As the 2004 NHL lockout ticked on and the season hung in the balance, Chad Kilger was busy staying in game shape in his hometown. There he was, a nine-year NHL veteran, skating drills and taking part in scrimmages with the much younger Cornwall Colts.
It was familiar territory for the Florida Panthers forward. A dozen years earlier, Kilger was a fresh-faced 16-year-old rookie in the Central Junior A Hockey League, wearing the same Colts jersey, dreaming of a future in the game.
The dream came true when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks used the fourth overall pick on him in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft. The big league arenas and contracts followed, but Kilger never forgot about his hometown, or his hometown team.
"It's a great place to be on the home team. It's a real exciting place to play," he says.
The 31-year-old NHLer is one of the best-known members of a Colts alumni which grows bigger every year. Some continue to chase their dream in hockey arenas around the world. Others have sought out careers and have become leading citizens. Together, they have laid the foundation of a hockey team with a winning tradition.
The story of the Cornwall Colts begins where another team's story ends. In 1992, with box office troubles mounting, owner William Wise decided to seek out greener pastures for the OHL's Cornwall Royals. Shocked community members made last-ditch attempts to save the team, but to no avail. The unthinkable happened: the three-time Memorial Cup champion Royals were moving to Newmarket. The Royals, a Cornwall institution for decades, vanished in the blink of an eye. It just didn't seem right.
Fortunately, Cornwall wouldn't be without a hockey team for long. A few months later, businessman Don Derry bought a Central Junior Hockey League franchise in Massena, N.Y. and moved it to Cornwall. Like the Royals before them, the Colts would wear blue, white and red and play their home games on Thursday nights. Their name would pay tribute to another Cornwall team that found success in the junior and senior ranks in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The team's objective was simple - give local hockey fans something to cheer about and help players move on to the next level. The Colts have succeeded on both counts.
The team's track record speaks for itself. In fifteen seasons, the Colts have only missed the playoffs once. They've been crowned CJHL champions four times (1995, 1996, 2000, 2001), competed for five Fred Page Cups (including hosting the 2003 tournament) and skated with Canada's best at the 2000 RBC Royal Bank Cup in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Along the way, they've helped close to 100 players continue their hockey careers at other levels. Some, such as Kilger, Kent McDonell, Eric Meloche, Yann Danis and Cam Barker, have reached hockey's highest calling, the NHL. Others are playing a cut below the NHL in minor-pro leagues in the U.S. and Europe. Many have used the Colts as a stepping stone to the Major Junior ranks or to a university scholarship.
Darcy Findlay will be the next to take that step. Next season, he'll be heading to Bemidji State, an NCAA Division 1 school in Minnesota, on a four-year scholarship.
"There's a lot of history (with the Colts) and it's great to be a part of that," says Findlay, captain of the 2007-08 edition of the Colts.
Al Wagar is no stranger to that history. As the former owner and coach of the Colts, Wagar saw many players graduate from the team.
"That's the biggest charge I ever got out of it," he says. "It's a great feeling to watch these kids become young men."
For Wagar, the trip to the National Junior A Championship in 2000 ranks as one of the best highlights. Though they didn't win it, the young Colts squad put up a strong fight, losing every game by a single goal.
"The city stood right behind us," Wagar recalls.
Now, eight years later, the Colts will get another crack at the national title, in front of a home crowd to boot. It's a scene Matt Jacobs and Ian MacInnis have dreamed of ever since they bought the team three years ago. MacInnis, the head coach, likes his club's chances.
"It's a one-game deal every time out so anybody has a chance to win," he said.
As a bonus, the Colts will have the seventh man in the stands, something they've grown accustomed to over the years. Attendance at Colts games has ranged from 700 to 1,500 for the regular season and even more in the playoffs. In 1996, a total of 4,014 fans - the largest crowd ever for a junior hockey game in Cornwall - piled into the civic complex to see the Colts defeat Gloucester 3-2 in Game 7 of the CJHL finals.
"I think the community rallies around the Colts," said Guy Lauzon, the local Member of Parliament and great uncle of Colts graduates Brock McBride and B. J. Pelkey, both of whom went on to play in the NCAA. "Imagine if we didn't have the Colts."
For most Colts fans, it's a thought they would rather not consider. The Colts have been a success story worth following, and the story isn't finished.
"We still have the chance to write the biggest page of all," said Findlay.