Last-minute goal lifts Saginaw Spirit over London Knights in Memorial Cup final

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SAGINAW, Mich. – The Knights have played in four Memorial Cup finals in franchise history. This was the biggest heartbreaker – by far.

London couldn’t clear the zone in the final minute and Saginaw over-ager Josh Bloom banged home a loose puck with 21.7 seconds left for a bitter – and shocking – 4-3 Knights defeat before 5,373 Sunday at the Dow Event Center.

The Spirit finally slayed their dragon. They had not beaten London in a meaningful game all season, but came up big when it mattered most.

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The OHL champs rallied from three goals down after being smothered in the first half of the contest. Saginaw’s determined forecheck, commitment to their own zone and ability to win faceoffs tilted the ice in their favour and led to the early lead.

Saginaw successfully rode the momentum from its semifinal win over Moose Jaw into the final and outshot London 31-13 overall.

The 13 shots in the game were the fewest by a team in the tournament’s records.

London lost three times in 22 post-season games – and all of those were to the Spirit.

Down three in the middle of the second, Kasper Halttunen finally put London on the board with his fourth goal in four Cup games. It was the Knights’ second shot on net.

It led to their two-goal third-period surge – but it wasn’t enough in the end.

Braden Hache of the Saginaw Spirit and Kaleb Lawrence of the London Knights collide during the first period of the Memorial Cup championship game at Dow Event Center in Saginaw, Michigan on June 2, 2024. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

ROUGH FIRST: The Knights gave up two Owen Beck goals and were outshot 13-1 in the first period. Beck was a large problem, also blasting Easton Cowan with a huge open-ice hit.

The biggest moment, of course, was London’s Landon Sim catching Saginaw defenceman Zayne Parekh in the head with an elbow in open ice. Parekh grabbed his face and writhed around on the ice as he was tended to by the Spirit trainer.

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The referees reviewed the play, handed Sim a major penalty for a head check and ejected him – much to coach Dale Hunter’s displeasure. Beck’s power-play goal was the first against the Knights in the tournament, ending an 11-for-11 London kill streak.

Parekh recovered quickly and was back out for a big chunk of the power play. He also got away with a vicious high-stick on Denver Barkey late in the second period.

Was the Sim hit a major penalty? That will be a lingering question. But major penalties were a theme of the Knights season and they usually overcame it.

HOME ADVANTAGE: The Knights had last change but the Spirit had the atmosphere advantage.

Facing the host team in the final is not easy at any Cup. London overwhelmed Rimouski in 2005 and couldn’t hold the early momentum at Shawinigan in 2012.

“I’ve played as the host team and coached against the host,” London assistant coach Dylan Hunter said, “so you know you’re going to come out hard. Once you get to this level and the end of the race here, you have to start out right. You have to make sure you’re up in the game the first 10 minutes. You know it’s going to be fast. You have to be ready to play right from the start.”

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The biggest thing, he thought, was getting that first shift in with purpose.

“It calms you down,” Hunter said. “You want to make sure you don’t take 2-3 shifts to settle in. If you get down a couple of goals, you have to open it up. If you’re in a series, you can say we’ll just keep it here. But in a one-game elimination, you have to go hard and it leaves you open for more odd-man rushes against.

“We’ve responded every time we asked to. Generally, a bounce goes one way or the other. It’s great for the league (to have an all-OHL final). We thought we were both pretty good teams.”

FAMILIAR FOE: The Knights and Spirit met 12 times this season.

It was a chance for London and area talent like Hunter Haight and Will Bishop on the Saginaw roster to bask in the home spotlight.

“Growing up watching the Knights, they’re always a good club and always have a chance,” Bishop, the 6-foot-6 Spirit defenceman, said. “I went to a few games when the Memorial Cup was in London in 2014. It’s definitely a coincidence to play them in the finals.”

Bishop spent mornings working on his defensive game with Bryan Rodney and had Danny Syvret as a Junior Knights coach at the end of his minor hockey career. That’s a pair of the anchors on the 2005 Memorial Cup champion Knights.

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“They were a huge influence when you have guys like that stick around London,” the 19-year-old former Oakridge secondary schooler said. “Amazing coaches and great guys and the Junior Knights are lucky to have them.”

Bishop’s OHL draft year was essentially wiped out by the pandemic but London faced Elgin-Middlesex about a dozen times. So he knows what it’s like to go up against Maple Leafs first-rounder Easton Cowan.

“We grew up playing against him and he was very good,” the big blue-liner said. “You could see the skill. He excelled in London’s system.”

Bishop spent some time at Ridley College in St. Catharines with his old minor hockey teammate Charlie Robertson before joining the Sudbury Wolves. He played there his first OHL season split between the Nickel City and the Tier II Espanola Paper Kings.

It was a bit of a culture shock before being dealt to Saginaw ahead of this season.

“I didn’t know where I would fit in,” he said. “It’s been a great experience. The coaching staff has been amazing and I worked my way into the top six for the moment. It was the best thing for me coming in the summer. This organization fought hard to bring the Memorial Cup here.

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“We owe them the celebration.”

They got it.

London Knights players celebrate the second period goal that cut the lead to 3-1 for the Saginaw Spirit in the Memorial Cup championship game in Saginaw, Mich. on June 2, 2024. (Eric Young/CHL)

SPIRIT-ED CUP: This was an awakening for Saginaw.

The people here now have an understanding of the top level of junior hockey and it was clear they will have a bigger fan base moving forward. This tournament was organized, the volunteers were friendly and it was a positive experience.

“I’m proud of our organization on how well this has been run,” Spirit coach Chris Lazary said. “When I came here eight years ago, this was a wild thought we would ever get this. I never thought we would.

“From where the rink was at to where the organization was at and players were at, it was exciting to see where we’ve come in an eight-year span by working together on a common goal. This is a shared vision and it’s exceeded my expectations.”

London has a lot of hockey rivals – hence the ‘London vs. Everybody’ motto – but Saginaw became a legitimate adversary this season. It would be great if that continues into the future.

“They’re hard to beat,” Lazary said. “They play the same way, it seems like Dale (Hunter) would say, for many moons. It works for them. They compete and have a certain style to the game. They don’t give you much and you have to earn what you get.

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“It hasn’t changed.”

AROUND THE RINK: Easton Cowan made the Canadian Hockey League’s first all-star team as one of the three forwards. Owen Sound goaltender Carter George, formerly of the St. Marys Lincolns, earned all-rookie honours . . . This was the first time London faced a non-Quebec team in its fourth final. They beat Rimouski in 2005 and Rouyn-Noranda in 2016 and lost to host Shawinigan in 2012. It was also the fifth all-OHL final since 1972 and first since Windsor beat Erie in 2017  . . . London goaltender Michael Simpson and Saginaw forward Owen Beck were part of the Peterborough Petes team that lost to Seattle in last year’s cup semifinal game. They went one step further this time . . . Saginaw defenceman Jorian Donovan was part of the 2022 Cup finalist Hamilton Bulldogs, who lost to host Saint John in New Brunswick . . . Only two American teams had ever won the Cup before – the Portland Winterhawks in 1983 and ’88 and the Spokane Chiefs in 1991 and ’08 . . . Veteran OHL referee Sean Reid, who has London roots but now lives in Ottawa, officiated in his fourth career Cup final . . . The 2025 Memorial Cup will be held in Rimouski, Que. . . . Saginaw used its timeout after an icing up two goals with 4:07 left in the second period. Dale Hunter used his with 1:50 left in regulation.

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Owen Beck of the Saginaw Spirit reacts after scoring against the London Knights during the first period of the 2024 Memorial Cup championship game at Dow Event Center in Saginaw, Mich. on June 2, 2024. (Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Spirit 4, Knights 3
Saginaw goals: Owen Beck (2), Joey Willis, Josh Bloom

London goals: Kasper Halttunen, Easton Cowan, Sam Dickinson
The Spirit are the 104th Memorial Cup champions.

Sunday at Dow Event Center

Spirit 4, Knights 3

First period
1., Saginaw, Beck 3 (Bloom) 9:07
2. Saginaw, Beck 4 (Bloom, Willis) 19:15 (pp)
Penalties – George, Ldn (delay of game) 4:37, Sim, Ldn (head check major, game misconduct) 18:58.

Second period
3. Saginaw, Willis 2 (unassisted) 7:47
4. London, Halttunen 4 (Cowan, Bonk) 9:45
Penalties – None.

Third period
5. London, Cowan 3 (Dickinson, Bonk) 7:48
6. London, Dickinson 2 (McCue, Cowan) 10:16
7. Saginaw, Bloom 2 (Donovan) 19:38
Penalties – None.

Shots on goal by
Saginaw 13 11 7–31
London 1 5 7–13

Power plays: Sag 1-2. Ldn 0-0.

Goalies: Oke, Sag (W, 4-1). Simpson, Ldn (L, 3-0).

Referees – Sean Reid, Jeff Hopkins. Linesmen – Spencer Knox, Dustin Minty.

Attendance – 5,373.

Three stars: 1. Josh Bloom, Spirit; 2. Owen Beck, Spirit; 3. Sam Dickinson, Knights

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