CLEVELAND – It’s 10:30 p.m. Saturday night.
In front of the largest crowd to ever watch professional hockey in Ohio, Lake Erie Monsters captain Ryan Craig finally hoisted the Calder Cup at Quicken Loans Arena.
The 34-year-old Craig handed the Cup to 33-year-old defenseman and associate captain, Jaime Sifers.
“(Craig and Sifers) told us they’ve never gone this far,” said 18-year-old defenseman Zach Werenski. “For us young kids, I think it really hit home that it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Sifers passed the Cup to Steve Eminger, and then to Justin Falk. The trophy traveled player to player: Steve McCarthy, Brett Gallant, goaltender Brad Theissen, Dublin native and Ohio AAA Blue Jackets alum Trent Vogelhuber.
It’s a group of veterans who supported and insulated a promising group of Blue Jackets prospects all season long, while at the same time pursuing a lifelong dream of winning a championship.
“Whatever that number is (of players on our roster) plus whoever else came through - we had guys that helped fill gaps for us throughout the year,” Craig says. “That sets the tone for our group, that’s the selflessness we talk about and that’s why we’re holding the trophy.”
Michael Chaput skated it around next. He handed it to linemate Alex Broadhurst. After that it was Josh Anderson helping injured teammate John Ramage carry it around the ice.
“(Ramage) was a strong player for us and he had an upper body injury and it was hard for him to hold the Cup,” Anderson says. “I wanted to help him hold the Cup up and make him feel a part of it.”
On and on the trophy is passed around until each player has a spin around the ice. Anderson is capturing it all on video on his phone, and gets a close up of Sonny Milano for good measure.
Oliver Bjorkstrand, who was named post season MVP and scored the game-winning goal with 1.9 seconds left in overtime, is swarmed by reporters.
“When you can do what (Bjorkstrand) does in a playoff season like this and get six game-winning goals and rise to the occasion at the biggest time on the biggest stage in this league, that just shows you his competitive nature,” Bednar says. “He has a will to win that is unparalleled.”
Kerby Rychel skated to his family, who has just walked onto the ice – arms raised in celebration.
Then, Craig carried the Cup to head coach Jared Bednar, who joined Bruce Boudreau as the only coach to win a championship in both the ECHL and AHL. Bednar won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup with the South Carolina Stingrays in 2009.
“I’ve grown to love the man,” Craig said of his 44-year-old head coach. “He has the perfect demeanor for our group. He’s put himself on the map with what he’s done here.”
Four-year-old Robert Gibson, who signed a one-year contract with the Monsters and attended almost every home playoff game, beamed from the team’s bench.
Monsters general manager Bill Zito raises the Cup with pride, as does each trainer and coach.
“(The staff) are vital to our group and what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Craig says.
The players have scattered across the ice taking pictures with family and friends before being corralled for a team photo. They collapsed into a heap of whoops and hollers. Fingers raised in celebration of being number one.
“Our belief system was strong,” Bednar says. “We felt like we were a team that could accomplish something special if we all dug in.”
Cutouts of Phil Simon, the Monsters’ assistant equipment manager and iconic figure in Cleveland hockey who lost his battle with leukemia earlier this week, were held high. His family was on the ice, too.
Hardly any fan left the building and a chant of “We’ve Got the Cup” echoed loud and strong throughout the Q.
“(There’s been) nothing compared to this, this was insane,” Werenski says. “It was the best crowd I’ve ever played in front of and it was awesome.”
There were hugs. So many hugs.
“(My family) wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Anderson says. “I’m so happy I can share this with them.”
People of all ages and heights meandered around on the ice in extra-large t-shirts emblazoned with “Whatever It Takes” on the front.
“Let’s take a picture with the X’s!” One player’s family exclaimed and they posed next to the game-by-game tally that tracked the Monsters' progress to the Championship.
Nick Moutrey and Rychel skated around the ice arms around each others’ shoulders.
Two children found the goalies' sticks and batted a puck back and forth.
The Cup is still being passed around and Craig skated over to take photos with more people before gently but firmly reclaiming the team’s prize.
By 11:30 p.m., the Calder Cup was out of sight, going down the tunnel into the Monsters’ locker room.
“(This team) knows that in 13 years, this is the first time I’ve lifted a trophy,” Craig said. They know how hard it is and they appreciate it, they’ll grow to appreciate it even more.”