In a series filled with history, “Canada’s Team”, the Toronto Racers, faced off against “America’s Team”, the Chicago Shamrocks in the 2003 Lewis Cup Finals. The two teams had met just once before in the championship round, in 1942, the first time the Lewis Cup was awarded. Chicago won in ’42 then went on to become one of the most successful teams in PHL history, claiming six titles and appearing in the playoffs an unprecedented 34 consecutive seasons and counting. Meanwhile, the Racers struggled after the PHL/GHL merger, failing to win the Lewis Cup and appearing in the final only once. But Racers fans were filled with hope after a strong year in 2002-03, as Joe Murdock set playoff scoring records, Randy Fernandez returned to his old form, and Rex Hull proved to be a brilliant motivator behind the bench.
The series was fairly high-scoring early on, with each team winning two games. Both Tom Branson and Jake Borman struggled at different times during the first four games, while Murdock and Shamrocks’ rookie Jonathan Wheatley each made a strong case for playoff MVP with three points each.
The series was a best-of-three heading into game five. Once again, it was a high-scoring affair. The lead flipped back-and-forth three different times until the third period, when it seemed to settle at a 4-4 tie. Gustav Mattsen nearly put Chicago ahead late but his shot rang off the post. Moments later, Sean MacDonald of the Racers was given a boarding penalty, giving Chicago a powerplay. What followed was perhaps the most spectacular two minutes of Jake Borman’s career, as the 33-year-old stopped 12 shots to preserve the tie. Just as it looked like the game would go to overtime, Andrew Cox beat Branson to give Toronto the lead. As the clock ticked down, the Shamrocks pushed but the lead held up, the Racers now led the series 3-2 with an opportunity to claim the cup in Chicago.
At the Garfield Center for game six, Chicago knew they needed a big performance from their top players to keep the series alive, but it would be an unexpected hero that would step up in the end. Unlike the rest of the games, game six was tight, with Borman and Branson both shutting the door in net. A Chris Falkner goal early in the third gave Toronto the lead but it was short-lived. Sergei Krayev tied it and the game went into overtime. Overtime didn’t last long, as Shamrocks’ enforcer Cedric Thibault scored with just a minute left in the first OT to send the series to game seven in Toronto.
The Queen Elizabeth Arena was packed on June 10, 2003, as 17000 fans crammed into the 47-year-old building, hoping to see their team end its 39-year drought. Game seven was the closest in the series, as once again, the two goaltenders turned in a solid effort to keep the game scoreless through two periods. In the third, powerplays for each team only resulted in more spectacular play in net. With just 20 seconds left, it appeared that the game would go to overtime when a hard point shot from Randy Fernandez was deflected by Branson high into the air. The puck fell in front of Joe Murdock, who batted it into the net out of mid-air with just 13 seconds left to play. The Racers jumped over the boards and mobbed Murdock as if they forgot there was still time left on the clock.
The referee ordered the players back to the bench to drop the puck for the final seconds. The building shook as the crowd remained on their feet, then it went silent for a second when Wheatley had a wide open net but just missed. Ty McInnis cleared it for the Racers and the team once again charged off their bench and mobbed Jake Borman. Joe Murdock was named playoff MVP and then Darryl Byrd handed the Lewis Cup to Randy Fernandez, who had waited 17 seasons to lift it. For the first time since 1964, the Racers were the Lewis Cup Champions.