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Veteran players lead Ottawa 67’s into OHL playoffs

Sasha Chmelevski and the Ottawa 67's get in a practice ahead of the OHL playoffs. Rick Woodard / Global News

With the OHL playoffs on the horizon, the Ottawa 67’s are leaning on their core of veteran players to lead the way as they prepare for a first-round date with the defending champion Hamilton Bulldogs.

The best-of-seven series is a rematch of last year’s post-season, in which Hamilton eliminated Ottawa in five games en route to winning the league championship. In that series, it was Hamilton who was the top seed, while Ottawa occupied the eighth spot. This year, the roles are reversed.

The 67’s, however, aren’t viewing this year’s matchup as a chance to exorcise any past demons, despite sweeping the regular season series.

“It’s not about redemption, it’s about us playing the way we want to play,” said head coach André Tourigny at a press conference ahead of the series’ first game on March 22.

“We know their program; they will compete, they will push through. But we believe in ourselves. If we play the way we want to play — and I have no doubt we will — we’re confident. It’s not about the Bulldogs, it’s about the 67’s, and that’s where we’re focused.”

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READ MORE: Ottawa rallies behind 67’s as OHL playoffs approach

The team has been here before, led by a group of veterans who have been playing together for a few years now. The familiarity of that group is one of the reasons the 67’s enjoyed so much success during the regular season.

“We all keep saying it’s a special group, and I think the reason for that is because we’ve been together for so long,” said defenceman Noel Hoefenmayer, who finished fourth in scoring among OHL blueliners with 62 points.

“The core of this team has been together for four years now. We’ve really grown some relationships and bonds that are pretty unbreakable. I think that carries over on the ice.”

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Hoefenmayer wasn’t the only one to experience individual success this year. Right winger Tye Felhaber enjoyed a breakout season, leading the team in scoring with 59 goals and 109 points, good for second and third in the league, respectively.

For Felhaber and his teammates, the personal accolades will always take a back seat to the success of the team.

“Every day is an opportunity to get better,” said Felhaber, a Pembroke, Ont., native. “For me, personally, just focus on the little things to help this team win, and getting out of my comfort zone and playing a bit of a heavier game.”

“With our whole team, nobody really has an ego or looks at their personal stats or anything like that. Especially for the playoffs, you just want to be the best version of yourself,” he added.

READ MORE: 2019 OHL playoff preview

The Ottawa team has a special feel to it this year, with fans and experts alike pegging the 67’s as a favourite to move on to the Memorial Cup tournament later this spring. When they’re firing on all cylinders, the 67’s are as dangerous as any team in the country.

“I think it’s controlling what you can,” said centre Sasha Chmelevski when asked how he views the team at its best. “We don’t know what’s going to happen when the puck drops, but we can control our attitude, our effort, how you are as a teammate, and I think that’s being the best version of yourself.”

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The veteran core is looking to not only win together but bring a championship to the city of Ottawa. It’s no secret that hockey fans in the nation’s capital have suffered for a number of years. For 67’s players who have made their home in Ottawa over the last few years, the magnitude of doing something special is clear.

“Since my four years here, Ottawa has become my second home, and this city has been nothing but amazing to me,” said Hoefenmayer. “I can’t thank everyone enough that’s taken me in for welcoming me and making me feel at home. Being able to do something special for this city would be an honour.”

READ MORE: Ottawa 67’s forward Tye Felhaber scoring goals at rate not seen in OHL in years

Along with all the offensive numbers the team put up this year, the 67’s also managed to break the franchise record for points in a single season with 106, breaking the previous best total of 104 set by the 1996-97 squad.

Following their 50th win of the regular season over Kingston on March 17, also tying a franchise record, the players presented their coach with the game puck, showing their appreciation for what he’s been able to do since taking over.

“When Coach André came in last year, it was a huge culture shock to us, and he did such a good job making us pros on and off the ice, taking the time with everybody individually to make them a better player and a better person,” said Felhaber.

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“To have a franchise record is pretty special, and we just wanted to give it to the guy that brought us there for the last two years and has worked really hard. For myself, personally, he’s changed me completely and turned around my career, and I know every other guy in the room would say that as well.”

Ottawa will have home-ice advantage throughout the OHL playoffs, which begin Friday, March 22 at TD Place Arena.

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