During a warm winter day on January 9, the Stouffville Spirit geared up for a home game against the Markham Royals. The Spirit was still smarting from an overtime loss to the Royals six days prior (5-4). It hadn’t been a good loss, as Markham and Aurora are tending toward the bottom of the ranks in the North Division of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL).
The North Division is one of the toughest. In addition to Markham and Aurora, there is Collingwood and Pickering. If the Spirit can survive their own division, they will be up against teams like Trenton and Wellington in the East, Oakville in the West, and St. Michael’s in the South. The going gets hard. Since 1995, the Spirit has only won the league title once, in the 2011-2012 season.
The 2011-12 season was magnificent, with Stouffville knocking off Aurora, Newmarket, and Georgetown in the playoffs and finally doused Whitby for the title. Every game during the playoffs in Stouffville had been sold out, standing room only – 1,000 fans strong. For that season, Stouffville gathered the lion’s share of League Individual Awards – Lead Scorer, Top Defeneman, MVP, Fan Favourite, and Executive of the Year.
For this day, January 9, 2020, the Spirit got off to a bad start. In the first period, Stouffville was down 2-0. The second period started no better, with the Royals picking up another goal. Spirit Captain Connor May missed a penalty shot, yet Charlie Jeans of the Spirit slipped in a goal; 3-1. Thoughts about a comeback were dashed by the end of the second period, with Markham leading 4-1.
At the beginning of the 3rd, Markham caught another goal making it 5-1. Anthony Lamanna managed to edge the Spirit forward, 5-2. Then nothing from either team for 10 long minutes, it was a stalemate. Some dispirited Spirit fans began to exit. But, after some 11 penalties between both, the greatest two-and-a-half minutes of hockey arrived. The Spirit scored at minute 17:47 (Stavrou), and at 19:39 (Strickland), and again at 19:51 (Strickland). The Markham team looked stunned as the clock ran out with a 5-5 tie. They had blown a strong lead.
Overtime didn’t last long. Spirit player Jamie Mazomenos clinched the 6-5 victory early at 1:45. The Spirit team piled up against the glass in a giant winning embrace. “Those are the moments you look back on and remember,” said Connor May. “It was a bonding moment, and it was awesome!”
At 19, Connor is tall and slender. He has played with the Spirit for three seasons. This is last season with the Spirit and OJHL, as he will time-out at age 20. Connor first played minor hockey for a Stouffville Clippers tyke team coached by his father, Daryl, before moving to Bradford. He started Junior play in 2016-17 with the Junior C Schomberg Cougars. Connor led the club with 24 goals and 44 points, and then joined the Stouffville Spirit in the 2017-18 season.
“We are a young team,” said Connor. “We are physical, fast and have a good work ethic. The guys are excited to come. We are having success – just this October we surpassed the total number of wins we had all season last year,” added Connor.
These young men seem to play harder and move faster than NHLers. There may be good reasons for this, as they have too much to lose. Don’t think that they are getting paid. Instead, they have made an investment. The OJHL adopted a pay-to-play model a few seasons ago with players paying up to $6,500 per season. In some respects, the pay-to-play model helps to make OJHL teams more financially viable, but barely as it turns out – most returns, if any, are meager. Last spring the owners of the Newmarket Hurricanes gave up, sold the team, which was then moved to Milton under a new name, ending a tradition that had lasted decades. The former owner told BarrieToday, “The short answer is because Newmarket doesn’t care about junior hockey. We did everything we possibly could to build support for the team… We had the lowest amount of fans out in the playoffs.”
Beyond team viability and pay-to-play models, “A player can get traded, not only within the league, but to another part of the country. So, a teenager playing in the OJHL in Toronto can find himself traded to French River, or even La Ronge, Sask. If he turns down the trade, he receives a rebate on his payment, but basically has nowhere to play,” wrote Ken Campbell in Hockey News early last year.
The Stouffville junior hockey club dates back to 1995, but longevity, volunteers, and sponsorships from local businesses do not make the team recession proof forever. The surest way to keep the team is to support it.
Here is the value proposition: The Spirit games are totally affordable – it’s hard for a family of four to spend more than $35 total (including concessions). No Toronto driving is required, and parking is free. There’s even a warm room viewing area available at one end of the ice, within feet of the goalie. If you are lucky, you will get a chance to watch a future NHLer while he is young and hungry.
Rallying behind the Spirit for the Markham Re-Match seemed natural. There are only a few games left in the regular season, and this game is sure to be interesting. With enthusiasm, OTR Editor David Tuley reached out to various connections to investigate a ticket giveaway, one of them being Dave Mills – he’s the writer behind Giving Back, right?
Dave tapped his network to find that commercial folks were fatigued – a slow January and a lot of end-of-year philanthropy has left them tight. He decided to give back personally. The Spirit did their part by offering tickets at a very approachable wholesale price.
“I love hockey and especially local hockey. I have had a number of friends whose sons and daughters have played local hockey and I loved going to the games, it brought me a sense of community,” said Mills. “Also I thought this would be a good way to get more people, new people to come out to the game and support the team and hopefully keep them coming out regularly. I have always been amazed by the way sports teams in the USA are unconditionally supported by their community and I’ve always thought that would be such a great thing for Stouffville. If this helps then I am glad to be a part of it,” he added.
“It was the same with me,” said David Tuley, “I work here and make every effort to re-invest in the community. Dave and I will share the cost.” For the February 13 Re-Match game with Markham 400 free tickets are available. Show up with spirit, the young men need your support.