By Caitlin Heffernan
To say the Ottawa 67s 2019-20 season was good would be an understatement. They finished first in the Ontario Hockey League for the second year in a row. Left winger Austen Keating was the OHL’s Overage Player of the Year, and centre Marco Rossi received the Eddie Powers Memorial Trophy as the league’s top scorer. Cedrick Andree and Will Cranley were awarded the Dave Pinkney Trophy as the goaltenders of the team with the lowest goals against average. André Tourigny won Coach of the Year for the second straight season and top junior coach in all of Canada. The only thing missing for the team? A shot at the Memorial Cup.
The OHL was suspended March 12; the rest of the season and playoffs were officially cancelled less than two weeks later. Right-winger Graeme Clarke is trying to keep the situation in perspective.
“I’m definitely disappointed, but at the same time, you have to realize that people are suffering, and this is a lot more serious than we thought it would be,” he said in an interview.
Clarke, born in 2001, was picked in the third round of last year’s NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils. While he will still be OHL-eligible next season, that isn’t the case for all of his teammates.
“I feel really bad for the guys who it could be their last season with the team,” he said. “We have some older guys who, that was it. Their OHL careers are over just because of COVID, and there’s nothing they can really do about it.”
The team is a close group, and they’re keeping in touch through Facetime and online poker games while in isolation.
“We all really liked each other and we’re all best friends. So now to be apart from everyone is pretty tough.” Clarke said they hope to get everyone from this season’s team back together after the lockdown for one last celebration.
Clarke grew up in Nepean, so he was able to live at home during the hockey season. But most players aren’t from the Ottawa area, so they’re placed with billet families who take them in from training camp until the end of the season.
Neil Purves, a teacher at Immaculata High School, along with his wife and three children hosted rookie centre Yanic Crete. He quickly became close with the family, acting as an older brother to the kids (aged 9, 11 and 13), playing video games and basketball with them and helping them practise their French. As his billet family, the Purves’ felt all the highs and lows of the season with him.
“Given that Ottawa is a very strong team, you may not get the same amount of playing time you’re used to,” said Purves. “And so that was certainly difficult as a family, to see him maybe not as happy about his playing time as he’d like to be. “I think it’s something that’s probably common amongst rookies, as they assimilate to a league that’s faster, stronger, quicker, more physical. And so there’s probably a bit of a learning curve there for young players and we were riding it with him.”
Crete dealt with three different injuries this year and was finally set to return from the third one just as the season was postponed.
His billet family was there to support him through it all, and Purves credits the team with helping them do that.
“They talked (to us) about how players could be reacting and feeling during this time, and so that’s been great and supportive for us as billet families.”
It was also hard for the Purves family to see Crete go back to his hometown of L’Orignal, an hour east of Ottawa.
“The kids had really become quite attached to Yanic, and he had to go home and that was it, so it was a really abrupt way to end the year with him,” Purves said. The family also attended most of the 67s home games, so the season’s cancellation was disappointing for them as fans too.
Like Crete, Clarke dealt with an injury this season and missed four months. He played just seven games after returning, for a total of 16 in 2019-20.
“Obviously I would’ve wished to have a long playoff run,” he said. “That’s kind of what I was looking forward to the whole year because I knew when I got back, I’d get some games in the regular season then we’d go for the playoffs.” Despite the heartbreak and wondering about what could have been, Clarke said he’s grateful for the season he did have.
“You can’t take anything for granted. I would do anything to just go out there and practise with everyone right now,” he said. “We’re so lucky to do what we do and have the team that we had.”
Caitlin Heffernan is a journalism student at Carleton University and a sports fan.