The Newfoundland Growlers have played in parts of three ECHL seasons and each and every one of them has given us something special to remember.
From the improbable inaugural season Kelly Cup championship in 2018-19, to an impressive follow-up season which included another first place hockey club, new ECHL records and a work stoppage due to a worldwide pandemic, each Growlers season has seemingly found a way to one-up the campaign that preceded it.
And as it turns out, the 2021-22 ECHL season may be poised to raise the bar even higher.
The Growlers’ current season is only 90 days old, but it has already given us more drama and more intrigue than any previous season in club history, not to mention some of the best hockey the Growlers have ever played.
As the unofficial first half of this incredible season is already in the rearview mirror, let’s take a look back at each of the three incredible months that comprise the memorable start of the 2021-22 campaign.
After the Covid-19 pandemic forced an end to Growlers hockey for nearly 600 days, to say the 2021-22 Growlers season was the most anticipated season of hockey in the club’s history would be an understatement.
On October 13, 22 lads converged in St. John’s to kick off Training Camp, but there was an added element this time around.
There was your normal smattering of local players, including returnees James Melindy, Zach O’Brien, Marcus Power and newcomer Nathan Noel, mixed with a combination of ultra-talented Toronto Marlies prospects, and the best-of-the-best players available on ECHL contracts.
But for the first time ever, Growlers Training Camp featured players from another AHL club, as the Manitoba Moose loaned some of their most promising prospects to the Growlers, creating one dangerous ECHL team with depth at every position.
For the first time in team history, the Growlers began their season on the road and despite being away from their new domicile in Newfoundland, the Growlers came together quickly as a unit and began establishing an identity as a talented and resilient group.
The Growlers only played four games in the month of October, all of which occurred on this season-opening road trip, but the Growlers were determined to get off to the best start in team history. Led by a rookie coaching staff comprised of Head Coach Eric Wellwood and Assistant Coach Nathan McIver, the Growlers arrived in Trois-Riviėres, Quebec to introduce the Trois-Riviėres Lions to the ECHL as the league’s newest entry.
Newfoundland stormed out of the gate with a goal just 15 seconds into their first game against the Lions and never looked back.
The club won back-to-back games in Trois-Riviėres to kick off the season, and pushed their winning streak to three with a quick visit to Glens Falls and a 3-2 win over the Adirondack Thunder, spoiling the home team’s opener.
It’s always a challenge to defeat the same team three straight times, but upon returning to the Videotron Coliseum in Trois-Riviėres to finish off the road trip, that’s exactly what the Growlers were able to achieve.
Newfoundland was heading home with a perfect 4-0-0-0 record on the road. After 600 days away, Growlers hockey was back with a vengeance.
When the Growlers’ plane landed back home in Newfoundland following their impressive opening road trip, optimism turned to frustration as the club and its players learned that they would not be granted entry into their newly-renamed home, the Mary Brown’s Centre.
That left team management scrambling to find a new place to play with only a week to go before the Home Opener.
Growlers management searched high and low looking for a suitable temporary home as discussions continued to try to resolve the situation to return to the Mary Brown’s Centre.
Just when it appeared as if the players would be forced to travel to Toronto to play their home games out of the Coca-Cola Coliseum, the Growlers entered into an agreement with the Town of Conception Bay South and found a new, albeit temporary home at C.B.S. Arena.
For the next two weekends, the Growlers would welcome the Adirondack Thunder and Worcester Railers to Conception Bay South, sharing the same warm hospitality with their visitors as was extended to the Growlers by C.B.S. town staff, arena staff and of course, Growlers Nation.
Amidst all the off-ice distractions, the Growlers were unfazed on the ice, winning two of three games against both the Thunder and the Railers, for an impressive homestand record of 4-2-0-0, an overall record of 8-2-0-0 and a firm grip on first place in the North Division standings.
Forced into a mindset of resilience, the Growlers maintained that same attitude as they headed back out onto the road for a five-game trip to end the month of November.
Teams often bond together when they spend every moment together on road trips and the Growlers most certainly did. Still feeling good following the warm hospitality shown in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland’s road successes continued with a pair of wins over the Reading Royals, and single wins over the Adirondack Thunder, Maine Mariners and Worcester Railers.
When the dust settled, the Growlers unbelievably finished a second consecutive road trip without suffering a loss, now sporting a road record of 9-0-0-0.
Unbeknownst to the Growlers, they had remarkably just set a new ECHL record for the best road start in league history. No other team in league history had ever won its first eight road games to begin a season, let alone nine like the Growlers had won.
The Growlers had plenty to celebrate upon their return from their lengthy November road trip. Not only was the club firmly in first place with an eye-popping 13-2-0-0 record and a new ECHL record in their back pockets, they were set for their return to the Mary Brown’s Centre.
So the club as well as its fans got to enjoy an unofficial second Home Opener as the Growlers downed the Reading Royals 4-2 on December 1 to kick off the final month before a much-needed holiday break.
Sporting an ECHL-best 14-2-0-0 record heading into the final four games of the homestand, the target on the backs of the first-place Growlers had grown to be enormous as opposing teams began to dig deep to find an answer for the almighty Growlers.
The Royals turned in a pair of near-flawless road games and became the first team all season to hand the Growlers back-to-back defeats on December 3 and 4.
Oh, and remember the Trois-Riviėres Lions? The team that lost three straight to the Growlers in the first week of the season? They were absolutely on fire and were roaring their way to the Mary Brown’s Centre for their first trip to Newfoundland. Winners of six consecutive games, including three on the road against perennial contenders, the Florida Everblades, the Lions had erased the early-season memories of those losses to Newfoundland and came to the Mary Brown’s Centre looking like a brand-new hockey club, perhaps even the most dangerous in the ECHL.
The result was the birth of perhaps the most exciting and heated rivalry the Growlers have ever known.
In the first game of the three-in-three weekend series, the Growlers turned in a near-flawless offensive performance and set a franchise record by throwing 52 shots on goal against the Lions. However, Lions goaltender Philippe Desrosiers managed to stop 50 of those shots and sent the Lions to their seventh consecutive victory with a 3-2 triumph.
In the rematch on Saturday night, the Growlers surged back to form. Newfoundland scored five times on 34 shots to snap the Lions’ big win streak with a 5-4 barnburner of a victory, much to the delight of the hometown fans who got the chance to witness the Growlers’ first win at the ‘Taterdome’.
In the series finale on Sunday afternoon, the rivalry took another step forward thanks to another edge-of-your-seat contest.
After a contentious back-and-forth affair, Newfoundland’s Ty Pelton-Byce forced overtime with a crucial tally in the final five minutes of the third period, but the Lions would earn the last laugh this week as defenseman Mathieu Brodeur ended the contest in the final minute of overtime.
Win or lose, it was clear to all that attended that games between the Growlers and Lions are not to be missed.
Since entering the league in 2018-19, it’s not a stretch to say that the Newfoundland Growlers have been a special hockey team, always seeming to find another gear, year in and year out.
If the first 90 days of the 2021-22 ECHL season have been any indication, the final months of the season leading to the Kelly Cup playoffs could very well provide some of the most exciting professional hockey that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has ever seen.
So let’s go. See you in 2022.