A member of the first Guelph Storm team to bring an OHL Championship to the Royal City, Brian Willsie reflects on three seasons that added up to be some of the best years of his life.
Steph Coratti, GuelphStorm.com —
“Proud, I was very proud.”
Those were the words Brian Willsie used to sum up what being a member of the Guelph Storm meant.
“I didn’t know where I was gonna go when I was drafted,” the former Royal City 1995 first round pick began on his three-year tenure with the organization. “I was excited to come, and then it had the effect on me – I didn’t realize it at the time – but it helped me grow as a young man off the ice, and it really helped my development on the ice.”
Willsie began his major junior career in 1995, registering 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in 65 games as an OHL freshman.
The next season, the six-foot, 196-pound winger would surpass his rookie campaign just with goals scored, pocketing 37 for a total of 68 points in 64 games.
“For one, the coaching,” Willsie said of E.J. McGuire, crediting the former Storm head coach for his breakout season efforts. “He was probably the smartest coach I’ve ever had, and just took the time to help develop the young guys, and work with them to bring the best out of them.”
“Number two was the environment that the Storm put all the players in,” Willsie continued. “You were in a position to succeed and we had a winning, positive identity around the team so we pushed each other – and not knowing it at the time – but because we wanted to succeed as a team, that just made everybody individually succeed.”
That identity would lead to a strong playoff push in 1996-97, with Willsie – as a Storm sophomore – compiling an impressive 19 points (15 goals, four assists) in 18 postseason games. Guelph, however, would come up short, falling in the semi-finals.
The following season would end a bit differently.
“That championship, that was the highlight of the three years there,” Willsie said of the 1998 OHL-winning team, the first of three to bring the title to the Storm. “I don’t think we had any huge stars, guys took on their roles, and we carried on that winning identity that was shown to us when we first got there as a rookies and we just kept it going.”
“We were just a very close group,” Willsie continued on the 1998 roster. “Almost 20 years later, and a very good majority of us are close friends still now.”
One detail, though, sticks out – maybe not as a regret, but a lingering what-if.
“Well, we lost the very last game we played,” Willsie said, referencing the 1998 Memorial Cup loss to the Portland Winter Hawks in overtime. “You kind of think about that – the what-ifs. What if we won that last game in overtime?”
It was a what-if, Willsie recalled, that followed him throughout his professional playing career.
“You run into people that either played on that team or throughout the tournament, and you talk about how close it actually was,” the London, Ontario native explained. “It’s not something I’d call a regret though – I think everything we did we were proud of and we wouldn’t change it, but you always wish you could have had that goal go the other way and been that team to have won the Memorial Cup for Guelph.”
In compiling 178 points through 186 career games, including 45 goals in 57 games in 1997-98, while posting 39 points in 46 playoff match-ups, one person specifically sticks out for Willsie when it comes to his major junior success and moving forward into the National Hockey League as a sixth overall pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.
“It came from the top with Mike Kelly,” Willsie explained. “He just came in and had the message, and maybe without him knowing it, but the expectations that came with being part of the Storm organization and the identity we had.”
“It started with him, with a team that was pushed to be committed to school, your work ethic, and your time management, and all of those things,” Willsie continued, adding that Kelly is continuing on that very expectation today. “It kept everybody on the straight and narrow and really helped us mature off the ice, and created a winning team on it.”
From personal accomplishments to a team championship, all while recognizing those who played a part, Willsie – who, with his wife and kids, now calls Guelph home – didn’t hesitate when asked to recall what those years mean to him now.
“You’re told, and it always sounds so cliché, but junior hockey are the best years of your life,” Willsie explained. “But looking back, how you develop, the friends you make, and the things you learn about yourself in junior…”
“It is just the best time of your life.”
1998 OHL Champions Chris Madden and Brian Willsie, with Sylvain Cloutier, all honoured prior to the Guelph Storm's 25th home opener on Sept. 25, 2015.
- Guelph Storm, 1995-1998
- OHL Totals: 186 games played, 95 goals, 83 assists, 178 points
- Playoffs: 46 games played, 28 goals, 11 assists, 39 points
- Named 25th all-time in Guelph Storm history
- Selected in the sixth round (146th overall) by the Colorado Avalanche in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft
- 10 NHL Seasons
- NHL Totals: 381 games played, 52 goals, 57 assists, 109 points
- NHL Teams: Colorado Avalanche, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings
- Represented Canada at the 1998 World Junior Championship (seven games played, two assists)
Jeff O’Neill Banner Night, November 21 vs. Kitchener Rangers
The Guelph Storm will honour Jeff O’Neill on Nov. 21 at the Sleeman Centre by raising #92 to the rafters in an on-ice ceremony prior to the game against the Kitchener Rangers. The game will be the hockey club’s first homecoming game for Storm alumni and their families. Get your tickets to a special moment in Storm history here!
For more information on the event, click here.