OTTAWA - It's not every day that hockey players get the chance to play for a championship with their closest childhood friend.
Well, that's the case for Nick Suzuki and Isaac Ratcliffe, as the two Guelph Storm forwards are getting set to take part in the OHL final starting on Thursday night in Ottawa against the 67's.
"It's really exciting. To be able to share this moment with one of my best childhood friends… it's a privilege to have him on my side," mentioned Ratcliffe just hours before Game 1 of the championship series. "I've really benefited from him coming in here. I'm excited for the opportunity we have and I know he is, too."
Before reaching the OHL final, the Storm had to overcome series deficits of 0-3 and 1-3 against the London Knights and Saginaw Spirit. Their infamous Game 7 win over the Knights was extra special for the two London natives.
"Definitely, that Game 7 was the biggest game we've played in our careers," outlined the Storm captain. "To be able to play a Game 7 in London, to come back from an 0-3 deficit against the Knights, the team we grew up watching, was very exciting."
Ratcliffe and Suzuki were selected as that game's first and second stars.
An unexpected call
On January 9, the Habs prospect was given some news that would allow him to reconnect with his childhood friend. After playing 222 games and earning 279 points with the Owen Sound Attack, Suzuki found out he'd been traded to the Storm.
"The day before the trade deadline, Nick called me. We actually had a game that night. He woke me up from my pregame nap and said, 'What are you doing?' I told him I had been sleeping and he said, 'I'm on my way to Guelph right now, I think I was just traded'. I jumped out of bed and I almost had to run through the streets I was so excited," described Ratcliffe.
Since joining Guelph in the regular season, Suzuki has put up 12 goals and 49 points in 29 games. For his part, Ratcliffe finished the 2018-19 regular season with 50 goals in 65 games.
Sharing the credit
Even before becoming Storm teammates this season, the two friends have gone through a lot together. The Philadelphia Flyers' second-round pick (35th overall) in 2017 is very grateful for Suzuki.
"Nick and I practically grew up together. We played together starting at age seven. Every memory I have of minor hockey, Nick was always there with me," shared Ratcliffe. "We had a lot of success together and it's in large part thanks to him. He has a very high hockey IQ, he has one of the best shots and he's one of the most talented players I know. It's very exciting to have another opportunity to play with him. He's really led our team to get to the OHL final."
Suzuki was also recognized by OHL coaches as the league's smartest player and, according to his longtime friend, he's just as intelligent off the ice as well.
"He could be like my little brother just because he's shorter than me," cracked Ratcliffe, who is 6-foot-6. "He's a guy who is very intelligent on the ice and off it. I would even say that sometimes you could say he's like my big brother. He reels me in at all the right moments. We each benefit from each other. It's exciting to see him keep developing and he's helped my career in a huge way."
A well-earned honor
On Wednesday night, the OHL announced that Suzuki was named the recipient of the William Hanley trophy, handed out annually to the league's most sportsmanlike player, for a third straight season.
According to his head coach, George Burnett, the honor is very well-deserved.
"He's very easy to coach. I've never had to criticize his work ethic or his preparation. He wants to be used in all situations. Just because he's won the sportsmanlike award doesn't mean he's not competitive. He's a proud competitor and he works very hard," expressed the veteran Storm bench boss. "It's a huge accomplishment to win the same trophy three straight years. He deserves to be recognized in many ways."
Game 1 of the OHL final between the Guelph Storm and Ottawa 67's takes place on Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. at TD Place.
Photo credit: Natalie Shaver/OHLPucks