Monday, May 27, 2024

The wait is over: Navan Grads capture first championship since joining CCHL in 1991

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By Dan Plouffe

“Eighteen years, seven days, nine hours and 36 minutes.”

That’s how long Steve Barban had been dreaming of the moment his Navan Grads experienced at 9:40 p.m. on Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

“Maybe not exactly, but it’s been a long time coming,” reflected the owner of the Central Canada Hockey League club as it captured its first-ever Bogart Cup. “A long time coming.”

Barban has been the Grads’ owner for 18 seasons, and this was the first time the franchise reached the CCHL championship series since joining Eastern Ontario’s junior ‘A’ league in 1991.

Read More: Navan Grads competing in first CCHL final in 30+ years

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On the road in Game 6 of their battle with the Smiths Falls Bears, the Grads delivered a solid 5-2 victory in front of a packed Smiths Falls Memorial Centre crowd that featured a strong blue presence behind the Grads’ bench.

“We’ve been close before, but this is the first time we went all the way, and against a tough opponent too,” Barban highlights. “We put all the right pieces in place, top to bottom – coaching, support staff, billet families, the players create a positive atmosphere, and this is the end result.”

Navan built a 2-0 lead in the deciding game with goals by Sebbie Johnson and Cristobal Tola, and then Nicholas Paone delivered a dagger with his powerplay goal just before the end of the second period.

Paone’s marker stood as the game-winner as Colin MacDougall added two third-period goals to complete his four-point night, before Smiths Falls’ rally efforts fell short.

Gabriel Crete. Photo: Dan Plouffe

“I mean, I can’t even explain it,” marvelled Grads captain Gabriel Crete. “I’m just so proud of this group. We battled so hard. I’m just beyond happy.”

After trading overtime wins in the first two games of the series, Navan took a 4-1 win in Game 3 and held on for a 3-2 triumph in Game 4. With chance to win the title on home ice Sunday afternoon, the Grads got trounced 5-0, but there was no denying them Wednesday.

“Last game there were a lot of emotions,” recalled Crete. “We were at home and maybe we were imagining what it would be like after the game, but we just bounced back and we knew we were gonna win it, so we came back here and just got it done.”

Crete, who first appeared for the CCHL Grads in 2019 and was part of U18 program before that, committed to play NCAA hockey for Mercyhurst University, but the 21-year-old elected to return for a final season in Navan.

“I just wanted to be home and try to get another trip with this team,” explained the team’s regular-season scoring leader. “I’m so happy I came back. They’ve treated me so well over the years and I’m just so happy for this organization.”

Crete also saluted the “stellar” performance of goaltender Jaeden Nelson, who stopped all 14 Bears shots in the first period and 27 of 29 overall to earn first-star and playoff MVP honours. Crete was impressed with the composure Nelson displayed as a 16-year-old heading into his first junior hockey playoffs.

Jaeden Nelson. Photo: Dan Plouffe

“It’s just hockey, right?” smiles Nelson, who appeared for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s in a few games this season. “I’ve done it 50-60 times this year and it’s nothing different. There are a few more people in the crowd, but it’s just about playing hockey and having fun.”

Nelson has celebrated minor hockey titles in the past, but he said that winning in junior hockey is next-level.

“It feels unreal,” signalled the past Nepean and Ottawa Myers Automotive player. “It’s my first year, but it’s more than just for me. It’s really for the guys that were here last year, and the guys who haven’t had something like this in their life ever. I wouldn’t want to do it with any other group. I love these guys.”

Navan now advances to play for the Centennial Cup in Oakville. The Grads were the second-to-last team to book their ticket to the national junior ‘A’ championship.

They’ll face Collège Longueuil, the Greater Sudbury Wolves, Calgary Canucks and Collingwood Blues in the preliminary round between May 10-15, while the Winkler Flyers, Sioux Lookout Bombers, Melfort Mustangs, the Maritime Hockey League champions and the host Oakville Blades are in the other pool.

Six teams will advance to the playoff rounds from May 17-19.

“We want to do some damage down there,” Nelson noted. “We’re already here, why not take it all the way?”

Steve Barban. Photo: Dan Plouffe

Grads head coach and general manager Marty Abrams will be returning to the national championship for the first time since 2011 when he was with the Wellington Dukes.

“Coaching is a big part of our success,” underlined Barban, who hired Abrams in 2018. “This is Marty’s 899th win tonight. I mean, wow. I’m not sure where that stands all-time, but it’s got to be up there.”

There’s one more number that Barban has in mind after 17 years as the Grads’ owner.

“Seven more wins would be fantastic – maybe six, if we get a bye,” smiled the Navan resident, noting that he’s eager to experience the thrill of winning the championship again after waiting so long for the first.

“Hopefully this will start a new run for us,” he added. “Maybe this is the first of more.”

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