May 28, 2011
Majors earn trip to Memorial Cup final
By RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency
MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - Eugene Melnyk turned 52 years old on Friday.
The guy's a tycoon, lives in Barbados and owns two hockey teams -- yet his teenaged Mississauga St. Michael's Majors still found a way to give him the perfect birthday gift.
It was all wrapped up in a 3-1 semifinal win over the Kootenay Ice before 5,329 at the Hershey Centre to earn a berth in the Memorial Cup title game against the well-rested Quebec league champion Saint John Sea Dogs Sunday night.
"We didn't know about it," said Majors forward Chris DeSousa, who salted away the tight, low-scoring contest on an empty-netter with 55 seconds left. "I guess he kept it quiet from us but I saw him up on the (TV) board and he looked kind of embarrassed about it.
"Well, we got him a win. He's a great guy. Happy birthday, Gene."
No cake and ice cream necessary. His Majors were put together for this moment.
From the time Melnyk -- who also owns the Ottawa Senators -- backed the Cup bid in order to build a junior hockey buzz in the GTA, this has been the necessary conclusion.
To make a dent in the Mississauga market, it wasn't enough just to hold the event. The Majors had to get to the final and make a splash.
"We had to win," Majors defenceman Stuart Percy said. "We wanted to do this for Mr. Melnyk. He's so good to us and it's nice we were able to give him something he wanted on his birthday."
The Mississauga-Saint John final features the two teams who kicked off this tournament eight days ago -- a tight one-goal affair won by the Sea Dogs on a Nathan Beaulieu tally that was clearly offside.
"They scored the winner on a controversial goal in the third period," said Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored the first two goals of the semi-final. "That was our only loss and now we get a chance to play them again."
It's a coup for the Canadian Hockey League, too. Their entire 2010-11 strategy was aimed at the Toronto market -- the world juniors were held in nearby Buffalo, the Top Prospects Game went to the Air Canada Centre and the Memorial Cup has the host team in the final.
For Majors head coach Dave Cameron and captain Casey Cizikas, it's a shot at redemption for the gold-medal loss to Russia in Buffalo and the Game 7 overtime defeat to Owen Sound in the OHL final.
"This game has crossed my mind quite a bit (since January)," Cizikas said. "We worked all year to get here, this is the game we wanted to play in and now we're here."
Cizikas' linemate Devante Smith-Pelly kick-started the celebration by scoring the game's first two goals.
DeSousa grew up 10 minutes from the Hershey Centre in a largely Portuguese neighbourhood in Port Credit. At the OHL trade deadline in January, the London Knights moved the 20-year-old home to finish out his junior career.
"I came home to play in this game," the burly overager said. "I had been struggling this week to put points on the board. I got hit hard there (drawing a third-period penalty from Ice forward Kevin King) and I had warned the referees there were a lot of head shots going on tonight so I guess they paid attention."
The third period turned into a nail-biter after the Majors surrendered a Joe Antilla buzzer-beater at the end of the second.
"We knew what we had to do," Percy said. "It wasn't a secret. We had to keep them off the puck and get the puck deep and, for the most part, we were able to do it."
The Majors still haven't scored more than three goals in any of their four games.
"But we've managed to get enough," Percy said. "We take pride in our defence."
The legacy from this Cup is supposed to be an puck-engaged Mississauga. Melnyk said he's encouraged by what he's seen.
"All I can say is we're going to work at it (in this market moving forward)," Melnyk said. "You have to grind it, grind it, sell two tickets at a time. That's what we're going to try to do."
A win Sunday could make a world of difference.