LONDON, Ontario – For someone who is technically a Memorial Cup rookie, forward Kerby Rychel has a lot of valuable experience to draw upon when it comes to junior hockey's championship tournament.
The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, selected in the first round (No. 19) of the 2013 NHL Draft, was 11 years old when he attended the last Memorial Cup held in London in 2005. He witnessed an all-time classic when Sidney Crosby played his final games in junior hockey, representing the Rimouski Oceanic, and the London Knights won that franchise's first title led by future Anaheim Ducks star Corey Perry and a number of other players who are now in the prime of their NHL careers.
Kerby Rychel scored two goals against the WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings on Saturday in the Memorial Cup. Rychel was a first-round draft pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2013. (Getty Images)
Four years later, Rychel was in Rimouski, at the Memorial Cup held there, taking morning skates with the Windsor Spitfires. He was able to do that because the Oceanic was and still is managed and co-owned by his father Warren, who played for five different NHL teams over a 12-year career. The young Kerby was overjoyed to see the powerhouse Spitfires win the Memorial Cup that season.
He was able to repeat the experience the next year in Brandon, continuing to get up close and personal with one of the greatest teams ever assembled in junior hockey, which achieved the rare feat of back-to-back national championships.
On Saturday, returning to London to bring his Memorial Cup odyssey full circle, Rychel was able to put his own stamp on the event's history, scoring two goals when his top-ranked Guelph Storm, the Ontario Hockey League champions, skated past the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Western Hockey League titleholders, 5-2.
Rychel, 19, said he couldn't help but reflect back to the time he spent with that great Spitfires team now that his own day on junior hockey's biggest stage had finally arrived.
"It's pretty cool to be around people who have gone through it and won Memorial Cups and you look at those teams – Taylor Hall, Ryan Ellis, Zack Kassian, Cam Fowler – the list goes on," said Rychel, who played in Windsor for his entire junior career until his dad traded him on Dec. 3, along with Los Angeles Kings prospect Nick Ebert, to Guelph for a boat load of draft picks. "You can learn a lot of things from them, that's for sure. It's huge. A few of the guys still message me and say good luck and that's cool, and hopefully I'll be able to play against a few of those guys in the next couple of years."
The Storm's acquisition of Rychel took an already powerful team and made them dominant. They won each of their postseason series in five games, and it was Rychel who scored the final two goals of the game that clinched the Memorial Cup berth for his team. He followed that up with the Storm's first two goals on Saturday.
On the first goal that broke a scoreless tie late in the first period, Rychel was cutting in front of the net as teammate and Kings prospect Zac Leslie fired a shot from the point. As the puck hit Rychel's skate, he quickly got it onto his forehand and beat the glove hand of Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Tristan Jarry.
Early in the second period with the game tied at one, Edmonton's Mads Eller, younger brother of Montreal Canadiens forward Lars Eller, attempted to clear the puck from behind his own net. Rychel, who was parked in front of Jarry, had the puck take a fluke bounce off his midsection into the net.
Rychel said his teammates joked with him about it being a "goal-scorer's goal."
"The first goal was just kind of a broken play and I just got if off quick and I found a way," said the 6-foot-1, 205-pound power forward. "The second one was pretty lucky, but I'll take it though, I guess."
Each goal demonstrated how Rychel has exceptional instincts and seems to always be in the right place at the right time to create offensive opportunities. He had 51 points in 31 games with Guelph during the regular season, to go with 32 points in 20 playoff games heading into the Memorial Cup.
Guelph coach and former NHL player Scott Walker described Rychel as "an intense person" who "will skate right through you" and do everything that's required away from the rink to be the best player he can possibly be.
"He'll skate hard to the net and on the forecheck he's on his toes, chasing people down real hard," Walker said. "He's brought a lot of good things not just on the ice but off the ice in the sense that he shows our guys how to train, how to take care of your body, get on the bike after the game, be in early, do some weights. Not all the time the coach can be there and babysit. Sometimes they get more out of seeing players do it than coaches telling them to do it. He and Nick [Ebert] have been huge. They definitely left something with Guelph longer than the time that they were here playing."
Looking ahead to his long-term future in Columbus, Rychel realizes the path will likely start in Springfield and the minor leagues. But there's no doubt in his mind he'll be in Columbus sooner rather than later. He fueled by a little chip on his shoulder as he reflects on all the criticism he has received over his junior years, such as his skating is not strong enough to play at the highest level, or that he couldn't deliver for Canada when he was held off the score sheet for seven games at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
"I don't really worry about what other people think about me," Rychel said. "I've been judged my whole life. A lot of people have put me down. To be honest, I only really care about is winning the Memorial Cup, the guys in the room and playing for the coaches."