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Coyotes’ Dylan Strome checks off another box with Memorial Cup berth

Erie Otters center Dylan Strome carries the J. Ross Robertson Cup after the Otters won the OHL championship over the Mississauga Steelheads with a 4-3 win in overtime in Game 5 of the OHL hockey final in Erie, Pa., Friday, May 12, 2017. (Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News via AP)

Dylan Strome’s restaurant visits are taking longer than normal the last few days. It has nothing to do with the quality of service.

“I’ve been out to eat at least three times and people keep asking me for my autograph,” Strome said.

Strome is happy to oblige every fan after his Erie Otters won the J. Ross Robertson Cup as Ontario Hockey League champions with a 4-3 overtime win on Friday over Mississauga in Game 5 of the championship series in Erie.

It was Erie’s first OHL title since the 2001-02 season and it secured a berth in the Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) championship where two of the four teams are based in America for just the third time in the tournament’s history.

Erie opens play on Saturday against the Western Hockey League champion Seattle Thunderbirds, while the host Windsor Spitfires open the tournament on Friday against the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Saint John Sea Dogs. The Otters have never won the Memorial Cup.

“I don’t think people realize this is the 99th the year it’s been going on,” said Strome, who attended the 2011 and 2015 tournaments as a spectator. “So many great players have been through it and so many people care about it up here. It’s the national championship of Canada’s sport. It’s pretty cool to be a part of it.”

It is also one of the benefits of junior hockey the Coyotes hoped Strome would experience when they re-assigned him to Erie in November after a seven-game NHL trial this season.

“The Erie team is a lot better than I expected them to be, too, so he has a chance to go back and win a Memorial Cup,” GM John Chayka said at the time.

Strome has also had the opportunity to play in the IIHF Junior World Championship, serve as Erie’s captain, work on areas of his game such as quicker decision making and play away from the puck. It’s allowed him to build confidence in a league where he has excelled.

Despite missing almost half the OHL season, Strome finished 17th in the league with 75 points (22 goals) in 35 games. He finished second in playoff scoring to teammate Alex DeBrincat (38 points) with 34 points (14 goals) in 22 games.

“We had so many guys step up that when someone wasn’t rolling, somebody else picked it up for him,” Strome said. “That’s really how championships are won.”

In seven games with the Coyotes last season, Strome had one assist and seldom impacted the game, spending 10 games as a healthy scratch. He was living on the fringes in his six weeks with the club, and it was apparent to everyone on the hockey operations staff that he was not ready.

“His mind and his skill level are very good, but the physical maturity just isn’t at the level that it needs to be to be able to compete every night,” coach Dave Tippett said.

Strome didn’t have much opportunity to work on his lower-body strength over the grind of the OHL season, but he will map out a training regimen and schedule once the Memorial Cup ends.

“It’s obviously a big summer for me,” he said.

For now, he is soaking in the experience of playing on Canada’s biggest junior hockey stage. The Otters held a pep rally on Monday at Erie Insurance Arena. The team will head to Windsor on Wednesday.

“It’s a lot like the junior worlds because you’re playing a bunch of teams you haven’t seen before,” Strome said. “You can’t explain the emotion. Now I get to experience it as a player.”

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