Kingston Voyageurs: Ontario champions in 2009
There were 30 seconds left on the clock, with the Kingston Voyageurs holding a 5-2 lead, hoping to win the Ontario Junior Hockey League title over a favoured Oakville squad.
The Invista Centre suddenly went silent on that spring day in April 2009. Voyageurs coach Evan Robinson stood looking grim behind the bench, his body filled with tension. Suddenly, a voice called out from the crowd: “Evan, you can smile now!”
The entire arena burst into laughter and Robinson relaxed, smiling and shaking hands with everyone on the bench.
After a hard-fought season, a Kingston hockey team had finally won an Ontario championship – the city’s first since the Centennial year of 1967, when both the Senior A Aces and Senior B Merchants took the provincial titles.
“We were so focused on delivering a championship for the city of Kingston,” recalled Robinson, chatting on the phone (hands free) while driving his daughter to a game in Belleville. “The arena was jam-packed and the kids were thrilled to be playing in front of the Kingston fans.”
With the news that the team is expected to move to Collingwood, the 10th anniversary is a bittersweet one for Robinson. “It’s heartbreaking for the community. The Voyageurs have been a stepping stone for local players to the NCAA, the OHL, Canadian university hockey and even the NHL.”
Indeed, Voyageurs alumni who played in the NHL include Scott Arniel, Kirk Muller and Rik Wilson.
Under then-owner Gregg Rosen, the team flourished, moving from being a middling team to a contender. “We had huge support from Gregg,” Robinson says. “Everybody was on board that we would compete for the Ontario championships.”
Rosen owned the Voyageurs for five years, but sold the team in 2011 after Kingston failed to secure a bid to host the RBC Cup championship tournament and he was diagnosed with cancer. Under new ownership, the fan base dwindled to a couple of hundred people per game and this year the Voyageurs missed the playoffs, ending an amazing streak of 32 consecutive years in the post-season.
Robinson was named the Voyageurs coach in 2001 and slowly built up the team. “I thought it was important to motivate the guys. In spring 2009, each week we would put together a five-minute highlight reel of some of our great plays set to music. It boosted the team’s confidence and self-esteem on the ice.”
In addition, the Voyageurs benefited from the support of other local teams, picking up an occasional player from the Napanee and Gananoque junior C squads, and even from the Kingston Frontenacs.
In 2009, getting to the championships was an epic journey. There were 37 teams in the league; Kingston won its division but finished fifth overall. In the playoffs, Kingston defeated Pickering (3-1), Ajax (4-0), Peterborough (4-2) and Huntsville (4-1), before facing Oakville in the Buckland Cup championship.
“There was never an easy series,” recalls Voyageurs player Jarrett Burton, who now plays in the AHL for the Pittsburgh Penguins affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “Those tough series helped us to become a closer team.”
“Oakville was the powerhouse in the province so we knew we would have a tough time in the finals,” says Robinson.
Kingston took a 3-2 lead in the Oakville series before coming home to the Invista Centre. “We were really pumped for that game and we knew we had to get the job done – we didn’t want to go back to Oakville for the deciding game,” the coach says.
The Voyageurs jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but Oakville scored two goals and started coming back. With four minutes left, Kingston added some insurance to make it 5-2 and the crowd screamed with delight.
The Ontario championship belonged to Kingston. From there, the team went on to win the Dudley Hewitt Cup in Schreiber, Ontario. This earned them a trip to Victoria for the RBC Cup national championships, where they lost in the semi-finals to the Vernon Vipers, the eventual champions.
“When I think back on my hockey career, you don’t get that many opportunities to travel to Victoria and compete in a national championship,” Burton says. “I am very thankful to the city of Kingston and coach Robinson.”
He credits Robinson with seeing his potential and giving him a chance to play. “If you put forth your best effort, he would reward you and put you in the game. He also cared for you as a person, not just a player, and was always asking how you were doing.”
With the Voyageurs moving, it’s the end of a 45-year story that started because team founder Bill “Squeak” Reason wanted to help local players stay in town. After this year, when they graduate from midget most will be leaving Kingston.