If you ask Dylan Strome whether Sunday’s Memorial Cup final is the biggest game of his young hockey career, he’ll tell you it “probably” is. There might be a little gamesmanship at play, though. Strome probably would have felt a little different had he won January’s gold medal game at the World Juniors, a shootout loss to Team USA.
But he didn’t, and so this is it — the next pinnacle.
“Hopefully this one goes better than that one. But it’s probably the biggest game of my life. This is my last game in an (Erie) Otters jersey,” Strome said after the Otters’ final practice of the 2016-2017 season.
He’ll also tell you he isn’t nervous (though he admits he likely won’t be able to sleep for his scheduled pre-game nap).
His teammate, Anthony Cirelli, who won the 2015 Memorial Cup, begs to differ.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking my first time around. It’s one of the hardest trophies to win in sports.”
“I wish we could play right now. I don’t even want to nap. Usually I want to get back to bed,” Strome added. “Hopefully it’s the best day of our lives.”
But on the other side, for Leafs prospect Jeremy Bracco, there’s debate over whether a Memorial Cup win would be his biggest to date.
There’s gamesmanship there too. Bracco bounces into his scrum at ease, laughing about his height with his skates on and telling reporters he’s been ribbing WHL defenceman and former World Juniors teammate Caleb Jones for his season being over.
“He’s on vacation,” Bracco joked. “[Bruins defenceman Charlie] McAvoy too, but he played in the NHL so we’ll give him the up on that one.”
When he’s told Strome might struggle to nap and asked whether he will, Bracco laughs.
“Oh, yeah, for sure for me. It’s a given, absolutely,” he said. “We’ve got some guys that haven’t been in this situation before, but they come to guys like myself and guys that have played in big moments and try to learn little stuff they can take from us, but I’ll be OK tonight for sure.”
After the World Juniors, the Memorial Cup is a walk in the park — or so it seems.
“There were 22,000 yelling against me for that game. I have the crowd in my favour this time so that’s going to be different,” Bracco said, laughing again. “I’ve had some big-game experience. If you look at that game we were down 2-0 to Canada in Canada, down 4-2 with 13 minutes to go, came back, so you’re never really out of the game. We’ve got a group that’s poised to do something special.”
That confidence is why the Windsor Spitfires acquired Bracco ahead of the OHL’s trade deadline.
“He’s a champion. He had the shootout where Team USA was down against the Russians and if he doesn’t score, they don’t move on, and there’s no greater pressure than having all those cameras and everyone watching and he succeeded and helped his team win and they went on to defeat Canada,” Rocky Thompson, Windsor’s head coach, said. “That was a big reason why we sought him out, because he’s a winner and he handles those big situations extremely well.”
The game itself will be a sellout. It sold out so quickly many of the Otters’ families couldn’t get tickets, according to Strome. Bracco’s family will be at home, watching it live on TV or online. They’re busy. His little sister has tennis. His little brother has tournaments of his own.
Bracco insists you can’t call the OHL championship-winning Otters favourites anymore, after his Spitfires went 3-0 in round robin (including a 4-2 win over Erie).
“After we lost in the playoffs, this is a date we had circled and it’s finally here,” Bracco, who had five points in three round robin games, said. “It’s the last game of the season for both teams and for Spits fans it’s an offseason until September. I expect it to be pretty crazy.”
Strome insists the Spitfires should be well rested, seeing as they lost in the first round of the OHL playoffs.
“This is their fourth game in awhile and this is our 27th in the same amount of time,” the Otters captain said. “We’ve been working for this. We’ve got some bumps and bruises but it’s all going to feel OK if we come out on top.”
Of the two teams, the Otters have the most experience in big games, according to Strome.
“If there’s a team comfortable here, it’s us,” he said, pointing to Erie’s long playoff runs and the sold out arenas they played in when Connor McDavid was an Otter — only two of their road games weren’t sold out in the back half of McDavid’s final year in the OHL.
“Owen Sound was a crazy building. London three years in a row. We’ve been in this situation before. Hopefully it’s the best day of our lives,” Strome added. “It all comes down to one day.”