SASKATOON — Trey Lewis and Stefan Fournier stood on either side of the Memorial Cup, before the co-captains of the Halifax Mooseheads placed their hands on it and hoisted major junior hockey’s Holy Grail as champions. It was a special moment for many different reasons.
It was a moment to honour Jean MacAulay, teammate Stephen’s mom, who died of cancer in March. He was the first player they handed the trophy to after accepting it from Canadian Hockey League president David Branch following their thrilling 6-4 victory over the Portland Winterhawks.
“It’s bittersweet,” said MacAulay, who also won the Memorial Cup in 2010 with Saint John and has been a MasterCard Memorial Cup participant the past three seasons. “It doesn’t bring her back, but she’s in a better place now… she had no regrets, I took a lot from her.”
It was an important moment for the Mooseheads franchise as it was the first time the Maritime team had ever won the CHL’s championship tournament. No one knows how much this means to the city than general manager, Cam Russell, who is a native of Cole Harbour, N.S., a Halifax suburb.
“I’m a fan first and foremost,” said Russell. “My dad’s watched this team for 19 years and it’s huge. To bring the President’s Cup to Halifax and then the Memorial Cup to Halifax – that’s something that was only a dream four years ago for us when we started this mission accomplished.”
With the historic victory, Russell most likely need not worry about paying for a beverage back home this summer.
“I better not (have to pay),” said Russell with a laugh. “There are a lot of bars in Halifax. I better make sure I get a gym membership.”
They became the first Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team to win in a Western Hockey League city. Since the tournament has moved to the four-team format in 1983, no team from outside the West or Ontario had been able to hoist the cup. It was also the third straight year a team from the Quebec league has won the title.
For Fournier, it was a moment to make a statement for the QMJHL, which should have laid to rest the notion that it’s the weakest link among the three CHL member leagues.
“The Q is no longer the softer sister,” said the native of Dorval, Que. “We came to the big bad west and we won. It’s three years in a row now. We did it in Ontario (Saint John in 2011), we did it in Quebec (Shawinigan in 2012) and we did it here.
It’s the type of thing that demands respect at some point.”
The biggest personal moment on Sunday night, though, belonged to Mooseheads star Nathan MacKinnon. He was, by far, the best player in the tournament and capped it off with another hat trick in a five-point finale. He grew up watching the Mooseheads, and his family – dad Graham, mom Kathy, and older sister Sarah – billeted players at their home when Nathan was a youngster.
“This is what you dream about as a kid watching junior hockey all your life,” said the 17-year-old phenom. “Especially being from a hockey crazy town like I was, I grew up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, which is across the bridge from Halifax. This is unbelievable.”
Most of the talk of the tournament surrounded the debate over who should be taken first overall at next month’s 2013 NHL Entry Draft – MacKinnon or Portland star defenceman Seth Jones.
One game isn’t enough to tip the scales, but MacKinnon definitely made the decision for the Colorado Avalanche – who holds the first pick – far more difficult.
“I’ve always been partial to Nathan (as the No. 1 prospect) and that’s no disrespect to Seth or (Halifax teammate Jonathan Drouin) or anybody,” said Russell. “You know what, it’s turned it into a fascinating ride this week and it’s going to give scouts a lot to talk about.”
The 11,488 fans that filled Credit Union Centre were definitely a pro-Halifax crowd with many in the stands sporting Mooseheads gear, save for a few pockets of Portland supporters. Behind both the penalty box and the net which Halifax goalie Zach Fucale defended twice, fans held up large Nova Scotia provincial flags.
Long after the rest of the crowd filtered out of the rink, a large group of fans came down to the glass to chant: “Let’s Go Mooseheads” as players took photos with family. The game hadn’t even been over an hour, but the players were already thinking about the party back home in Halifax.
“It’s going to be crazy,” said MacAulay. “I can’t wait to get back… we’ve had amazing fan support all year. We fill our rink every night, so we want to bring this back for them. I’m sure they’re all watching.”
It was a fitting finish to a season in which both teams were ranked No. 1 (Halifax) and No. 2 (Portland), throughout the entire Canadian Hockey League season.
The Winterhawks made a game of it, battling back from a 3-0 deficit. As a team, Portland was no strangers to adversity, having lost head coach and GM Mike Johnston for the season in November after he was suspended for recruitment violations. During the round robin they also had to deal with the loss of forward Taylor Leier who dealt with post-concussion symptoms after receiving a hit to the head from Saskatoon defenceman Dalton Thrower.
In the final, however, they were simply beaten by a better team. The Mooseheads lost a total of two games throughout the entire post-season, once in the QMJHL final and once in the round-robin portion of the Memorial Cup.
“It made five years worth it,” said Fournier, on the close of his junior career. “I don’t think people realize how grueling and how long it is playing into the end of May, but there’s a lot of resilience on this team.
“Some people want to say we were unchallenged or not challenged enough. At this point, I’m going to say we are undisputed.”