The Colts' season ended in late April, but the OHL club’s tentacles in the hockey world are still being felt in rinks spread between Latvia and Las Vegas.
With the NHL Combine being held this week in Buffalo, the draft a few weeks later in Nashville and then various development camps well into July, there is something going on —at least — 11 months a year.
The sport of snow and ice does not melt away in the summer months.
Which brings us to the goings on in Vegas on Saturday night. Two former Colts defencemen, Aaron Ekblad and Alex Pietrangelo, are taking part in the Stanley Cup final being contested by two sunbelt teams, the Vegas Golden Knights and Florida Panthers.
The Panthers’ Ekblad is the junior club’s most distinguished alumnus. A three-year player in Barrie, he was the leader — along with Mark Scheifele — of the Colts club that lost in Game 7 of the 2013 OHL final.
Pietrangelo’s connection to Barrie is more fleeting – he played just a half-season for the Colts, but helped them to the final as well, a four-game loss to the dynastic Windsor Spitfires in 2010.
Even more than the Colts 2000 OHL champion squad, Pietrangelo and Ekblad’s respective Eastern Conference title-winning teams were the most talented in franchise history.
Another link to Ekblad’s 2013 team was on display last week at the IIHF World Championship that took place in Riga, Latvia and Tampere, Finland.
It came in the form of German netminder Mathias Niederberger, who played two seasons for the Colts, culminating in that run to the OHL final in 2013. The under-sized puck-stopper has enjoyed a splendid career back home and has become the country’s first-choice goaltender in international competition.
Niederberger was Germany’s best player in its remarkable run to a silver medal, losing to Canada in the final.
Just five-foot-10, there were times in Barrie where you couldn’t see Niederberger due to the shadow cast – both literally and figuratively – by Ekblad.
A year after playing together, Ekblad was taken first overall by Florida in the 2014 NHL Draft. He’s endured his share of adversity, but a decade on and having won the Calder Trophy and earned almost $60 million since trading in his Colts jersey for Panthers garb, Ekblad is on the cusp of winning something money can’t buy.
The rewards for Niederberger have been more modest, but remarkable just the same. You wonder if Niederberger was even an inch or two taller, he wouldn’t be playing in the NHL as well.
The only goaltender better than Niederberger at the world championship? Former Colts goaltender Arturs Silovs, who led Latvia to a Cinderella bronze medal. It set off a celebration marking that country’s most remarkable sporting achievement since breaking away from the former Soviet Union more than three decades ago.
Latvia posted three overtime wins in a four-game stretch, starting with Switzerland in pool play to qualify for the quarter-finals. Once there, Silovs led them to another OT win over Sweden, a tight loss to Canada in the semis before another extra-time thriller over the U.S. in the bronze-medal game.
Silovs was chosen tournament MVP, an honour that is likely the most notable international award given to a former Colt, at the junior or senior level.
Had Canadian forward Jack Quinn, an Ottawa 67’s grad that Silovs would have known from his days in Barrie, not banked a shot off the Latvian’s noggin from behind the goal line, another titanic upset may have been in order.
Silovs played for the Colts in 2019-20, but had his season ended prematurely when the pandemic struck. He shared the crease with Jet Greaves, who, like Silovs did in Vancouver this season, made his NHL debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets a few months ago.
Back in North America, the Stanley Cup final could drag on – this is not a misprint – until June 17. When it finally comes to an end, the Colts will have another former member win the sport’s ultimate prize.
Pietrangelo is a step closer to getting there after the Golden Knights 5-2 win on Saturday night. He previously won the Cup with St. Louis, joining Martin Skoula (Colorado, 2001) and Kyle Clifford (Los Angeles, 2012 and 2014) in the unique club.
Much farther down the respective pecking order of the Stanley Cup finalists, former Colts goaltender Mack Guzda is with the Panthers’ extended squad, nominally the team’s No. 3 goalie. The Panthers elected not to sign Colts defenceman Braden Hache by the June 1 deadline that passed this week, though the club could still bring the 20-year-old on board on an American Hockey League contract for next season.
Another Colts defenceman, Artur Cholach, is a draft pick of the Golden Knights, who retain his rights. Cholach has reportedly been to Vegas since the Colts season ended, but is not on the club’s post-season roster because he is not signed.
Hache and Cholach both remain prime candidates to fill the Colts three overage spots next season. One of those was vacated by Evan Vierling, who was announced as the Canadian Hockey League’s sportsmen of the year on Saturday afternoon in Kamloops, B.C., site of the Memorial Cup final that goes Sunday evening between the Quebec Remparts and Seattle Thunderbirds.