1989 Centennial Cup Champions: Thunder Bay Flyers (USHL)
IT was just over 30 years ago that the 1989 Centennial Cup was held in Summerside, P.E.I.
That season three decades back, it was the Thunder Bay Flyers that came out on top, defeating the host Summerside Western Capitals 4-1 in the title game on a spring afternoon in the Maritimes.
Coached by Dave Siciliano, the club would go on to win four trophies that year to cap off an impressive campaign.
Facing geographic restrictions to compete against Canadian Jr. A opposition during the regular season, the Flyers were in fact members of the United States Hockey League.
The team’s initial trophy win was claiming the USHL’s Anderson Cup as regular season winners as they rolled to a first-place finish in the 10-team loop, going 40-6-2 overall, during 1988-89.
Next came the Clark Cup USHL playoff title that saw Thunder Bay move through before prevailing in a deciding game on home ice vs. the rival and second place St. Paul Vulcans in a league final that went the distance.
With two titles secured, the club hit the Centennial Cup trail with the Dudley-Hewitt Cup Central Canadian A Playdowns where they opened up against the Sudbury Cubs.
There the Flyers proceeded to sweep Sudbury in four games to earn a berth in the Dudley-Hewitt final against the defending regional champion and battle-hardened Pembroke Lumber Kings.
After falling to the Lumber Kings in 1988, this go around was Thunder Bay’s turn as they proceeded to dispose of Pembroke in a minimum four outings and punch their ticket to the nationals in Summerside.
“I remember being down something like 4-0 to Pembroke in Game 1 in the Dudley-Hewitt Cup final and thinking that we are in trouble, but we just stayed the course and came back to win,” chipped in Flyers’ star centre Greg Johnson, who would go on to be named Canadian Junior A Player of the Year for his on-ice efforts that season.
Although all the games were tough, I knew that this was a special group and we would find a way,” expanded Johnson.
Despite entering the 1989 Centennial Cup in P.E.I. with a pair of league titles secured and a Dudley-Hewitt Cup crown won, the Thunder Bay Flyers entered the event feeling they did not get the respect deserved.
“The host Summerside team commented at the coaches press conference that Thunder Bay couldn’t be very strong since they played in a U.S.-based league,” recalled Siciliano.
“I know it fired me up to prove him wrong and I am sure the players took it personally also.”
Taking on Summerside, the Vernon Lakers and Moncton Hawks, Thunder Bay went 2-1 in the round robin with convincing victories over the Lakers (8-2) and Hawks (6-2) while suffering a narrow 5-4 setback to the Western Capitals to finish in a three-way tie for top spot.
With more goals scored (18) and having allowed the fewest (9), the Flyers ended up in first and earned a berth to the final.
After Summerside needed double overtime to get past Moncton in the semifinal, they would meet Thunder Bay again for the title.
“We knew the arena would be packed and loud cheering for them,” offered Siciliano.
“We emphasized to remain calm and disciplined. The Capitals were going to try and run us out of their building. I believed they didn’t have much respect for us since they had beaten us in the round robin.”
The players bought into the game plan and were successful and sticking to the coaching staffs’ system proved to pay dividends.
“The team performed to perfection, stated the Flyers’ bench boss.
“Our team speed and skill over powered Summerside and we were unfazed by the full house and their physical play.”
One of those who fondly recalls the finale was forward Bruce Ramsay, who is currently the head coach of the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder.
“I remember I scored the first goal in the final,” said rugged winger.
“Obviously, I was not known for my scoring prowess, so to be able to contribute offensively in helping my teammates win a national championship was pretty special,” beamed Ramsay, who went on to win another Centennial Cup the following year with Vernon, B.C.
With Ramsay’s key tally and the play of Canadian Jr. A Player of the Year Johnson, Thunder Bay would go on to defeat Summerside 4-1 to claim their initial Canadian Jr. A crown.
“1988-89 was a special and memorable year for me my teammates, and in so many ways, was a turning point in my career,” offered Johnson.
“That team was strong and had so much depth, added Johnson.
“The entire group was unselfish and team-first. Great leadership from our captains and veteran players and our coaching staff did an amazing job with many great decisions. To win the USHL, Dudley-Hewitt Cup and Centennial Cup in the same year was an incredible accomplishment,” surmised Johnson, who would go on to star at the University of North Dakota, win World Junior gold in 1991 and Olympic silver in 1994 for Canada, while going on to boast a 12-year NHL career.
Of note, the head coach of that 1994 Olympic silver-medal-winning side is current Hockey Canada Chief Executive Officer Tom Renney.
One of those on hand to call the Flyers’ games on radio back in the day was a rookie broadcaster Bryan Graham, who now serves as commissioner of the CJHL’s Superior International Junior Hockey League.
“It was a dream come true to be able to do the play-by-play of the Flyers that year and them winning a national title was icing on the cake,” cited Graham.
“In the championship game, the team played with so much composure in front of a packed house. The final score was 4-1, but the Flyers just seemed in control the entire game,” offered the current SIJHL leader as he marveled on that club’s success.
Looking back, Siciliano still holds reverence for that group.
“I believe that team was one of the best junior teams to ever represent Thunder Bay,” surmised the veteran bench boss.
“The players proved it by winning the USHL, the Dudley-Hewitt Cup and the Centennial Cup.”
The overall numbers back up that claim.
Earning a berth on the Centennial Cup All-Star Team and picking up top scorer laurels, Johnson agreed with his former coach.
“Whenever the Thunder Bay Flyers took to the ice during the 1988-89 season, the fans in the stands were treated to some great hockey,” chipped in the long-time NHLer.
That season the Flyers boasted an overall record of 60-10-2 to go with their four championship trophies.
“That team was as prepared as any team I have ever coached,” reflected Siciliano.
Equally impressive about that Flyers roster was the vast majority of their line-up was made up of players from Thunder Bay while the remainder of the squad consisted of individuals from neighbouring communities in northwestern Ontario.
“They were a very close-knit group with excellent leadership from captain Darryl Blazino. Greg Johnson was a standout throughout and our defence, led by Chris Hynnes, played their best hockey of the year,” summarized Siciliano.
“They believed in themselves. In the end, they would not be denied of winning that final game.”
After guiding his club to another national Jr. A title in 1992, Siciliano went on to serve on the coaching staff for Canada’s 1993 World Junior Hockey Championship squad in Sweden.
That Canadian contingent captured the gold medal at that event, which featured a plethora of future NHLers, including eventual Hockey Hall of Fame Honoured Members Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya.
Members of the 1988-89 Centennial Cup-winning Thunder Bay Flyers included:
Darryl Blazino (Captain), Jason Bortolussi, Brian Caruso, Dwight DeGiacomo, Peter Grant, Greg Hankkio, Todd Henderson, Todd Howarth, Chris Hynnes, Greg Johnson, Brad Kennett, Darren Leishman, Barry McLeod, Ian Milne, Don Osborne, Craig Pages, Michael Power, Neal Purdon, Bruce Ramsay, Wayne Sawchuk, Gary Wenzel, Dave Siciliano (Head Coach), Sean Donohue (Assistant Coach), Ray Bohonis (Manager), Dino Martin (Trainer), Gaetan Joubert (Trainer).
Photo courtesy Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame Archives