FINALS: Vancouver Heroes (2) vs. London Mustangs (5)
As the final seconds ticked away, the magnitude of the moment began to overwhelm Mustangs' forward Rick Nash.
He bent over on the ice and tried to compose himself. Nothing could prepare him for a celebration like this.
"I couldn't breathe, and it wasn't because I was tired," Nash said Sunday night after lifting the AFHL Stanley Cup. "It was just too much. I was trying to hold off the tears."
Nash, who was drafted by London in the second round of the AFHL Inaugural Draft, let the tears flow as the clock finally hit zero, and his teammates mobbed him behind the net.
When Mustangs' forward Zach Parise was presented with the Stanley Cup, he kissed it before exultantly lifting it over his head. He then passed it to Nash as he tried to hold his own emotions in check.
"I was traded for halfway through the year," said Parise. "But that guy has been a true leader here since the first day of training camp."
"To lift the Cup, what a feeling," said Nash. "It's really been a bumpy ride with a great deal of adversity, but we definitely came through at the right time."
The fifth-seeded London Mustangs could not have written a much more dramatic story line as they beat the second-seeded Vancouver Heroes, to win the first ever AFHL Stanley Cup.
Blake Wilson is the first coach/GM to win the AFHL Stanley Cup.
"I couldn't put into words what's going on," said Wilson after the game. "It's amazing."
Less than a half-hour later, Wilson led his family through the halls of the Mustangs' home ice arena, interrupted briefly by a call from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I guess that comes with the cup," Wilson said. "He said he was very happy for me and if I'm ever in the Ottawa area to stop by."
Blake Wilson began this epic journey last July when he was named coach/GM of the London Mustangs, and given the task of selecting 23 players at the AFHL's Inaugural Draft. With his first three picks, he drafted Marc-Andre Fleury [later traded], Rick Nash, and Jonas Hiller.
The Mustangs started off the regular season very well. They were in first place for the first several weeks until they slipped a little bit in the league standings. The Mustangs continued their solid play right into the AFHL All-Star Game, where Wilson was named assistant coach of the Canadian Conference All-Star Team.
London forward Rick Nash celebrates his 2nd goal in the Finals against Vancouver.
London qualified for the post-season with the fifth seed and faced off against the fourth-seeded Oshawa City Leafs in the first round. The Leafs had the better offense on paper, but the Mustangs wouldn't let that deter them as their offense stepped up and contributed 36 points in the series. Their goaltending trio also made a statement in this matchup. Jonas Hiller, Jaroslav Halak, and Pekka Rinne posted 5 wins and a 1.48 GAA in helping the Mustangs advance to the second round.
The Buffalo Phantoms were their opponents in the second round. The Phantoms boasted the best record in the league and they were the last team that anyone would want to face in the playoffs. The Mustangs refused to let adversity get the best of them, and defeated the Phantoms 5-4 in an overtime thriller.
The London Mustangs were red-hot heading into the Stanley Cup Finals where they would meet the second-seeded Vancouver Heroes, a team with a lot of weapons.
London got it going early in the Finals against Vancouver, getting goals from Brandon Sutter and rookie defenseman Tyler Mylers, to put them up 2-0 in the first game.
In the second game, Rick Nash and Viktor Stalberg scored two goals each for the Mustangs. Patrice Bergeron also potted a goal that got the Mustangs really buzzing.
Bergeron skated to Rick Nash's pass at the bottom of the left circle and, with Tomas Kaberle hanging off his left shoulder, slipped the puck through a narrow opening between Miller's right pad and the goal post at the midway mark of the game.
Brandon Sutter scored two more goals in games 3 and 4, giving the Mustangs an 8-2 lead heading into the weekend where they would play patient but aggressive.
London Mustangs' Coach/GM Blake Wilson will receive this award for winning the AFHL Stanley Cup. All 23 Mustangs' players names will be engraved on the front.
In Sunday's finale, the London defense got the job done, and shut down Vancouver's offense to seal the deal.
Heroes' forward Henrik Sedin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. Sedin never smiled as he accepted the MVP trophy to the boos of the London fans and the applause of the Mustangs' players, immediately leaving the ice in tears.
"It's tough to lose like that," Sedin said after receiving his trophy. "It was really tough to see them [the Mustangs] cheer... This is not the one you want. You want the big silver one."
Rick Nash said Sedin deserved the award and, "I got the one I wanted."
"It was definitely a great run getting to the finals," Heroes' coach/GM Ben Rauscher said. "We didn't finish the job and we're a little disappointed about that... We will be back."
Kyle Okposo thinks the Mustangs will be back, too, with most of their key players still on the team roster next year.
"It's not over for us," Okposo said. "We're going to try to build on this. We have a dynasty team here."
The Mustangs will celebrate with their fans Tuesday during a 15-block parade that will end downtown at the Hilton London Ontario hotel, which is right next to the London Internation Airport (YXU).
Rick Nash, now a conquering hero instead of a sentimental favorite, will be there with his family. Tyler Myers, who will probably win the AFHL Calder Trophy after a phenomenal rookie year, will celebrate also with his family and close friends.
Coach Wilson, who lived in London his entire life, except for a few months of work experience during school, will be there representing some thousands of fans who will not be able to make it due to work during the day.
More than 100,000 people are expected to join the parade, which will feature most, probably all, of the Mustangs' players.
"I said from Christmas on that this is a magical team," Wilson said. "We might have a better team one day, but this is a magical team. Our fans deserve everything that this team has accomplished this year."
As for the Heroes, they returned to Vancouver thinking of what might have been after falling one victory short of the AFHL Stanley Cup.
The Heroes came into the weekend a confident bunch but left in tears of sorrow and frustration following a week of unnecessary penalties and insufficient offense. The Heroes were outscored in 7 of the 12 stat categories in the Stanley Cup loss.
"All that aside, I am very proud of this team," Ben Rauscher said. "We added some key players and improved our roster over the year. The team had a tremendous year. And like I said before... We will be back."