The Buckland Cup Champion Wellington Dukes got their hero’s sendoff to the northwest from fans Saturday.
They’re heading to the Dudley Hewitt Cup tournament in Dryden, Ontario, representing the Ontario Junior Hockey League and aiming to win the right to become Central Canadian Junior A champions.
Fans and volunteers gathered at Essroc Arena to mingle with the players and coaching staff and wish them well at the tournament. Some fans also got a chance to take pictures with their favourite players and with the Buckland Cup Trophy, which was brought out for the celebration. Dukes VP of Hockey Operations Randy Uens and Captain Colin Doyle made brief, rousing speeches to the enthusiastic crowd as well.
The Dukes needed six games to win that trophy, dispatching the Georgetown Raiders in the OJHL final. An overtime goal from Frank Pucci clinched the title in the sixth contest.
The whirlwind 2017-18 season started with the departure of long-time head coach and GM Marty Abrams and the changing of ownership hands from Michael Mulvihill to Ken Clement last summer.
During the season, Wellington came fast out of the gate under new bench boss Scott McCrory with a strong nucleus of young local players and key acquisitions. They ran into a bit of a rough patch on the ice mid-season and another change was made behind the bench. Ex-Cobourg Cougars coach John Druce and former Dukes captain Derek Smith took over the coaching staff and managed to lead them the rest of the way with an East division title.
It took seven games for the Dukes to eliminate both Pickering and Newmarket in the first two rounds, including a battle-back from being down three games to one against Newmarket. A five game win over a strong Aurora Tigers team in the Northeast Conference Final set the stage for their victory in the Buckland Cup Final over Georgetown.
With the amount of adversity the team faced through the season, Dukes assistant captain Mitchell Martan says this victory is extremely gratifying for both the team and the entire town of Prince Edward County.
Martan credits the fans for all of their support and loyalty through the season.
Former Dukes player and coach Todd Reid has returned to the club as their new general manager. The Stirling native says he’s happy to come back to what he calls “home” and be apart of something special in Wellington.
Vince Panetta, the father of current Dukes forward and local boy Daniel Panetta and past Dukes defenceman Jacob Panetta, says their overall team attitude, chemistry and talent will be a good formula to win another championship.
The Dukes are expected to head out on a 6:30 a.m. flight Sunday to Thunder Bay, followed by a bus ride from there to Dryden. Their tournament begins Tuesday against the host and Superior International Hockey League champion Dryden Icedogs at 8:30 p.m.
If the Dukes can win the Dudley Hewitt, it will be their third in franchise history and the third straight year in which a Quinte area team has taken the Central Region crown (The Trenton Golden Hawks won in 2016 and at home in 2017). The last time they played in a Dudley Hewitt tournament, the Dukes fell in the championship game on home ice to the Toronto Patriots in 2014.
The Dukes will also be booking a flight to Chilliwack, B.C. for the RBC Cup national Junior A championship if they can pull out a Dudley Hewitt victory. That tournament goes May 12-20.
Click HERE for the Dukes round robin schedule. Take note, game times are in the Central Time Zone, making them an hour later in the east.
Next Friday, May 4 is the semi-final, with Saturday, May 5 being the final game.
All games will be streamed at the Highline Hall inside Essroc Arena, with $5 admission.