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Road to the Centennial Cup

by Warren Rappleyea

Fresh off a fourth straight Bogart Cup championship, the Ottawa Junior Senators have traveled to Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, to compete in the 51st Centennial Cup competition.

It’s the time of year when some of the best hockey is played, as only the best of the best remain in action. That should certainly be the case at the Stride Place, where Champions from nine junior “A” leagues across the nation, as well as the hosting Portage Terriers (the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s regular season champs), will battle it out to determine the top team in Canada.

This marks the Junior Senators’ second straight trip to the Centennial Cup. Last season they held their own, but were eliminated after going 1-1-2 in the opening round.

“We were disappointed because, obviously, we wanted a better outcome,” Ottawa coach Kyle Makaric explained. “We played well overall. We lost three, one-goal games. Two of them in overtime. That’s all it took for us to not advance, because the margin for error is so slim. Still, we learned a lot.”

The experience should prove valuable though, as the Junior Senators return seven players from that squad, including Captain Wil Murphy, their top defender. Also back are hard-working forwards Massimo Gentile, Vincent Velocci, Braxton Ross, James Taylor and Xavier Guillemette, as well as solid defenseman Sam Grabner.

Makaric’s team dominated the Central Canada Hockey League in 2022-23 and is coming off of an exciting seven-game final against the Smiths Falls Bears that concluded on May 5. During the regular season Ottawa went 48-8-3-2 with a goal differential of plus-92. With a power-play success rate of more than 25%, they were second in the league in goals scored. Known for a 200-foot game, Makaric’s crew allowed the fewest goals against in the CCHL.

Ottawa arrived in Portage la Prairie on Tuesday and will be jumping into action against the Cobras de Terrebonne, champions of the Lique de Hockey Junior AAA Quebec, on Friday at 11:30 am CDT. The Cobras won 42 of 48 regular season matches and dominated the playoffs. They own a power play success rate of nearly 40% and boast the top two scorers in the LHJAAAQ in Steven Fournier and Anthony Di Cesare.

Makaric and the rest of the OJS have been reviewing video of the teams in the Cup and are preparing accordingly.

“We’re ready to go,” Makaric said. “I like to say we’re always ready. Every team does play a certain way, but there’s not 100 ways to play. It’s two or three variants with minimal systems here and there. Every team’s make-up is also a little different. We have a plan for those different versions, whether a team
wants to run-and-gun, clog up the middle, or whatever; we have a plan and our guys know what to do.”

In addition to having veterans with Centennial Cup experience, the Junior Sens have several other players, who have stepped up during the playoffs. Forward Chase Lammi, acquired halfway through the season from the Kemptville 73s, has paced the playoff attack, connecting for 10 goals and adding 14 assists. Shifty playmaker Mickael Hebert tops the team with 17 assists, while adding five goals. Gentile has produced 11 goals to go with eight assists, Emile Villiard has nine goals and five assists, and Velocci has tallied three goals and 11 assists.

At the other end of the ice, Ottawa will continue to look to Bogart Cup MVP Rorke Applebee. The netminder came up big throughout the playoffs. With his team down 2 games to none in the finals, Applebee was superb in the early stages of game three as Smiths Falls came on strong.

“He’s been integral to our success,” Makaric said. “In the first few minutes of game three when Smiths Falls was really moving and we made a few errors, Rorke was there to shut the door for us. He stopped three, clear-cut breakaways. From there, we ended up scoring a bunch of goals and that changed the tide of the game.”

Murphy, the captain, has been stellar on the blue line. Throughout the campaign several players have lauded his leadership, and he has excelled in the post-season, scoring four times, two of them game-winners, and garnering 10 assists, while logging loads of ice time. Rookie Owen Protz has continued to play like a veteran, and Mathis Bedard has also netted a pair of game-winning goals.

Following the match with the Cobras, OJS will be in action the at 3:30 pm the following day against the powerful Alberta Junior Hockey League champion Brooks Bandits (53-5-1-1), who pumped in 319 goals in their 60 games. The Bandits are looking to become the first team to win three straight Centennial Cups.

On May 15 Ottawa is set to face-off against the Yarmouth Mariners, who went 12-0 in the playoffs. Game time is 11:30 am CDT. Game four is set for May 17 at 11:30 am CDT against the Timmons Rock, winners of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League.

Brooks, Yarmouth and Timmins were all tops in their respective leagues in goals scored and goals against.

“The main thing you can see watching everybody’s games is that there’s a pedigree to all of these champions,” Makaric said. “Every team is coming in with the belief that they can win. It’s no different for us. We’re not going to just compete.”

The key to the tournament: short-term memory.

“If things go well, or they don’t, you have to be able to park it on move on, shift-by-shift,” The Ottawa mentor said. “You can’t dwell on anything for too long in a tournament. We’re champions and we’re here for a reason. That’s the mindset we’re taking into every game.”

All Centennial Cup games are being streamed live at