry is that Ottawa eventually had to defeat the team that eliminated them in the second round in '99, the Belleville Bulls, in the Memorial Cup. Shawinigan lost to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the second round this season, before Chicoutimi bowed out to the future champion Saint John Sea Dogs. Still, both teams knew they were the host of the tournament which took the pressure off in the playoffs.
Another slight difference is that Shawinigan was never given a chance by any experts to win the championship on home ice. Ottawa was one goal away from a 3-0 finish to the round-robin in '99 while this year's Cataractes seemed overwhelmed from the get-go. Even in a blowout round-robin win over London, their only round-robin win, it looked as though a couple of bad bounces may have drastically changed the game in the Knights' favour.
To get to their final game, Shawinigan had the daunting task of defeating two teams who had bested them to start the tournament - Edmonton and Saint John. They beat both favourites soundly on back-to-back nights in front of a raucous Bionest Centre. Ottawa didn't have an easy task in their tournament, either, having to beat the same Belleville Bulls who knocked them out of the playoffs and beat them again in the 6th game of the Memorial Cup.
But finally, for both teams, the championship game. They had their differences. Ottawa matched the Calgary Hitmen goal-for-goal as the teams notched 12 tallies before overtime. London and Shawinigan, on the other hand, only scored two regulation goals.
After a grueling tournament of hockey, both squads needed one goal in overtime to secure their respective place in Junior Hockey history. Both fanbases, although 13 years apart, were on the edge of their seats as a smart play behind the opposing net caused the puck to come out in front. And in a split second, Canada's Major Junior championship had been won. Off of the stick of the 67's Matt Zultek two minutes into the first overtime in 1999, and off of the Cataractes' Anton Zlobin with two minutes remaining in the first overtime in 2012. On similiar-looking plays, the two cities went ecstatic as their teams had won the national championship, in years where they couldn't seal the deal in their league championships.
From their 1999 Cup Win, their 2002 OHL Championship and their 2005 Memorial Cup berth, the 67's were at their peak popularity. The whole city if Ottawa felt the '99 Memorial Cup win, and you have to assume that Shawinigan is the same right now. A classic Junior Hockey hotbed that had waited 43 years for any sort of championship finally got their shot at glory and they made the most of it. This may have been the greatest moment in Shawinigan sports history, and for that, it's hard to not peg them as the CHL's feel-good story.
Being an opinion piece, I don't expect that everybody shares my views that Shawinigan was the preferred team in any specific market, Ottawa or otherwise. But at the end of the day, they need to be congratulated for the obstacles that they had to overcome. With that, I'll say congratulations to the Shawinigan Cataractes on being crowned the 2012 Memorial Cup Champions.
However, I finish on a note of confusion. I researched the champion's nickname several times and while I found several literal translation for the word, I never found any practical response. To keep this as relevant as possible to Ottawa, I pose this question the same way many 67's players did throughout the year via Twitter when they had an upcoming opponent with a strange team name.
What's a Cataract, anyways?