Saturday, June 29, 2013

Part 1: A chronological history of the Battalion (as seen in The Brampton Guardian)

Scott Abbott had his eye on owning an Ontario Hockey League team long before he was granted the franchise that became the Brampton Battalion on Dec. 3, 1996.

Abbott, a former Canadian Press sportswriter and a co-inventor of Trivial Pursuit, originally inquired about buying the Toronto Marlboros.

“I had interest in the OHL dating back to the 1980s,” said Abbott, who moved from his hometown of Montreal in 1982 and eventually settled in Caledon. “I had a meeting in 1988 or 1989 about buying the Marlboros and decided not to proceed.”

Abbott had great success with the Jr. A Caledon Canadiens, which he owned from 1992-98. The club played in five Metro Jr. A League finals, winning two championships.

“After several seasons with a Jr. A team I felt it was time to resurrect the OHL interest. I went to the league and I don’t think they were in an expansion mode. They had brought the Barrie Colts in in 1995 and the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors were coming in in 1997. I approached them in 1996 expressing interest in a team and they were receptive.”

A little more than a month after Abbott was granted his OHL franchise for Brampton, the league awarded a franchise to a group from Mississauga led by Don Cherry.

“Mississauga came in at the same time, presumably to keep the league with an equal number of teams,” said Abbott. “I chose Brampton because it was a large market close to home and I was familiar with it from the days when the Brampton Capitals were arch rivals of the Caledon Canadiens. I thought it would be a good fit.”

Abbott began looking for personnel to run the hockey side of the club and after interviewing a number of candidates settled on Stan Butler, a Toronto native who had spent two seasons in the OHL as head coach of the Oshawa Generals before moving out to the Western Hockey League where he spent one season coaching the Prince George Cougars.

“I knew Scott from having coached Wexford against his Caledon teams and we developed a relationship,” said Butler, who heard that a new Toronto-area franchise was coming to the OHL before a Cougars road game against the Kamloops Blazers.

“I contacted Scott to congratulate him on getting a team. We talked after that and kept in contact the rest of the season and when it was done I came home, met with him and the president of the team at the time and went from there.”

Said Abbott: “We needed personnel , beginning with a general manager and a coach, whether that was one person or two. I knew Stan from his days coaching the Wexford Raiders against the Caledon Canadiens. I had a lot of respect and admiration for him as a coach and developer of talent. He wasn’t the only candidate. I believe six people interviewed and Stan got the job and started in 1997 to lead the scouting operation heading into the OHL Expansion Draft and Priority Selection.”

Butler told Abbott he felt the quickest way for the Battalion to become competitive would be go with a youth movement in its first season.

“The Majors had come in the league just before we did and Barrie had come before that, so I thought with two teams coming in in the same season, and the way the Expansion Draft was being set up, the best way to do this was short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Abbott said he knew operating an OHL franchise would be different than what he experienced in Jr. A.

“Jr. A was pretty much a wild west scenario in those days with warring leagues. I was supportive of Stan’s plan to go young and give kids quality icetime to make them better. Mississauga went a different way with overage goalies and a very different view of things.

“The rules were different for us than they were for Barrie, which came into the league and made the playoffs in its first season. The league changed the process to make it a little more difficult for new teams to get good quickly.”

Now ensconced in the job, Butler hit the road, criss-crossing Ontario and heading into Quebec and the United States in search of players to fill the roster for the Battalion’s first season.

“That was a very unique year when I look back on it. I traveled all over, looking under rocks and everywhere else for players and we found some.”

The Battalion made eight picks in the OHL Expansion Draft. Five of the choices would play for the club with two, defenceman Jason Maleyko, who was the first player taken from the Generals, and right winger Scott Thompson, plucked from the London Knights, spending three seasons with the Battalion. Maleyko would be the captain of the Battalion in each of his seasons.

“We split the 16 Expansion Draft picks with Mississauga,” said Abbott. “We had identified which player we would take off each existing OHL roster and in no case did the IceDogs take the player we had identified.”

The Battalion chose four players in the league’s Overage Expansion Draft. Left winger Brian Barker, taken from the Colts, would lead the team with 10 power-play goals and finished fifth in team scoring with 21 goals and 25 assists for 46 points. Right winger Jason Doyle, tabbed from the Owen Sound Platers, played four games before being traded to the London Knights.

The Battalion had the first overall pick in its inaugural Priority Selection and used it to take defenceman Jay Harrison. Butler, director of scouting Bob Wetick and his staff, would make 32 picks over 28 rounds and see, in addition to Harrison, 11 players see action with the club. That number included several long-term contributors such as centre Jeff Bateman, goaltender David Chant, defenceman Tyler Hanchuck, left wingers Kurt MacSweyn and Raffi Torres and right winger Aaron Van Leusen.

“Our scouts did a very good job before that first season,” said Abbott. “We made very good use of all our picks.”

The Battalion iced what many believe to be the youngest team in Canadian Hockey League history and lost its first game, dropping a 5-1 road decision to the Peterborough Petes on Sept. 24. Maleyko scored the first goal in club history on a second-period power play as the Troops were outshot 55-29.

The Battalion lost 6-5 to the host Platers six days later when Kyle Flaxey scored the winning goal at 19:51 of the third period. The Troops played their first home on Oct. 9 against the Kitchener Rangers before a crowd of 4,474 that was a club record for many years. The Battalion lost 5-1 with the club’s first goal on home ice coming from centre Jason Spezza, a 15-year-old playing his lone season for the Battalion under an OHL rule at the time that allowed underage players to play one season for their hometown team before being made eligible in the Priority Selection.

The Troops lost three more games, including dropping a 5-4 decision in overtime to the visiting Majors, before picking up their first win on Oct. 18 as they beat the Sudbury Wolves 5-4 with MacSweyn’s first OHL goal, at 6:25 of the third period, proving the winner.

“You always want that first win and sometimes you wonder if it will ever come,” said Butler. “It was satisfying for the organization and it was history in the making.”

Said Harrison: “I remember thinking I was glad I didn’t play for Sudbury. I remember somebody had taken a picture of us coming off the ice celebrating with the scoreboard in the background. It was a big weight off our shoulders. We’d been hoping to get that first one, it was a nice thing to be a part of.”

Abbott said the inaugural win was cause for celebration.

“It was a while coming. There was a great celebration at the end of the game, the players came pouring off the bench, you would have thought they’d won the Memorial Cup. I recall being up late that night after that one.”

The Battalion lost its seven games heading into its first–ever meeting with the IceDogs, who they would face six times in each of the first four seasons, on Nov. 6. The IceDogs had lost their first 11 games and were outscored 86-19 before they posted their first win, beating the Majors 4-3 in their first home game.

The Troops won that first game, played before an announced crowd of 4,008 at the Hershey Centre, 6-2 as Bateman and Spezza each scored two goals. Four of the Battalion’s eight wins that season would come against its Peel rival, including an 8-1 thrashing in the first meeting at Brampton on Nov. 14 and an 8-3 romp at home on New Year’s Eve.

“There was a lot of anticipation before our first game with the IceDogs,” said Abbott. “We liked to say we didn’t measure ourselves against Mississauga, but it would be silly to suggest that how we did against them wasn’t important to us.

“I don’t know if this is true, but I have been told that in his box during the first game against us that Cherry said ‘Holy cow, where did they get all these guys?’ We could always count on Mississauga being a disaster, they were for four years.”

The Battalion’s fourth win, on Dec. 4, would remain one of the most significant in the club’s early history as they beat the visiting Guelph Storm, reigning OHL champions, 6-4. Butler recalled Storm head coach Geoff Ward, now an assistant coach with the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins, being very unhappy in the wake of the defeat.

“After the game he went into the dressing room and kicked a container of orange Gatorade all over the room. Our trainer, Hamlin Smith, was concerned about who would have to clean it up while I was just happy we had won a game.”

The Battalion would win three more games and post two ties after that and finish with a win-lost-tied record of 8-57-3 for 19 points. The IceDogs managed four wins and three ties.

“There were no easy nights for us,” said Abbott. “We knew it would be tough. It was difficult, I wasn’t used to losing. We had what we liked to call the best midget team in Ontario, unfortunately we were playing an OHL schedule. If games had been 40 or 45 minutes long, which most of those players were used to, we would have been fine. We did very well for two periods and invariably we’d give up a lead in the third period or let a close game get away.

“We could have done it like Mississauga did and thrown some second or third-rate older guys out there to take minutes away from the younger guys. Would it have made our record substantially better? Doubtful. Would it have got us in the playoffs? No.”

Despite the long nights Butler said he was confident in his plan.

“We started the season with Doyle, an overage player, and early on I traded him to the Knights. Every move we made that first season was to make us better going forward.”

Butler began planning for the second season without Spezza, who led the team in scoring with 71 points, including 22 goals, and was named to the OHL’s first All-Rookie team. The IceDogs would claim Spezza with the first overall pick in the 1999 OHL Priority Selection and he would also play for the Windsor Spitfires and Belleville Bulls over the next four seasons before heading off to a long professional career.

“I don’t know if Jason’s season here was his best,” said Butler, “but I bet if you talk to him it was probably the season in which he had the most fun. He had such a good season here, it was probably tough for him to leave the friends he had made here to go to the IceDogs.”

The Battalion chose centre Jay McClement with the second pick in the Priority Selection and added Czech Republic defenceman Rostislav Klesla with its first pick in the CHL Import Draft and he joined fellow Czech native, right winger Lukas Havel, who contributed 19 goals and 50 points in 1998-99 to make up the Battalion’s two-man import complement. Two other Priority Selection picks, left winger Chris Rowan, a fourth rounder, and blueliner Paul Flache, taken in the fifth, would prove to be important long-term contributors.

“I thought we’d be better, especially after we picked up Klesla,” said Butler. “Our guys had played a lot that first season, but we were still a young team that didn’t have a lot of older guys.”

The Battalion, playing without an overage player in its lineup, burst from the gate in its second season, winning 11 of its first 14 games.

“We got off to that great start and Chant was very good for us in net and we had a really good line with Bateman, Torres and Havel,” said Butler. “Our back end was pretty good too with Hanchuck, Klesla, Harrison, Maleyko and Flache.

“Was I surprised we got off to that start? Of course I was, but we needed that start to help us get to the playoffs. We came back to earth a bit and teams were able to figure out that we were probably just a one-line team with a bunch of other hard-working kids.”

Said Abbott: “We were a legitimate, competitive team by the second season.”

The Troops finished with a record of 25-32-11 for 61 points and finished seventh in the conference to qualify for the playoffs. The Battalion squared off with the Erie Otters, a Midwest Division rival who had won the division.

The Battalion won its first playoff game, 5-2 at Erie, and the Otters tied the series in the first postseason game at Brampton three days later. The teams traded wins before the Otters took a 3-2 edge with a 6-2 win at home in Game 5. The Troops owned a 2-1 lead after 40 minutes in that game, even after having a goal by Rowan disallowed and one nullified by a goaltender interference call to McClement.

The Otters rallied with four third-period goals to win the game 5-2 and Butler earned a two-game suspension after a verbal tirade at referee Dave Wright who whistled Flache for interference in the final minute prompting a barrage of garbage from Battalion fans.

“We had a 2-1 lead going into the third period, but we had two goals disallowed that I thought should have been legitimate goals,” said Butler. “If we’d had a 4-1 lead at that time we probably take the series to Game 7, instead we ended up losing. I felt bad for the kids because they played pretty hard.”

The Battalion entered its third season with two first-round NHL picks on its roster after Klesla and Torres were chosen fourth and fifth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders respectively.

“Klesla is as good as any player who ever played for us,” said Abbott. “He was an outstanding talent, a warrior who played hurt.”

The Troops had compiled a record of 15-19-6 when Butler pulled the trigger on one of the biggest deals in club history at the Jan. 10 trade deadline, acquiring veteran goaltender Brian Finley from the Colts for Chant, Hanchuck and second-year centre Matt Grennier.

“We felt that for us to have a chance to win our conference we had to have a world-class goalie and everyone would have told you he was the best goalie in the OHL,” said Butler. “Chant was a good goalie, but Brian was a little bit better. We had some depth on defence and much as we didn’t want to part with Hanchuck we had to give away something to get something.”

With Finley sidelined due to a groin issue, 16-year-old Brad Topping, a second-round pick in the Priority Selection, made 16 consecutive starts, compiling a record of 11-3-2. Finley debuted for the Battalion in mid-February and started all but one of the final 12 games.  

The Battalion finished fifth in the conference and met the Guelph Storm in the first round. The Troops swept the series, outscoring the Storm 19-5 with Finley contributing one shutout and a save percentage of .964.

The Otters were the next opponent and the Battalion once again won the series opener, posting a 4-3 win in front of a raucous throng at Erie’s Tullio Arena, but lost Torres, who had scored two goals, after he was banished by referee Pat Smola for clipping Otters defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo in the final minute. The major penalty also earned Torres a one-game suspension, which he served in Game 2, a 7-2 romp for the 
Otters on the strength of three shorthanded goals from Cory Pecker.

The Otters would win the series in five games, finishing it off at home when Brad Boyes jumped on a Finley miscue and scored the series-winning goal at 19:57 of the third period.

“We beat a pretty good Guelph team,” said Butler. “We won the first game against Erie, but lost Torres to a controversial clipping penalty. Finley got hurt in the first game and was never the same.”

The Battalion’s rivalry with the Otters was an intense as any in its history.

“You wouldn’t think looking at a map that Brampton and Erie would be rivals,” said Abbott. “But we played them in the playoffs in 2000 and that carried over a bit into the next season and then we played them in the playoffs again. The rivalry is largely defunct now since we only play them twice a season since 2002, but it was something special.

“Our success that season validated our approach and showed that we could put a good team together in three seasons. That was a very good team, without some controversial calls in the playoffs we might have beaten Erie.”

The Battalion entered the 2001-02 season with a different look to its lineup. Maleyko and Thompson were lost to graduation and Klesla, Torres and Finley moved on to the pro ranks while the departed Havel’s spot was filled by another talented Czech centre, 17-year-old Kamil Kreps.

Topping, a second team All-Rookie choice as a 16-year-old, assumed the starting job and was backed up by 17-year-old rookie Joey Biasucci. The duo struggled and injuries to MacSweyn, who was the captain, Van Leusen, rookie defenceman Mike Looby and first-year left winger Tyler Harrison, Jay’s brother, caused the Battalion to miss the playoffs for what would prove to be the last time during its stay in Brampton.

“It was a learning experience for us,” said Butler. “We thought we could go with two 17-year-old goalies in Topping and Biasucci. Brad was really good at 16, he didn’t have a good year at 17. That team was eliminated late in the season and if we hadn’t had all those injuries we would have made the playoffs, which, to me, has always been the minimum standard.”

Said Abbott: “We have done a very good job through 15 years of producing competitive teams. Some teams go up and down, we haven’t had any really serious down seasons. We missed the playoffs as an expansion team and that was pretty much pre-ordained. We have missed the playoffs once since when we were crippled by injuries. We have done a very good job of managing the structure and maintaining our competitiveness.”

Missing the playoffs gave the Battalion the third overall pick in the Priority Selection as it prepared to move to the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, replacing the North Bay Centennials who relocated to Saginaw, Mich. to be renamed the Spirit.

The Troops chose left winger Wojtek Wolski, a Mississauga resident, and he was part of an outstanding crop of rookies to join the Battalion from the 2001 Priority Selection including right winger Brent Burns, a third rounder, centre Ryan Oulahen, taken in the fourth, goaltender Kevin Couture, an eighth rounder, and Jamie Fraser, an 11th-round pick as a defenceman who was converted to forward.

“That set us up to have a pretty good run for three or four years,” said Butler. “We haven’t picked early too often, but when we have we’ve been pretty fortunate getting Harrison, Wolski and Matt Duchene at five.”

Butler augmented these additions with the acquisition of two overagers, right winger Scott Rozendal, picked up in an offseason  trade from the Storm, and defenceman Kevin Young , who was claimed after clearing Western Hockey League waivers.

That edition of the Battalion set a club record with 34 wins and scored 239 goals, also a club record at the time, and won the Central Division title. Topping rebounded to have a fine season and was outstanding as the Troops beat the Colts in six games in a conference quarterfinal. The Battalion won the opener of its second-round series against the Majors 7-0, but lost the next four games, scoring a total of eight goals.

“We were coming off a big series win and we had all the confidence in the world after the first game, maybe we thought it would be easy,” said Young, now a member of the Wichita Thunder of the Central Hockey League. “I don’t know if we had the mentality that we had to grind it out and when we figured that out it was probably too late.”

The Battalion suffered a number of personnel losses early in the 2003-04 season, none more important that the departure of Burns to the Minnesota Wild, which had chosen him in the first round of that June’s NHL Draft. Defenceman Dan Marziani, a second-round pick in 2002 left the team after playing two games and fellow second-year rearguard Drew Petkoff was waived. To help stabilize the blue line Butler once again headed out west and picked up overager Rob Smith who had cleared waivers after playing with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL.

Butler also made two significant trades. With the team sporting a record of 10-13-2 on Dec. 1, he dealt captain Ryan Bowness to the Oshawa Generals for another overage right winger, Aaron Lobb, and on Jan. 8 he shipped Topping, who would leave as the club’s all-time leader in goaltender wins, to Kitchener for netminder Tyson Kellerman. The Battalion, under captain Chris Clayton, finished seventh in the conference with a record of 25-34-9.

“We ran into some challenges that season,” said Butler. “It wasn’t good when we didn’t get Burns back. Topping was good at 18, but struggled at 19 and we traded him to give Couture a chance to run with it as the starter. I was proud of the boys for how they scrapped to get things turned around for the playoffs.”

The Troops matched up well against their first-round opponent, the high-powered Ottawa 67’s. The Battalion had won three games and tied another in the regular season against the East Division champions, but lost the series opener, falling 7-5 at Ottawa. The Troops rebounded with a 5-4 win in Game 2 when Smith scored at 18:59 of overtime in a game that marked the last time in the series that the home team won.

The Battalion won Game 3 2-1 at Ottawa and the 67’s tied the series with a 4-3 overtime win at Brampton. The Battalion produced a 4-2 win at the Corel Centre, home of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, but the 67’s forced a seventh game at home with a 6-3 win in Game 6. In the first Game 7 in Battalion history Wolski scored two goals and Kreps added a third into an empty net as the Troops won 3-1.

“That was a weird series, you usually don’t win a seven-game series by winning three games on the road,” said Butler, whose charges lost in five games in a second-round series with Toronto. “You might steal one, but not three. In any season or playoff series there are always defining moments and Smith’s goal to win Game 2 was a defining moment in that series.”

Said Smith: “That series took a lot out of us. I was pretty banged up and I played a lot of minutes. I was having an issue with my shoulder. We were worn out and Toronto had an easier time in their first-round series. We just didn’t have the horses to play another series like we played with Ottawa. I actually thought Ottawa would be lot tougher for us to deal with than Toronto.”

The 2004-05 season brought more promising newcomers. Butler had picked up the rights to dynamic left winger Luch Aquino in the Bowness trade and persuaded the 19-year-old Aquino to leave the University of Maine for the OHL. Two players who were chosen in 2002 and saw spot duty in 2003-04, defenceman Michael Vernace, a ninth-round pick, and goaltender Daren Machesney, tabbed in the 13th, became important members of the team.  Three players chosen in 2004, defenceman John de Gray, taken sixth overall, left winger Aaron Snow, a second-round choice, and 17-year-old left winger Luke Lynes, a third rounder, were among the rookies who stepped into the lineup.

Aquino finished second in scoring behind Wolski, recording 71 points, including 25 goals, and Vernace, who would leave as the highest-scoring defenceman in Battalion history, produced 12 goals and 38 assists for 50 points and joined Machesney on the first All-Rookie team.

“Luch is a character, that’s the best way to describe him,” said Butler. “But once he puts his skates on he gives you everything he has.

“When Jim Cassidy was scouting for us he found Vernace and believed he could play here. Michael had some scholarship offers at some smaller U.S. schools, but we told him we would give him a chance to play here. He ended up turning into a pretty good defenceman.”

Another player who enjoyed a fine season was overage centre Tyler Harrison who contributed 57 points and led the team with 31 goals.

“I took a lot of heat about Tyler,” said Butler. “People thought the only reason he was on the team was because his brother was here. I always believed in him and he worked hard and turned into a very good overage player. He had a good OHL career and was a very good player at York University.”

The Troops won 33 games and engaged in a first-round playoff series with Sudbury. The Wolves won the opener, 3-2 in overtime at Brampton and skated to a 4-1 win at home in Game 2. The Troops won game 3, but the Wolves took the fourth game 2-1. The Battalion won Game 5 at home, but the Wolves closed out the series in Game 6 at home when Benoit Pouliot scored on the power play at 1:35 of the second overtime after Snow was errantly sent off for high sticking.

“The key to that series was the first game, which we lost here in overtime,” said Butler. “After that they held serve and beat us in six.”

The Battalion began 2005-06 without Wolski and Aquino, but both would eventually return and make massive contributions. Wolski, a first-round pick of the Colorado Avalanche in 2004, began the season in the NHL and produced six points, including two goals, with the Avalanche before being returned to the Battalion on Oct. 26. Aquino, who was drafted by the Islanders in the seventh round in 2005, returned to the Troops on Dec. 6 after playing with the Trenton Titans of the ECHL.

Butler moved Wolski, who had been named captain, between left winger Snow and Aquino on right wing and the trio exploded.  Wolski produced 35 goals and 62 assists for 97 points in his final 34 games, winning OHL player of the month honours for each of the final four months of the season and eventually winning the Red Tilson Trophy as the league’s most outstanding player.  He finished the season with 47 goals and 81 assists for 128 points, club records in each category and he set a club record with seven points, including four goals, in a 9-4 win over the visiting Otters on Jan. 22.

“It took Wojtek a little while to figure out what he wanted to do that season,” said Butler. “But once he realized he had to be here he figured the best thing was for him to show people what he could do and not complain about other stuff. He had a season that was as good as any I had seen.”

Aquino only played 32 games, but finished second in scoring with 28 goals and 44 assists for 72 points and he set a club record with six assists in a 9-3 win over visiting Oshawa on March 3. Snow contributed 68 points, including 30 goals, and was eventually drafted in the third round by the Dallas Stars. Vernace set a club record for points by a defenceman with 72, including 62 assists, most ever by a Battalion blueliner, and earned a spot on the OHL’s third All-Star team.

The Battalion won its final 14 games, a club record at the time, to finish one point ahead of Barrie in the Central. The Troops dispatched the Belleville Bulls in six games in a hard-fought first-round series, but fell to the Colts in five games in a conference semifinal.

“That was a very talented team,” said Butler. “We needed that magical run at the end of the season to finish first in the division. Looking back on it I wonder how our guys were affected by having to win so many games in a row just to win our division. We seemed to run out of gas after the first round of the playoffs.”

The 2006-07 season brought significant personnel changes. Wolski, Aquino, Vernace and Machesney were gone, replaced by a new crop of rookies led by centre Cody Hodgson, a first-round pick in the 2006 Priority Selection, Brad Albert and Ken Peroff, two blueliners taken in 2005, 16-year-old right winger Kyle DeCoste and right winger Jason Dale, an 18-year-old walk on.

Second-year netminder Bryan Pitton shared the crease duties with Aaron Rock, a 19-year-old acquired in an offseason trade with Saginaw. Rock would be sent packing after playing six games and replaced by 16-year-old Patrick Killeen, a fifth-round pick in 2006, who would contract mononucleosis during the second half of the season. Pitton would play 61 games, which remained a club record until Killeen bettered it by two three seasons later, and start the final 19 games of the season.

The young group struggled and went though one of the more bizarre moments in Battalion history during an Oct. 19 game at Saginaw when Snow left the team in the first period. Butler would eventually trade Snow to Belleville for right winger John Hughes, the first overall pick in the 2004 Priority Selection. Hughes would be a major contributor during his time with the Troops while Snow would also play for the Windsor Spitfires, Niagara IceDogs and Sarnia Sting.

“I don’t think a lot about what Snow did,” said Butler. “He made a choice and only he knows why he did it. His career after he left here pretty much speaks for itself.

“That was one of the trades I was happiest with. Hughes had some tough times in Belleville and Aaron had some tough times here. I think it worked out for both teams.”

Butler made a significant move at the Jan. 10 trade deadline, moving veteran defenceman Phil Oreskovic, a Brampton resident and fan favourite, and productive forward Howie Martin to the Owen Sound Attack for overage defenceman Dalyn Flatt and 17-year-old rookie centre Thomas Stajan.

“Phil was a very good player here and since we weren’t going anywhere in his last season we wanted him to get an opportunity to play on a very good team in Owen Sound,” said Butler.

The Battalion occupied the eighth and final conference playoff spot and bowed out in four games against a talented Colts team. Two of the games went to overtime while a third was decided by one goal.

“We played pretty hard in the playoffs,” said Butler. “That team was the foundation for the best team we ever had here.”

The offseason brought two outstanding acquisitions, centre Duchene from the Priority Selection and Bobby Sanguinetti, a first-round pick of the NHL’s New York Rangers , who was one of the premier offensive defencemen in the league came via trade from Owen Sound.

Butler made another addition, trading for veteran centre Cory Emmerton from the Kingston Frontenacs in December. Emmerton contributed one goal and two assists in his debut, a 5-4 road win at Kitchener, but a week later would be diagnosed with mononucleosis. Emmerton would go on to record 30 points in 30 games.

“Cory came in and had a great start and then he got mono and I don’t know if he ever recovered,” said Butler. “That trade cost us a lot.”

With Pitton injured, Killeen carried the ball in goal for the first eight games and the duo split the netminding chores for the remainder of the season. The Troops would win 42 games and score 259 goals, the second-highest total in club history.

Hughes led the team in scoring with 91 points, including 28 goals, and Hodgson had a breakout season with 85 points including a team-high 40 goals. Duchene recorded 30 goals and 20 assists for 50 points.

Among Sanguinetti’s 70 points were 29 goals, a club record for defencemen.

“Stan really let me use my strengths, like skating and creating offence,” said Sanguinetti, now a member of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. “He also helped me develop the defensive side of my game. He gave me the leeway to do what I could offensively, but at the same time he made sure I was doing the right things defensively. That really helped me get to the next level.”

The Battalion won the Central and met the seventh-seeded Colts in the first round of the playoffs. Barrie, behind the stellar goaltending of Michael Hutchinson, upset the Troops in five games. Hutchinson made 62 saves in a 2-1 Colts win in overtime on home ice in Game 4.

“That could have been our second-best team if it had reached the level it was capable of,” said Butler. “We just didn’t get it done in the playoffs. Game 4 killed us when we could have turned the series around. We had a lot of shots. Pitton was pretty good in that series, but Hutchinson outplayed him and sometimes in the playoffs it comes down to goaltending.  That would be among the most disappointing playoff series in my time here.”

Addressing the Barrie jinx, Abbott said, “There are some times when you have a team’s number and some times when a team has your number. Historically, Barrie has had our number more than we have had theirs. We’ve had a lot of success against teams like Peterborough, Guelph and Ottawa and it doesn’t matter if you are good and they are bad or vice versa. It holds true.”

There as much optimism heading into the 2008-09 season despite the losses of Pitton, Sanguinetti, Emmerton, productive left winger Lynes and Hughes, who would eventually head to Austria after attending Columbus’s training camp. Hulking rearguard Matt Clark, an 11th-round Priority Selection pick in 2006, quickly became a mainstay in the lineup and the team was bolstered by two 2007 picks, goaltender Brandon Foote and left winger Josh Shalla.

But the key component brought in during the offseason was first-round Import Draft pick Evgeny Grachev, a huge, talented Russian left winger who had been a third-round choice of the Rangers in the NHL draft that year.

“The Rangers had drafted him and really wanted him to play in the CHL and I took a chance and took him,” said Butler. “Once the Rangers signed him we were able to get him, but it wasn’t easy we had to go through some appeals with the IIHF and Hockey Canada.”

For all the promise the results weren’t there early as the Battalion stumbled out of the gate with only two wins in their first eight games. After a 4-3 loss at Sudbury on Oct. 11 that saw captain Hodgson earn a two-game suspension for engaging in a second fight during the same stoppage, the Troops took stock of their situation.

“We knew we had a good team, we weren’t always playing as well as we should,” said Hodgson. “We just needed to figure out what the problem was. We sat down after that loss to Sudbury and looked at things we could do to improve. That showed a lot of character and integrity as a group because we didn’t sit there and blame each other, we didn’t make excuses we just figured out ways to be better and we just took off from there.”

A 4-0 home-ice win over the visiting Wolves two days later was the start of a club-record 16-game winning streak that came to an end in a 6-5 overtime loss at Niagara on Nov. 27.

“You could see a different tone or attitude with the team and we just took off,” said Hodgson, who would go on to star for the Canadian team that won gold at the World Junior Championship at Ottawa. “We emphasized having more fun, we didn’t want it to be tough to come to the rink. We wanted a better atmosphere and I think it worked.”

With the Troops owning a record of 23-13-2, Butler decided to get aggressive in advance of the OHL’s Jan. 9 trade deadline.

“We were young, but I knew Duchene wouldn’t be back as an 18-year-old and Hodgson and Grachev would be gone,” Butler aid. “I thought at that time that if we were ever going to make noise that was the team that would do it.”

Butler acquired overage defenceman Josh Day and veteran right winger Andrew Merrett in two separate trades with the IceDogs on Jan. 7 and picked up overage left winger Matt Kang a day later. Hours before the deadline Butler parted with Foote and Shalla to acquire veteran goaltender Thomas McCollum from the Storm and sent DeCoste to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds for veteran right winger Anthony Peluso.

“Killeen was a good goaltender,” said Butler. “I didn’t think he was a great goalie and I knew we would need very good goaltending to be successful. I targeted who I thought was the best goalie in the league and went after him. I was told ‘no’ a few times, but was finally told ‘yes’. We paid a pretty good price, Shalla turned into a 50-goal scorer and Foote was a good starting goalie.

“Peluso was a good trade for DeCoste and a fifth-round pick and getting Kang for a fourth was a great trade. Merrett and Day gave us some depth, Peluso came in and played on our first line and Kang was probably our best player in the playoffs. He scored a lot of big goals.”

Said Abbott: “We realized we had a very good group and with a tweak here or an addition there we could have been as good as anybody. When we landed McCollum I knew we were serious about making a run for it.”

The Battalion began a 12-game winning streak on Jan. 11 at Barrie that lasted until it lost 3-1 at Belleville on Feb. 11. The Troops won eight of their last nine games to finish with a club-record 47 wins and their third Central title.

Hodgson led the Battalion in scoring with 43 goals and 49 assists for 92 points on his way to winning the Red Tilson Trophy and CHL player of the year honours. Grachev won the Emms Family Award as the OHL’s rookie of the year after contributing 80 points, including 40 goals. Duchene emerged as one of the most talked-about prospects in hockey and recorded 31 goals and 48 assists for 79 points. McCollum posted 17 wins and four shutouts in 23 games.

The second-seeded Battalion dispatched the Peterborough Petes in four games in a conference quarterfinal and advanced to meet the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors in the only postseason meeting to date between the Troops and a Peel rival operating out of the Hershey Centre.

The Battalion won 3-0 in the series opener and posted a 2-1 win in Game 2. The Majors won 5-1 in the third game and prevailed 4-3 in overtime in Game 4 to tie the series. Hodgson had three points in 4-2 Battalion win in game 5 and the series shifted to Mississauga where the Troops won 3-2 before a raucous Good Friday crowd of 3,815 as Kang scored the winning goal at 14:57 of the second period.

“That was a hard series, we won the first two games, but they stormed back to tie the series,” said Butler. “We won decisively in Game 5, there was no way the team was going to denied. Game 6 was touch and go, J.P. Anderson was great in goal for them as a 16-year-old.”

The Battalion advanced past the second round for the first time and squared off with the top-seeded Bulls, who were in a third straight conference final.

The Troops won the opener at Belleville, 4-2, and scored two goals in the first minute of Game 2 on the way to a 7-2 win before 4,072 at Brampton. The Bulls prevailed 6-2 in the third game at home, but the Battalion produced a 4-3 win in Game 4. The fifth game, at Belleville, was the longest in club history and ended at 18:49 of the second overtime as Nick Palmieri scored on the power play with Duchene in the penalty box.

The series returned to the Bunker and the Troops trailed 3-2 after two periods before a jacked-up crowd of 3,636. Duchene’s second goal of the game tied it on the power play at 2:03 of the third, Hodgson made it 4-3 at 6:49 and 37 seconds later Duchene completed his hat trick with the eventual winner on a brilliant play. Grachev and Hodgson scored empty-net goals to make the final 7-4 and send the Battalion to the OHL Championship Series for the first time.

“That was a big night, I’d never seen this place as electric as it was that night,” said Butler. “We came back and played hard to win the game. Belleville was a very good team, with guys like Mike Murphy, P.K. Subban and Eric Tangradi.”

The high-powered Spitfires were the Battalion’s opponent in the final and the series got off to an ominous start when the Spitfires rolled to a 10-1 win at home in the opener. The Spitfires opened a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 2 at Brampton and held on for a 5-3 win. Dale has three points in the third game as the Troops, who were without an injured Grachev and had a starting goalie in McCollum who was banged up, skated to a 4-2 win at Windsor. The Spitfires prevailed 4-1 at Brampton in Game 4 and returned home with a chance to clinch the series. The Spitfires took a 1-0 lead into the third period, but Kang tied the game at 16:14. Duchene was whistled for checking from behind on Windsor defenceman Harry Young at 1:32 of overtime and Taylor Hall converted on the power play 37 seconds later.

The Spitfires went on to win the first of two consecutive Memorial Cup championships.

“I always wondered how that series would have turned out if Grachev hadn’t been hurt and Duchene doesn’t get called for a brutal penalty in overtime of Game 5,” said Butler. “We thought our goaltending would be better than Windsor’s and it wasn’t because Thomas was hurt. The only thing that lessens the pain of losing the final is that the team we lost to won the Memorial Cup. I feel if we had got to the Memorial Cup we would have won it. It was a great, special run and it taught us all how good you have to be to get to the final. You learn how hard it is to win.”

Said Abbott: “That was a good team and we played a very good Windsor team. Winning that Belleville series was very gratifying. After the final game in Windsor I went into our dressing room and told the players that we were all proud of them and they had accomplished more than any Battalion team ever had. We were proud of our history, but all Battalion teams in the future would be measured against them.”

The Battalion moved on the next season without Duchene, who was picked third overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL Entry Draft, Grachev, who was headed to the American Hockey League, and Hodgson, who was expected to join the Vancouver Canucks who made him the 10th overall pick in 2008.

Veteran left winger Sean Jones was acquired in late-August from the Otters and would go on to lead a lowest-scoring Battalion team in history in goals and points. Second-year centre Sam Carrick, a first-round Priority Selection pick in 2008, emerged as an offensive contributor and energetic right winger Scott Tanski, a 12th-rounder in 2006, and rookie right winger Philip Lane, a fourth-round pick in 2008, were key offensive and defensive components.

“We might have been an even better team if Grachev, Hodgson and Duchene had all come back,” said Butler. “We had all our defence back and some great role guys. Jones came in and was a good player for us. He was our offensive leader and scored some big goals for us.”

The strength of the Battalion that season was defence, anchored by 19-year-old Killeen, who played 63 games, posting five shutouts and a goals-against average of 2.42. He would go on to earn an entry-level contract from the Pittsburgh Penguins, who made him a sixth-round pick in 2008.

“That was the best group of defencemen I have ever played behind,” said Killeen. “Guys like Peroff, Albert, Clark, Zach Bell, Cameron Wind and Kyle Pereira were all great.

“I was hoping that would be my last season in junior. I wanted to make the jump to the pros and that was the last season I could get signed by Pittsburgh. There was a motivation for me to go in and put up a good season. I really dedicated myself in the summer and during the season and everything worked out well. That was the season when I think I made the most improvement in my technical skills as a goalie and I think I have carried that into my pro career.”

Said Butler: “I knew Patrick could be good. He was disappointed at the time we made the McCollum trade, but I am sure it helped having Thomas here because he learned how hard you have to work and how much you have to focus.”

The Troops got a surprise in December when Hodgson was returned by the Canucks. Hodgson, who had injured his back during offseason training, would not play until Feb. 4, but he would produce eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points in 13 games.

“He came back with a pretty severe injury and his rehab time was significant,” said Butler. “We all thought he should be in the NHL and we didn’t expect him back.”

The Battalion finished with 25 wins and 64 points and squared off against the Frontenacs in the first round of the playoffs. The Troops won the first two games before the Frontenacs prevailed 4-2 in Game 3 and 7-4 in Game 4. Jones scored at 5:38 of overtime to give the Battalion a 4-3 win in Game 5, but the Frontenacs forced a seventh and deciding game with a 2-1 win at Brampton. The series shifted to Kingston where Lane and Jones each contributed two goals in a 5-2 win.

The Battalion, led by a hobbled Hodgson and without Clark, who was suspended for the first three games, met a deep and talented Colts team that prevailed in four games and would eventually advance to the final where they were swept by the Spitfires.

“That group battled and there were a lot of winners back there,” said Butler.”The Frontenacs had a pretty good team with guys like Nathan Moon, Erik Gudbranson, Ethan Werek and Taylor Doherty. If Cody had been healthy we might have made it tougher for Barrie. We were without Clark and it was tough to be without one of the best shut down defencemen in the OHL.”

With Killeen off to the pro ranks goaltending quickly became an issue in 2010-11. Jacob Riley, a seventh-round pick in 2009 who had played 10 games the previous season, was paired with rookie Swiss import Dennis Saikkonen.

Faced with a low-scoring team that was 8-11-4, Butler overhauled his goaltending in the span of two days. He traded overager Jones to the Frontenacs on Nov. 22 to open a spot he used eight days later to sign overage free agent Cody St. Jacques, a veteran who had played for the Storm and the Sault Greyhounds, and traded Riley to Sudbury. The following day Butler traded Pereira to Guelph for import netminder Matej Machovsky, who replaced Saikkonen who was waived.

“It just came to a point where I had to do something,” said Butler. “St. Jacques was great, if he had been a player he would have been the captain. He was great at handling the puck and he was a very good mentor to Machovsky, who has been as good a goalie as anyone who has played here.”

The Battalion managed only 190 goals, third-fewest in team history, with Tanski leading the team with 47 points, the lowest total of any leading scorer in Battalion history. Right winger Barclay Goodrow, a first-round pick in 2009, produced a team-leading 24 goals, while Carrick, who had been chosen by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the fifth round of the 2010 Entry Draft, added 39 points, including 16 goals, in an injury-plagued season.

The Troops managed only three goals, including two from captain Stephon Thorne, as they were swept in a first-round playoff series by the high-powered IceDogs.

The Battalion’s offence returned in 2011-12 with captain Carrick enjoying his finest offensive season as he led the team in scoring with 37 goals and 30 assists for 67 points. Goodrow produced 52 points, including 26 goals, and Lane, import centre Patrik Machac and overage left winger Ian Watters combined for 103 points, including 45 goals. Second-year blueliner Dylan Blujus chipped in with 34 points, the most for a Battalion defencemen since Sanguinetti produced 70 in 2007-08.

The strength of the team continued to be defence, led by Machovsky, who posted 24 wins and a goals-against average of 2.36 in 42 games. The Battalion won 36 games, finished fourth in the conference and swept the Wolves in a first-round series before being eliminated in four games by the IceDogs.

“I thought that group really got to the level we expected them to,” said Butler. “They gave everything they had every night for the most part and there were few nights when the coaching staff felt cheated. We had a very good series against Sudbury, and I thought both teams were pretty even going into that series. We ran into a very good Niagara team, lost the first game in overtime and we never recovered from it.”

The current edition of the Battalion finds itself in the thick of the playoff battle with Sudbury and continues to benefit from strong defensive play, anchored by Machovsky and veteran defencemen Wind, who set the club record for games played, Bell, McIvor and Blujus. Veterans Goodrow, Machac, Matt MacLeod, Brandon Robinson and Jamie Lewis are supplemented by the addition of talented newcomers Blake Clarke, a Missouri native who was a first-round pick in the 2012 Priority Selection, emerging 17-year-old power forward Nick Paul, and right winger Mike Amadio, a second-round choice in 2012.