SUDBURY, Ont. – From 1995-96 through 2001-02, there was no better team in the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League than the Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats.
This powerhouse was the class of the league in that span as they dominated opponents and rolled to seven consecutive NOJHL championships and were all but unstoppable on the ice.
After finishing atop the regular season standings in 1995-96 with a league-best record of 37-5-2 under head coach Jeff Brick and ending up 15 points clear of the second place Sturgeon Falls Lynx, Rayside-Balfour continued their roll in the playoffs.
Postseason play saw R-B begin with a four-game sweep of the Elliot Lake Vikings.
Next up was a three-team double robin semifinal that also featured Sturgeon Falls and the Timmins Golden Bears, which saw the Sabrecats and Lynx advance to the final.
In the league championship series it was close, seeing three of the match-ups decided by one goal, including two in overtime, but Rayside-Balfour would end up taking the title in the minimum four outings.
They would however fall short in Dudley-Hewitt Cup play.
Stepping in to coach the squad to the title in 1996-97 was Ken MacKenzie, who held the position for seven campaigns, and guided the club to the majority of their success.
MacKenzie, a three-time recipient of the NOJHL’s Mirl ‘Red’ McCarthy Memorial Trophy as Coach of the Year saw his side produce six league championships, a trio of Dudley-Hewitt Cup crowns and three visits to the Royal Bank Cup Canadian National Jr. A Championship.
In his initial year leading the Sabrecats, they were the elite of the NOJHL as they skated to a convincing 36-3-1 mark.
They were led by 100-point man and league MVP Darryl Moxam, who later coached in the league, winning a title in 2005-06 with the then Sudbury Northern Wolves.
Pacing the NOJHL that year with 296 goals, Rayside-Balfour boasted the top four point-getters overall as well as eight of the top 10.
Goaltender Steve Fabilli saw the bulk of the action in net and had a 22-3-0 record between the pipes.
In the playoffs they dropped Elliot Lake in the semis, then took care of the Parry Sound Shamrocks to hoist their second straight league banner.
From there, they moved on to meet the Milton Merchants from the Ontario Junior A loop, who they handled in five games to capture their initial Dudley-Hewitt Cup as well as the opening Central Canadian Jr. A crown for the NOJHL.
That earned them a trip to the Royal Bank Cup in Summerside, P.E.I., where their first-ever trip to the nationals saw them go 0-4.
The following year, the club produced a record of 35-3-2, then proceeded to dump Timmins and Parry Sound in the playoffs to rack up their third title in a row before falling to Milton in the Dudley-Hewitt finals.
It was much the same in 1998-99 as a fourth NOJHL crown in succession was achieved.
Among the six sides that competed in the league that season, Rayside-Balfour once again finished in first, going 32-7-1.
In 13 postseason games, they won all but one to maintain their perch atop the NOJHL.
They ran into a roadblock at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup however, falling to the Bramalea Blues to end their season.
Moving on to 1999-2000, that campaign proved to be one of most dominant performances in league history.
A commanding force that year, the Sabrecats joined the 1989-90 Sudbury Cubs as the only clubs in entire tenure of the NOJHL to go unbeaten in the regular season with both squads posting superb 40-0 records.
They continued their excellent play as they steamrolled their way to yet another league championship, while needing just one game over minimum to add yet more hardware to their burgeoning trophy case.
This in turn set up a date with a familiar foe on the Dudley-Hewitt Cup trail in the also-powerful Milton Merchants.
Guiding the NOJHL as commissioner in those days was legendary hockey man Joe Drago.
In a previous interview with NOJHL.com, Drago fondly recalled the Sabrecats excellence in 1999-2000.
“When Rayside ended up meeting Milton in the Dudley-Hewitt finals, in those days it was a best-of-seven, and each arena was jammed every game. It was really good hockey,” offered the Canadian Junior Hockey League Life Member.
“I was so proud of the Sabrecats when they beat Milton in that seventh and deciding game and from there, we went to the Royal Bank Cup in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2000,” said Drago, who recently wrapped his term as Chairman of the Board of Hockey Canada.
Beginning the RBC with a thrilling 8-7 double overtime triumph over the Chilliwack Chiefs (BCHL) the club then doubled up the North Battleford North Stars (SJHL) 4-2 to start 2-0.
They then met the host Oil Barons in their third match-up where they dropped a narrow 4-3 decision.
Rebounding, they countered by clipping the Cornwall Colts (CCHL) 5-4 to wrap-up the round robin with a 3-1 record and finish in a tie for first with Fort McMurray, who had been edged 2-1 by North Battleford to open the five-team event, before winning their next three.
Semifinal action saw the Sabrecats and Chiefs meet once more, and again the NOJHL representative came away victorious with a hard-fought 2-1 win.
However, Rayside-Balfour’s run at a dream season fell just short after they suffered a heart-breaking 2-1 setback against the hosts from Fort McMurray in the championship game.
I accompanied them to the RBC and to see them lose by one-goal, 2-1, to the host team, was really disappointing because they had the team to win it all.”
“We got that far and it certainly gave the league and northern Ontario a lot of credibility in the Jr. A ranks.”
Individual honours did see Rayside-Balfour bring home some additional hardware to go with the silver medals, with defenceman Serge Dube being named Most Valuable Player and sharing the top scorer designation, to match the NOJHL MVP and Top D accolades he garnered in league play.
Also recognized at the RBC was blueliner Troy Turyk, who picked up best defenceman accolades.
Undaunted, the club returned to the ice in 2000-01 and reeled off yet another first place finish and their sixth consecutive NOJHL championship going 35-3-2 during the campaign.
In playoff action they put the broom to Espanola and Sturgeon Falls in their opening two series, then took on the Soo Thunderbirds in a thrilling best-of-seven affair that would go the distance.
The Cats went on to best the T-Birds 3-1 in Game 7 and earn them themselves another Dudley-Hewitt Cup appearance, this time vs. the Thornhill Rattlers.
As tight as you can get, that match-up would also go to a seventh and deciding game where Thornhill eventually prevailed, winning 3-2 in overtime to hand Rayside-Balfour another tough season-ending loss.
Back for more on-ice success the following season, it was much the same for the squad as they went on finish in top spot, three points clear of the Thunderbirds, highlighted by the 118-point campaign produced by league-leading scorer Mike Vaillancourt.
Backed by netminder Eric Navarro, who led all league netminders in goals-against average at 2.11 and save percentage at .919, the squad tacked on two more playoffs sweeps, which sent them back to the finals yet again where they would tangle with the Thunderbirds once more.
There, the Sabrecats went on to claim NOJHL title No. 7 in succession after taking the championship by winning in six games with Vaillancourt earning the playoff MVP award.
They would then go on to best the first-year Dryden Ice Dogs (SIJHL) to add one more Dudley-Hewitt Cup title to their collection and punch their ticket to the Royal Bank Cup for the third time in six seasons as they headed to Halifax, N.S., for an attempt at that elusive national title.
However, with a banged up Vaillancourt, playing despite not being 100%, Rayside-Balfour just could not get on track and were winless, having to settle for a fifth place finish.
Alas, all good things come to an end and the Sabrecats’ record-setting run of NOJHL titles came to a close in 2002-03 where they finished third in the standings at 30-16-2 before falling four games to two to the Soo in semifinal play to conclude an incredible league championship run that remains unmatched to date.
Inducted into the Greater Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame back in June of 2017, that 1999-2000 Rayside-Balfour side was part of a tremendous seven-year stretch that featured the Sabrecats skating away with the NOJHL championship on every occasion while racking up an impressive regular season record of 252-25-9 in 286 contests during that span and establishing a mark that remains second to none throughout the league and across the entire CJHL.
With files from David Harrison, NOJHL Historian