The Newfoundland Growlers are back in the hunt for the Kelly Cup, as the team returns to the ECHL playoffs this weekend for the first time since winning the championship in 2019.
"You work all year for this time," said Coach Eric Wellwood. "We finally made it to the dance, and we're looking forward to it."
The St. John's-based team is facing off against the Trois-Rivières Lions in a first round playoff series, with the Growlers winning Friday night's opening game at Mary Brown's Centre by a score of 7-4.
The Lions are a familiar opponent for the Growlers, with the teams having played against each other 14 times this season, and while the Growlers may have won 10 of those games, Wellwood said the Quebec team looks totally different now.
"Throughout the year, their lineup has changed drastically. Coming into this series, they've added a lot of key guys that are very, very good." Wellwood said
The coach said it's going to take some adjustments to win against the new Lions lineup, but he said his team is looking forward to the challenge.
"Even though you're in the playoffs, it's still another long ways to go and it's going to be a grind of a battle just getting through these guys. So, the boys are looking forward to it."
Wellwood said it's a big deal to be able to start the playoffs on their home ice.
"It's nice to be sleeping in your own bed right now, knowing the arena staff," he said.
Although the Growlers had a solid regular season on the ice, the team was rocked by the death of mascot Chris Abbott. Wellwood said they're dedicating the playoffs to 'Abbo,' who played Buddy the Puffin for more than 27 years.
"He played such a key role in this community," he said. "I was only able to know him for four or five months, and even that was enough time to have an impact on my life."
Growlers President Trevor Murphy echoed Wellwood's sentiment.
"It's been a tough year, missing Abbo, missing Buddy the Puffin around these games." Murphy said the team has Abbot's jersey hung up in the dressing room to inspire them, and have signs, hashtags and hoodies dedicated to 'Abbo.'
"Even though he's not here physically, he's certainly here in spirit. And he's being remembered in a real positive way amongst our group."
Murphy said there was great attendance for Friday night's game at the Mary Brown's Centre, with around 4,000 people in attendance.
"It's a great sign. There's lots of excitement amongst our organization and amongst our fans," he said,
Murphy said it's great to have the team in another playoffs after missing some seasons due to the pandemic.
The 2020 Kelly Cup was cancelled as a result of the pandemic and the Growlers sat out last year due to ongoing COVID-19 precautions. The Fort Wayne Komets won the Kelly Cup during the 2021 season, but only 14 out of the 26 ECHL member teams participated that year and that's left some fans questioning which team is the real defending champion this year.
Murphy says the answer is easy.
"The Growlers are the defending champions," he said, describing how the Newfoundland team won during the last full season prior to the pandemic.
As for the opening round of the playoffs, Murphy admits he's in an unusual situation as both the Growlers and the Lions are owned by the same parent company, Deacon Sports and Entertainment. But, Murphy says despite having an allegiance to both teams, he does have a favourite.
"I've been with the Growlers since day one, so I'll be wearing the black and gold," Murphy said.
"But it should a great series for two teams from Deacon. So, it's a real special night for Deacon Sports and Entertainment in general."
The Growlers face off against the Lions again on Saturday night at the Mary Brown's Centre, before heading to Quebec to play against the Lions on their home ice again on Tuesday and Thursday.