With their United States Hockey League season behind them, a rested Thunder Bay Flyers side were set to host the Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Canadian junior A championship in the spring of 1992 at the venerable Fort William Gardens.
A berth on the line to the Centennial Cup national event in Winnipeg awaited the victor as Thunder Bay hosted a highly-touted Kanata Valley Lasers side from the Ottawa area, along with the Joliette Nationals of Quebec and the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League’s title holders, the Powassan Hawks.
Flyers’ head coach Dave Siciliano knew he, along with assistants Rick Adduono and Doug Colbon, had a quality club that had the capabilities to succeed.
“Our strength was in our returning players, who recognized our shortcomings in (1991),” recalled Siciliano, referring to his team that won the Dudley-Hewitt the year before, but following a win and trio of one-goal setbacks, failed to advance to the playoff round in the Centennial Cup staged in Sudbury.
“Coaches always want their best players to be their hardest workers,” he added. “Andrew Backen, Mike Figliomeni, Jason Wright, Darcy Mitani and Barry Schutte led the way in that area. Their leadership was exceptional which was instrumental in developing excellent team chemistry.”
Opening up the DHC, the Flyers soared past the Hawks 6-1, then proceeded to top Joliette 5-1 to set-up a round robin finale against Kanata Valley, which also finished 2-0-0 in its first two games.
In that match, the Lasers, who were one of the top-rated junior A teams in the country, proved their ranking by outscoring Thunder Bay 7-4 to earn the No. 1 seed heading into the semifinals.
The Lasers filled the net once more, skating to a 7-4 triumph over Powassan in the semifinal.
Next came the home side’s turn to try and book a spot in the DHC final and they did just that as the Flyers skated to a 5-2 decision versus the Nationals and set up a rematch with Kanata.
In that contest, buoyed by a boisterous Gardens crowd of over 3,500 faithful, a fired up Thunder Bay squad was all business, out-working and out-hustling a bigger Lasers’ club en route to a 5-1 victory to secure the central region title and earn a second consecutive berth in the Canadian championship.
Having the opportunity to hoist the regional trophy on home ice was something that was not lost on the players.
“Obviously winning the Dudley-Hewitt Cup at home, in front of our fans, was an unbelievable experience,” said Schutte, who now serves as the associate head coach of the NCAA Division I Miami Red Hawks program.
Echoing Schutte’s reflections was Kevin Hoogsteen, a second-year forward at the time.
“The playdowns at the Gardens really made things hard for any team to come in and play. The fans really supported us throughout and we beat a team from Kanata that was rated No. 1, or No. 2, in the country at the time,” said Hoogsteen, who would later win an NCAA championship at the University of North Dakota and also helped the Thunder Bay Bombers win the Allan Cup in 2005.
A well-balanced team featuring the point-producing trio of Figliomeni, Mitani and Hoosteen, along with a skilled back-end buoyed by blueliners Backen and Wright, as well as goaltenders Chris Burns and Neil Cooper, the Flyers were solid from top to bottom, and proved it by winning the region.
“This team learned together, decided what they wanted and dedicated themselves to achieving those goals,” Backen said. “Pure and simple, we would not let each other down. This was not a team of superstars, but one of those teams that had just the right mix of coaching, talent and determination to get it done.”
What followed was the chance to prove doubters across the country wrong as the Thunder Bay Flyers travelled to Winnipeg in search of their second Centennial Cup crown in franchise history.
Next week, in Part III of this feature, we look back just how the Lakehead’s club fared nearly 30 years ago.
Tom Annelin’s column appears weekly in The Chronicle-Journal. Contact Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.