Ten Years Later: Remembering the Wolves’ Historic Run
By Mike Commito
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the conclusion of Sudbury’s incredible postseason run to the Ontario Hockey League Championship. Although the Wolves came up just shy in that final series against Plymouth, it was a monumental achievement. It was just the second time in franchise history that the club competed for the J. Ross Robertson Cup.
On paper, it seemed like an improbable journey. Sudbury was just the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and would be facing stiff competition from their rivals. The Wolves, however, knew they were better than what their regular season results showed and they were keen to put that theory to the test in the playoffs.
Guided by a veteran core of players that included Nick Foligno and Adam McQuaid, Sudbury knocked off their opponents one by one, often in dominating and dramatic fashion. As the postseason continued to roll on, the Wolves’ performances became more convincing and it seemed as though the club was destined to win it all.
To reflect back on that incredible run, hockey historian Mike Commito caught up with some of the Wolves involved to commemorate the most unforgettable playoff performance in Sudbury Wolves history.
When the 2006-07 season began, the Wolves already had a solid group of players that included Nick Foligno, Marc Staal, Adam McQuaid, Jonathan D’Aversa and some younger guys like Akim Aliu. As the campaign unfolded, the club made several critical moves in advance of the trade deadline to bolster their chances for the postseason. To shore up the backend, the Wolves traded for Zach McCullough from the Owen Sound Attack and goaltender Sebastian Dahm from the Sarnia Sting. Up front, the club also brought in Justin Donati, an established, dynamic scorer, who immediately enhanced the team’s offensive firepower.
Sebastian Dahm, posted a .934 SV% with the Wolves that postseason. He now plays in the Austrian Hockey League and is currently representing Denmark at the IIHF World Championship: Looking back at that season now, I look at it a lot differently than when I was in it. When I was in it, I felt like I was doing okay throughout the season and playing okay in Sudbury after the trade, but looking back now I can see I wasn’t playing my best hockey at all during that regular season. I know that Dave Miller in Sarnia had traded for me because he wanted me to be a number one starting goalie and the truth is I never did take that spot in Sarnia. When I was away with the Danish World Junior team in the B Pool, which we won that year, that gave me a bit of a boost. Then they traded me to Sudbury because Mike Foligno up there wanted to try out a new goalie situation. The goalie coach in Sudbury, Michael Lawrence, had been doing some scouting and he liked the potential he saw in me, but obviously, it was just potential because I had a lot more in me than I was actually showing.
Zach McCullough, enhanced Sudbury’s formidable blue line during that run. He went on to play in the East Coast Hockey League is now the head instructor at National Training Rinks in Barrie. McCullough is also the owner and operator of APEX Hockey Training: Starting the year I was in Owen Sound. I came in and I was pretty confident in myself. We were off to a good start in Owen Sound from what I can remember. We were making some changes throughout the first half of the year. There was chatter of them making some moves where I was going back and forth between Sudbury and Belleville. I had a friend on Belleville and we were playing Belleville, and my friend said, ‘I think you’re getting traded to Belleville, there’s a jersey on the bus with your name on it.’ And then I got the call, it turns out I was going to Sudbury.
Justin Donati, scored 14 goals in 19 games that postseason. He went on to play professional hockey in North America and Europe. Donati currently works as an advisor at Sun Life and is a youth hockey coach: That year with Toronto, my mom had passed away in the summer. So, starting the year was familiar but it was hard for me to play there, all the memories; it was tough for me to be on the ice. It was hard to produce, it was just hard to be in the rink to be honest. After that, I had a meeting with my coach and I ended up playing pretty well. The team was struggling, it was a tough year for the entire team and then Mike Foligno traded for me and what happened in Sudbury was the complete opposite of what I was experiencing in St. Mike’s. I got traded to a good team, we ended up making the playoffs, finishing in sixth place, and the rest was history.
But even with these acquisitions, the Wolves struggled down the stretch, dropping to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference as they headed into the playoffs.
Nick Foligno, led the team in scoring with 12 goals and 17 assists in the playoffs. He is currently the captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets and a finalist for the Mark Messier Leadership Award: I think it was just figuring out how all the moving parts of the new players were going to work and we were a little banged up at the end of the season. This team was better than it probably was in the standings and we knew that, we just didn’t come together until the playoffs really hit.
Donati: We all felt that we underachieved in the regular season and we knew we had the team to make a push. We knew it would be tough, but if any team was going to do it, we believed that it was going to be us.
McCullough: It was a weird feeling at the end of the year, we were not getting the results every night. But it kind of felt when looking around the room that we were a much better group that we’d shown recently on paper in our games. It might have just been a feeling out process and getting everybody to gel.
Jonathan D’Aversa, scored 18 points from the backend that postseason. He went on to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ affiliate in the AHL and currently plays in the Austrian Hockey League: It was kind of an up-and-down year. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to but we knew we had a good team going into the playoffs. We always had a good bunch of guys up there, Foligno did a nice job in getting everybody close. It was good to do something our last year. We kind of wanted to do something special for our last year and go on a long run.
Adam McQuaid, played 246 games for the Sudbury Wolves. After his junior career, McQuaid joined the Boston Bruins organization. He became an NHL regular in 2010-11, and won the Stanley Cup with the team that postseason: I think going in as the number six seed, I think we underachieved a little bit in the regular season but we certainly found our stride when we got into the playoffs.
Akim Aliu, recorded 5 points and racked up 50 penalty minutes that postseason. He played 7 games with the Calgary Flames from 2011-13. Aliu recently spent the last season playing for the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League: We went in as the sixth seed and went into the playoffs not playing very well. We had a great group there, we had really good veteran guys and that’s who I think pushed our team and the younger guys just followed suit. We didn’t have a great regular season, so I don’t think we were expecting to go on the type of run that we did, but literally right when playoffs started, everything kind of turned around.
When the Wolves opened the postseason, they had the chance to flip the script, but it wasn’t going to be an easy road. Their first opponent was the Mississauga Ice Dogs, the team that scored the most goals in the entire Canadian Hockey League that year. On paper, it seemed as though the Ice Dogs would make short work of their opponents, but the Wolves had something going in their favour; they truly believed they had underachieved in the regular season and had something to prove in the playoffs.
Dahm: We were squaring off against Mississauga in the first round, so we had zero expectations and I think that we had a lot of potential on that team that had not come out during the regular season. I think there were more guys than me who were up-and-down that year. So, I think a lot of guys went into that playoffs thinking it was a fresh start. We thought, I’m going to see if I can find my top level in the playoffs just to prove individually, and as a team, that we’re better than what we’ve been doing so far.
Once the playoffs got underway, things started clicking for the club.
Foligno: I remember in the Mississauga series, to be honest with you, those younger guys were actually our better players early on in the series. They actually sparked us and got us into the games, especially in the first two. We lost the first one with a bad loss, we were playing well and they got a late goal. The second game we ended up winning to go back home and it had a lot to do with the young guys and then from there our older guys started to pick it up and play well. I think for us it never felt like we were underdogs.
McCullough: It almost seemed right from the first series, we played Mississauga and it just kind of felt that as soon as the puck dropped, the ball started rolling and we gained momentum as those series moved on. It seemed like the more we played and the more we got on the ice, the more momentum we gathered.
McQuaid: Even right from the get go when we were playing Mississauga and they’d score a big goal, we would come back and find a way to respond almost the next shift. Early on there were those kinds of signs that we were just playing the right way.
Dahm: I remember I got a new mask for the playoffs. Me and goalie coach Michael Lawrence just thought we’d done all this work, now you’ve got a new mask, a fresh start for the playoffs, just play your game. It was a fresh slate. We had done so much work, I believed that I went into that playoffs with a lot of confidence. It’s funny sometimes, I’ve heard this with other goalies, how a new mask can suddenly be the turning point for them in their season.
After dispatching the Ice Dogs in five games, the Wolves faced off against the Colts; the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Sudbury ended up sweeping Barrie and the team’s confidence continued to grow.
Foligno: I remember needing and wanting to step up as an older guy and help our team and be a difference maker, and I really felt like my game really started to come in that series, where I was starting to become a difference maker and I think that was a really big step for us.
McQuaid: A lot of different guys stepped up and really brought their best. I think going in we were confident in the fact that we were going in better than as a sixth seed. It just kind of went from there.
Dahm: I think our confidence just grew throughout that series. But I think that everyone on that team played to the top of their ability. What we got out of that team that year is really what you wish for in the playoffs. If you can get everyone to achieve as close to the top of their level as we did that year, then you can’t ask for more out of your organization and your players.
D’Aversa: We were confident with the group we had and just took it from there. We kind of got some momentum in those first couple rounds. I think that sweep against Barrie really helped out with our confidence and we kind of just built off of that.
Aliu: Dahm was standing on his head. Marc [Staal] was unbelievable, I think he was just the best player in the league and in the playoffs at the time at both ends of the ice. I think having an older d corps like D’Aversa and McQuaid really helped us out a lot. Up front, we just had timely scoring. Our two biggest things were goaltending and Marc, they definitely pushed us.
Donati: The first game in Barrie, we won in overtime, that was probably the moment where I thought maybe there is a chance we go far. We put the regular season behind us and we beat Mississauga in 5 games and after sweeping Barrie, I think that’s when we all knew.
Was there a secret to their newfound success in the playoffs? You might say that. Before the postseason started, head coach Mike Foligno showed the team the film and best-selling book, the Secret, which focused on how to unlock the power of positive thinking.
McQuaid: I remember Mike Foligno said that, when you guys come in tomorrow after practice I’ve got a secret for you. So, we were all kind of excited about it, but that’s what it ended up being. We watched that going into the playoffs and it was all about positive thinking and having a positive outlook and it kind of became that we had the secret that nobody else had and that’s why we were going to be successful.
Foligno: My Dad made us sit down and watch it and I was impressed with the guys from ages 16 to 20 sitting there watching this video. You roll your eyes at first but I don’t think we realized how influential it was until we started getting on our roll in the playoffs. It actually became a huge mantra of ours throughout the playoffs. The Secret and the power of positive thinking and it kind of became this thing for our team. I’ll never forget that.
Dahm: A lot of us saw it at first as a gimmick. Looking at it, it was one of those ‘come on’ things, thinking it was too cheesy. But a lot of us, at least I did, thought I might as well try it because what if it works. Honestly, I used some of those visualiz ation techniques from the Secret throughout that run and I think what it did for me was give me a lot of positive thinking throughout those series.
McCullough: Weird how some things like that resonate with 16 to 20-year-old kids but everybody just got it and understood it and as soon as the puck dropped in Game 1, it just seemed like the ball kept gaining momentum. Kept sharing positive reinforcement and clips from the Secret and it just kept working.
Aliu: Mike showed us the Secret, I think we watched that going right into the playoffs. Having played hockey now for a long time I know how important the psychological part of the game is, but at that time, I was just 17 years old so you don’t think of it as much. That was something good for us to watch, I think we watched it before every couple of games or before every round.
D’Aversa: He got everybody believing in the Secret and that kind of went like that throughout the playoffs. We kind of used that to fall back on if we had any ups and downs. It’s always good to use something like that. I think we all bought into it especially as the playoffs went on because it seemed like it was working. Hockey players are superstitious like that at times.
Donati: I remember sitting through a DVD in the locker room and he was pretty pumped about it. But you know what, it got the guys going. When you’re sixth place, you’re looking for anything to rally the troops. The power of positive thinking and positive mindset, believing in yourself, it was a great message to send to the team. Coach Foligno was a great motivator and he kept the guys on their toes. He was great at what he did and that was a big reason why we went as far as we did.
Throughout the playoffs, the Wolves also had another advantage over their opponents; the atmosphere in the Sudbury Arena.
Foligno: I’ll never forget the arena. I’ll never forget that. That was the most unbelievable thing to watch. Sudbury is such a great hockey town. The standing room only, seeing people three rows deep in standing room, the arena was completely packed. The atmosphere. To win there was an unbelievable feeling
Dahm: When I think back of the Sudbury Arena, I just remember that the crowd was always so big and so loud. I think rowdy is a good word to describe Sudbury fans. They really liked to get into it and what I really liked as a goalie was that, every time I just stopped the puck I always got a huge celebration. I think my confidence in that rink compared to other rinks was almost two steps up because everything I did just got so much encouragement from the fans.
Aliu: It was physically so loud. I remember standing beside Nick and Marc on the bench during “O Canada” and I couldn’t speak to them it was literally so loud in there.
Donati: That was the best atmosphere I had played in. There was standing room only and I think that even that was sold out. There wasn’t an empty seat in the place. The Sudbury fans were fantastic.
D’Aversa: It was pretty crazy. That was my fourth year there and I’ve never seen it that loud or even that packed. When we swept Barrie, they had the broomsticks out. I know guys don’t like coming to Sudbury to play against us but we all liked the atmosphere, the old rink and old hockey kind of vibe.
McQuaid: It was awesome. It’s still something that, honestly, I look back on and have real fond memories of. I’ve been fortunate to play in a lot of exciting atmospheres since then, but that was up there for sure.
So, armed with the teachings of the Secret and the support of the home crowd, but more importantly with the knowledge that the team was playing its best hockey, the Wolves were more than ready to take on the Belleville Bulls in the Eastern Conference Final.
Foligno: I think you could see the guys thinking ‘we’re on to something here, this could be an unbelievable run, something magical.’ The belief started, you get out of the first round and now I’m invested but you got some guys who aren’t sure how it’s going to shake out and then you get into the second round and start having some success and you have everybody buying in and everybody doing whatever they can to win and that’s what I saw. You had certain guys step up for certain plays in games.
McCullough: Felt like we were gaining momentum as the series went on and after that first one it felt like maybe we could do something special here and it kind of just reassured everybody that the Secret was working.
Sudbury ended up defeating Belleville in six games, with the final contest decided at home in triple overtime. For one Wolf in particular, Justin Donati, that series held extra significance. His twin brother, Tyler, just so happened to be a member of the Bulls.
Donati: My brother and I are competitive, so you want the bragging rights. I still brag about it to this day. I definitely wanted to beat my brother. Having him on the ice was pretty cool and it was pretty cool having both our teams be as successful as they were and both of us having the playoffs that we did. For him, it could have ended a little better but for me, it was amazing. Playing against my brother in the Eastern Conference Championship and then beating him, I couldn’t ask for more.
After the Wolves secured the Eastern Conference title against Belleville, they faced off against the Plymouth Whalers for the J. Ross Robertson Cup. Sudbury took them to a hard-fought six games, including three contests decided by overtime, but ultimately the league championship escaped the Wolves’ grasp.
Despite the outcome, the team and the community was incredibly proud of what the club had accomplished. To this day, the way the city embraced the Wolves during that postseason run is still something that resonates with the players.
McQuaid: The city rallied around the team. I mean we always had great support, regardless of how we were doing, but it was nice to be able to reward the loyal fans that we had. It was my fourth year there so to be able to go on a bit of a run like that was incredible.
Dahm: For people, they say well you made it to the finals and you got close to winning but I don’t think anybody in Sudbury at the end really cared that we didn’t win it, because we already achieved so much for the city. Especially because it’s such a hard-working city, a blue-collar city. I think just the fact we worked so hard and achieved so much with what we came with that I think it was just such an incredible achievement for ourselves and the community.
Aliu: By far, my most special time playing in junior hockey. It was incredible, the whole town, buses, churches had Go Wolves Go. We couldn’t pay for a meal if we tried, it was unbelievable. It was the stuff that kids dream about when they think of the OHL. It was everything that you hope and imagine, but I say that most kids never end up experiencing that. It was unbelievable that city, I always consider myself a Wolf even though I played on a couple other organizations. It was an unbelievable experience.
McCullough: Playing for Sudbury was awesome, probably my most enjoyable time in the OHL was being in Sudbury. I still keep in touch with my billets and the guys here I cross paths with once and a while. I loved the fans up there, I loved the arena, I loved Sudbury as a city. Memories I won’t forget and being a part of that team
Foligno: It’s such an amazing community when you play for the Wolves and how you’re treated and the memories you have, so I think that’s why I have such great things to say and always want to see the Wolves do well and I’m looking forward to that team, any team in that next little while, become champions because that’s what that city deserves. I’m upset it wasn’t us but I’m excited for that day that I can be a fan in that stands and watch the team win a championship.
Ten years later, that historic run still looms large in the minds of the players and in the hearts of the fans. As the Wolves continue to embark on a new era, each year presents a renewed opportunity to chase glory in the playoffs and forge everlasting memories.
Mike Commito is a hockey historian from Sudbury, Ontario. His work regularly appears at VICE Sports. You can find some of his other stories at Sportsnet, Sports Illustrated, and the Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @mikecommito