‘Proud of the season’

NORTH BAY, Ont. — It was a sudden and painful end to an Ontario Hockey League season filled with promise and hope, and coach Ryan Oulahen of the North Bay Battalion still felt it two days later.

“It’s still pretty fresh, for sure, a disappointing loss,” Oulahen said Wednesday of a 3-2 home-ice defeat Monday night at the hands of the Peterborough Petes in the seventh and deciding game of the Eastern Conference Championship Series. North Bay ousted the Mississauga Steelheads in six games and the Barrie Colts in seven before facing Peterborough, which meets the London Knights for the OHL title and the J. Ross Robertson Cup.

“We thought that we had as good a chance as anybody to hoist the big trophy at the end of the day, so still a little bit of disappointment.”

Oulahen spoke after he and general manager Adam Dennis conducted individual talks with players before they began dispersing.

“It’s an emotional time. It’s an emotional day, doing our exit meetings today. I’ve never felt like this as a coach, probably because our team, our staff, everybody is just so tightknit, and it’s tough.

“It’s tough, but we did an exercise with our guys probably about two or three months ago gearing up to what was going to be a big playoff run, and we had them throw some quotes up on the board, and one of the ones that came up was ‘Brotherhood’ — simple. And that was one of them, so it just goes to show you what the players thought of each other.

“In junior hockey, you play with your buddies. You play with your friends, and then when you go to pro, it’s different. You might not play with the same team more than six months or a year, but in junior you get to build together and grow together, and that’s what this group has done.”

Dennis, while expressing the same disappointment, acknowledged a considerable degree of surprise as well.

“I’m still quite shocked that we’re here doing this as opposed to getting ready for another game, and that’s disappointing, but we said to the guys that when you love something and you put this much into it, it’s supposed to be sad when it ends and, if this didn’t feel sad, then we probably did it wrong.

“There’s a lot that we’re going to take from this season, and it sucks being here right now, but I definitely think it was a memorable season. I said to the coaches after, ‘This is where we live now.’ This is where want to be every year, not losing in the conference finals, and being a top team and having banners hung every year. That’s what we’ve built over the last couple of years, and we’re very proud of that.

“We’re chomping at the bit for next season. I think that’s pretty exciting when you can already turn the page and have some excitement going into next year.”

Oulahen reflected on what the Battalion achieved in 2022-23, including a second straight Central Division crown and franchise records for points with 99 and wins with 48.

“I think it will sink (in) over time here in the next few weeks of all the accomplishments that obviously we had this season. It’s the best regular season in franchise history. That’s pretty impressive. Then you go into the playoffs and you have some epic nights.

“I mean, wow, we played 20 games in that playoff run and didn’t play our best every night but found ways to win and found ways to inch and scrape and claw and put ourselves 10 minutes away in Game 6 and then really a period away in Game 7 to try to get that extra one. I think we’ve got to be proud of the season at hand and overall happy with the development of a lot of our players and things like that.

“Then ultimately, the biggest thing that we’re so proud of is this building was back, and I think that went into our players, their dedication to the community, getting out in the town, all the hours spent at different things and events they did. I’ve never seen so many kids in our fist-pump line. This building, the energy was outstanding every single night, so I think we’ve just made leaps and bounds just as a city, as a team, as an organization, and we want to keep it going.”

Ty Nelson, who leads the OHL scoring race through three rounds with six goals and a league-high 19 assists for 25 points, lauded the fan support the Battalion received right after the season-ending loss.

“It’s incredible just to see the support that we had from the community. I mean today in our power-play meeting we were just listening to the fans going nuts after the big goals we scored in the Barrie series in Game 7. That’s the type of thing that, when you’re playing OHL hockey, can really swing the momentum, and obviously for myself it gives you goosebumps and chills just to hear the support.

“I know I speak on behalf of the team when we said we’re beyond grateful for the support that the community gave the team this year.”

Matvey Petrov, the 20-year-old Russian who in two seasons became the highest-scoring import in Battalion history, shared his teammates’ lingering disappointment but vowed to return.

“We had our chat with coaches and then with Denny, so that was pretty tough, because they did like everything for us, and then we probably should make that step, big, big step, in Game 7, but we didn’t. That’s pretty tough, man.

“I’m going to be back to North Bay every summer to see my billets, so North Bay is the biggest part of my life.”

Pasquale Zito, sidelined for the last two games after being checked from behind into the boards by Cam Gauvreau, acknowledged that he lobbied hard to escape concussion protocol and dress for Game 7. Zito, drafted by the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings, said he’d be happy to play next season as an overager if he doesn’t sign a contract.

Oulahen earlier noted how fine the distinctions become deep in the playoffs.

“You learn when you get to this time how good you need to be and how close every single game and scenario is. You look at this series. It could easily have gone either way, every game almost. That’s how tight and that’s how close it is when you get to this moment, so get a little taste and we’re even closer.

“I know a lot of guys don’t like the feeling right now, and we want to be back here again.”

Said Dennis: “This is going to be a memorable year for a long time, and I think for so many reasons.”

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