The Memorial Cup: it’s name has garnered an almost mythical status among OHL players past, present, and future. Though the J. Ross Robertson Cup is awarded to the winner of the OHL’s playoff series, the CHL’s Memorial Cup is the true prize: winning the OHL is just the first step down a tougher road against other league champions.
The Erie Otters have been a good team in recent memory. In fact, good is an understatement: four fifty-win seasons in a row under the direction of Kris Knoblauch, the Otters have made three concerted runs at the Robertson Trophy and an all-important Memorial Cup berth. They’ve come up just short each time.
It’s little surprise that, come trade deadline time, a champion–a hero–of a past Memorial Cup team was added to the roster, regardless of the high price. Anthony Cirelli, a relaxed, unassuming nineteen year-old, was the Otters’ big prize at the deadline, costing bright youngster Allan McShane and a plethora of picks.
In 2015, Cirelli’s Oshawa Generals were down one goal to the Kelowna Rockets in the Memorial Cup Final. Though the odds seemed insurmountable, Cirelli scored the game-tying goal, then added another one in overtime to win it for his team. But he wasn’t considered a budding superstar at the time. He went undrafted into the OHL. He was a depth player on a deep roster. Earlier that season, he made the Generals as a walk-on during camp.
“Yeah, it was a tough road to get where I got to,” says Cirelli, a tall, easygoing guy. “It was an unbelievable feeling just going to Oshawa’s camp, making [the team] out of camp. It was pretty special to me [. . .] I wasn’t drafted so it was a harder road for me. Going in there, I just wanted to do my best and and show them what I could do [. . .] I just had the mindset to do my best every time I hit the ice.”
Cirelli, usually calm and collected, grins widely when asked about that fateful Memorial Cup final–he can’t help himself. “I kind of came from nowhere and just kept working hard to get to where I was, so to get those two goals was pretty satisfying for me. [I wanted] to do something with hockey [as a career] and just show everybody what I was able to do.”
Fast forward from the 2015 Memorial Cup to 2017: Cirelli, captain of the Generals, headed off for the World Juniors to play with Erie Otters Dylan Strome and Taylor Raddysh for Team Canada. With the deadline just days away, the trade rumors reached a peak. “It was all over social media,” he says. “I had a lot of the guys asking about whether or not it was true. I had no idea then. It was just rumors. It wasn’t until I got back to Oshawa–the day that I got traded was when I got the call.”
“I was sleeping, actually,” he says, laughing a little as he remembers the day he was traded. “It was early in the morning, you know, we just had a day off and got to sleep in. So, I heard my phone ring–and I woke up to answer it, and they told me to head to the rink. So I headed to the rink. That’s when I was traded.”
Though the Otters are favorites to win the Robertson Cup, the cards are stacked against them: the Western Conference is a dominant force in the OHL, posing tough matchups for the Otters in every round of the playoffs. Anthony Cirelli–former OHL free agent, Oshawa Generals walk-on, then captain, NHL draftee (Tampa Bay, 72nd in 2015)–has had the deck stacked against him for years. It hasn’t prevented him from succeeding–from winning. When the Otters face tough challenges, when they face adversity come playoff time, they know who they can rely on. He’s overcome adversity before; he’s overcome staggering odds; and he’s won what the Otters are so desperate for: a Memorial Cup.