It has been two decades since the Barrie Colts beat the Plymouth Whalers 4-2 in Game 7 of the Ontario Hockey League championship series to win the team’s lone OHL title.
Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the decisive Colts victory on the road in Plymouth, Mich. The Colts later travelled to Halifax, where they shook off a poor start to the national championship and made it all the way to the Memorial Cup final.
The success on the ice only told part of the story. The team, for all its talent, was a public-relations disaster. There were near dressing-room mutinies and cartoon violence that resulted in long suspensions to some of the club’s best players.
It didn’t stop there.
There were also legal issues ranging from sexual-assault charges to illegal border crossings that drew the ire of U.S. immigration officials, effects of which are still felt today by the manner in which OHL teams cross the international boundary.
The most prominent example of discord came from the team’s best player, Mike Jefferson, who exhibited behaviour in Barrie that foreshadowed an incident four years later that would cost him his NHL career and land him in U.S. federal prison.
Jefferson’s best friend on the team, Sheldon Keefe, was no angel in Barrie. Supremely talented with a dogged work ethic, Keefe became the OHL scoring champion. But he made few friends and his reputation as a malcontent followed him in pro hockey, making his ascension to Toronto Maple Leafs head coach perhaps hockey’s greatest redemption story.
To understand the Colts of 1999-2000, you first must look back to the previous season.
Bert Templeton, in what turned out to be his last season as the Colts' boss, made a stunning trade. He brought in Keefe, Jefferson, Ryan Barnes and defenceman Shawn Cation from the St. Michael’s Majors for an underwhelming collection of players going the other way.
The Colts landed the quartet because St. Mike’s general manager Mark Napier, the Stanley Cup-winning former NHLer, had all but given up having to deal with their “advisor," a controversial figure named Dave Frost.
On paper, the trade was a clear win for the Colts. Templeton’s iron-fisted ways kept any problems that may have been taking place with the new group under wraps. Soon after the Colts lost to the Oshawa Generals in the second round of the playoffs, Templeton resigned and was hired by the Sudbury Wolves.
The Colts needed a GM and a coach.
Enter Bill Stewart.
Stewart was a local boy who had a long career as a player in the NHL and in Europe. He stayed overseas to coach and then came back and won both the American Hockey League coach-of-the-year honour and an OHL crown with the Oshawa Generals.
A short NHL stint on Long Island as interim head coach followed, but Stewart was not retained by the Islanders.
Later, when asked why Stewart didn’t stay, an Islanders scout speculated that having owner Charles Wang, GM Mike Milbury and Stewart all at once was “probably too much crazy for any NHL team.”
Stewart was a masterful junior coach and showed a deft touch as GM, filling holes left behind by graduation and getting more out of holdovers from the Templeton era.
Keefe, Jefferson and Co., were given much bigger roles, but it wasn’t long before Stewart’s inability to handle them, and Frost's influence over them, became the defining issue on the hockey club.
There was an ugly stick-swinging incident in Oshawa that resulted in both Cation and Barnes being suspended.
There were whispers that the St. Mike’s quartet were an entity unto themselves on the team, claims amplified when other players’ agents verified the rumours.
Depending upon your perspective, the team was either a hot mess, a disaster in the making, or a mix of both.
“Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this," said one agent who is now one of the most prominent in the game. "I really don’t know what else to say other than Bill (Stewart) has to do something or he’s going to have an insurrection on his hands.”
Whatever good effect Stewart had with the team on the ice, they were offset with his stunning indifference to basic common sense off it.
That first showed when Stewart preferred to have his post-game press conferences in a hospitality area overlooking the Barrie Molson Centre ice, complete with fans in attendance, many of whom were well-oiled from watching the game in the Horsepower Grill.
Unknown at the time, but was soon to become public in humiliating fashion, was that Stewart hadn’t bothered to get the proper paperwork for Ukrainian defenceman Vladimir Chernenko to cross the U.S. border. Rather than leaving Chernenko at home in Barrie (he wasn’t even playing regularly), he put the 17-year-old in the luggage bay of the bus as the team crossed the U.S.-Canada border for an autumn road trip.
Stewart willingly allowed Chernenko to go elsewhere, first to Owen Sound and then to Templeton’s Sudbury Wolves. Those moves made plain that the Ukrainian teenager lacked the proper visa to play in the U.S.
The OHL office was notified at around the same time heavy-hitting scribes Jim Cressman (London Free Press) and Bob McKenzie (TSN) broke the story in the national media.
Stewart, who to that point had exhibited a smartest-man-in-the-room quality at pretty much every turn, was stripped of his GM title and temporarily toned down his act.
And the Colts kept winning.
Jefferson, who Stewart repeatedly cited as his team’s best player, got a long suspension for a brutal assault on an unsuspecting Mississauga IceDogs player that left the unfortunate victim’s teeth scattered around the ice.
The assault took place at the far end, right at the opposition blue-line, where, incidentally, Frost sat in his customary seat in the last row.
New additions Matt Dzieduszycki and Mike Henderson came back from NCAA schools and were effective offensive weapons, along with rookie centre Blaine Down.
Overagers Mike Christian, despite a botched trade at the deadline, and Tim Verbeek both flourished in increased roles up front.
At the back end, Ryan O’Keefe became a force after barely playing for Templeton. Tim Branham was convinced to bypass the NCAA route and was fitting in nicely, along with rookies Aaron Power and Erik Reitz.
The Colts' three first-round NHL draft picks Denis Shvidki (Florida), who won a world-junior gold playing for Russia, Michael Henrich (Edmonton) and goaltender Brian Finley (Nashville) were rejuvenated playing for Stewart. Branham (Vancouver) and Reitz (Minnesota) were later drafted after the season.
It wasn’t a fair fight most nights as the Colts rampaged through the Eastern Conference. Once the playoffs started, they overcame a pesky North Bay Centennials squad, who had future NHL goalie Alex Auld in the crease, in six games.
That set up a second-round series with Templeton and the Wolves. The Colts prevailed in seven games, sending Templeton into a fit of rage at referee Bill Prisniak, whom Templeton thought gifted the Colts the series by putting away his whistle in the third period of Game 7.
An uneventful Eastern Conference final series win in five games over the Belleville Bulls set the stage for the showdown with the Whalers, who were coached by Peter DeBoer.
Despite winning, the series was yet another PR disaster for the Colts after Stewart presented himself to U.S. immigration and was denied entry into the country.
If that wasn’t enough, the Colts coaching staff became involved in a brawl with the Whalers staff.
The trouble continued in Halifax. The team snubbed Canadian Hockey League president David Branch at a banquet and skated around the ice during television intros.
Hockey culture tends to go soft on team suspicions/customs, but when you show up the boss in full view of national sponsors and later on TV, it’s not only poor taste, it undermines the business model that pays the bills.
The Colts looked like they were going to get their just desserts until Henderson scored the OT winner over the Western Hockey League champion Kootenay Ice to keep Barrie alive to play in the semifinal. Once there, they avenged an earlier defeat over the Halifax Mooseheads in the round-robin (where Stewart instructed his team to disrupt event protocols) to put them into the final into against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Rimouski Oceanic.
The day before the game, Jefferson committed the cardinal sin of calling out the opposition and specifically cited Brad Richards, the Oceanic and future NHL star, as being overrated.
A few days earlier, Richards had been named Canadian Hockey League player of the year.
Richards and the Oceanic thumped the Colts, 6-2, in the final and he won the Memorial Cup MVP honour in the process.
Stewart didn’t bother to show up to the post-game press conference. Veteran players such as Henrich, Ed Hill and Finley, who had all performed so admirably in midst of all the distractions to win the league and make the Memorial Cup final, were left alone to answer questions.
Four years later, Richards led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
By that time, Jefferson, known now as Danton, sat in a jail cell awaiting his plea deal for conspiring to kill Frost. He was eventually sentenced to more than seven years in prison.
Peter Robinson covered the Barrie Colts during the 1999-2000 season for the Barrie Examiner. The local resident went on to edit the Canadian Hockey League's game-day publications.