Memorial Cup Fever: Remembering the Cornwall Royals’ historic 1981 championship

Author: Ashley Munson

Don’t look now, but Memorial Cup fever is spreading across Canada with Halifax, Nova Scotia serving as the host and epicenter of the junior hockey world.

The host Halifax Mooseheads (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), Guelph Storm (Ontario Hockey League), Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL) and Prince Albert Raiders (WHL) have done battle for the past week in an excellent exhibition of the world’s best under-20 hockey.

It’s been a long, long time since Cornwall has played host to major junior hockey, with all due respect to the Tier 1 Junior A Cornwall Colts. The Cornwall Royals of the OHL / QMJHL are long gone, having moved to Newmarket in 1992 and eventually ending up in Sarnia as the Sarnia Sting in 1994.

The Sting have had an up and down history over the past 25 years with some good seasons and some truly dreadful seasons, but the franchise has come nowhere close to experiencing the success it had during its tenure in Cornwall. Specifically, the team’s back to back Memorial Cup championships in 1980 and 1981 still stand out as the measurement of greatness for the Royals/Sting franchise.

The 1981 Memorial Cup winning Royals roster featured future NHL superstars like Dale Hawerchuk and Doug Gilmour. Future NHL coaches Scott Arniel and Marc Crawford were key contributors on the squad, as well. In fact, Hawerchuk, Arniel and Crawford combined for an outstanding 405 points during the 1980-81 regular season.

The Royals were still in the QMJHL at the time, predating their move to the OHL for the 1981-82 season and they left the “Q” with a season for the ages. They finished the regular season with a 44-26-2 record winning the Jean Rougeau Trophy as the league’s top team.

Their strategy was simple: fill the opposition’s net. Led be Hawerchuk and his outstanding 81 goals and 183 points, the Royals scored a league high 403 goals during the regular season.

Hawerchuk would go on to win the Michel Brière Memorial Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the QMJHL, the Jean Béliveau Trophy trophy as the Top Scorer in the League, and the Mike Bossy Trophy as the QMJHL’s top prospect following the season. He wouldn’t have to wait long at the 1981 NHL Entry Draft either, as the Winnipeg Jets selected him first overall. Arniel would be the Jets’ second round selection, chosen 22nd overall.

The Royals entered the 1980-81 QMJHL playoffs as heavy betting favorites but were pressed to seven games by both the Quebec Remparts and Sherbrooke Castors in the first and second rounds. The Trois-Rivieres Draveurs proved to be an easier opponent in the President’s Cup Final though and the Royals clinched the series and a berth in the 1981 Memorial Cup in just five games.

After the opening two games of the Memorial Cup, the Royals looked to be on cruise control. They waxed the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers 6-3 in their tournament opener and followed that up with a 3-1 win over the WHL’s Victoria Cougars, who were backed by a young Grant Fuhr, two days later.

The Rangers put some fear into the Royals by handing them a 6-4 loss in Game 3 though, but the Royals would bounce back with an outstanding 8-4 win in Game 4 to earn themselves a showdown with the Rangers for the Memorial Cup Final.

On the back of a hat trick performance from Arniel, the Royals claimed their third Memorial Cup championship and became the fourth team in history to win back-to-back Memorial Cup championships.  

“This is by far the most exciting thing that I’ve ever experienced,” head coach Bob Kilger, father of NHLer Chad Kilger, said. “I think now it’s over I’ll go out to the water, and if the fish aren’t biting, I’ll walk on the water.”

Hawerchuk, quite frankly was an absolute thoroughbred not just during the tournament but for the entire season. He set a Memorial Cup tournament record by scoring eight goals and tied an existing record by scoring 13 points. As a result, he was awarded the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as Memorial Cup MVP.

Later on, in the NHL careers, Gilmour would recall Hawerchuk’s play during the tournament and how he was the power horse who guided the squad.

“He carried the team most of the season and through the playoffs and with his leadership we won the Memorial Cup”, Gilmour remarked. “He did everything well. He didn’t only dominate when he was on the ice. He was the guy we looked at to bring us that leadership and score goals.”

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