Cam Russell says he’s angry. He should be.
On Friday night the general manager of the Halifax Mooseheads saw his star player, Jonathan Drouin, hit from behind during their game against the Quebec Remparts. This wasn’t one of those instances of a player turning at the last second into the boards and leaving himself prone to injury. This was Drouin fighting to gain control of the puck at the boards – his nameplate and number 27 on full display – when he’s hit from behind by Remparts forward Adam Erne.
Erne, a second-round pick of the Lightning, was given a game misconduct for checking from behind. Drouin, like Erne, is a Tampa Bay prospect although he has more cachet as the third overall pick of the Lightning in last June’s NHL entry draft.
The real shock for Russell came on Saturday, when he was told by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that there would be no suspension for the hit.
“Yeah, I am angry,” said Russell on Monday morning. “I feel that when I was a kid I was brought up by my parents to be held accountable for my actions. If I broke the rules I was punished and I don’t feel that this punishment was enough.”
Drouin, who is expected to be an integral part of Canada’s world junior team, suffered a cut under his eye and was diagnosed with a mild concussion. He missed Sunday’s game against Charlottetown and his status for the start of the Canadian junior team’s selection camp on Thursday in Toronto is still unclear. Russell said Drouin is feeling better and that – as of Monday – his headaches have subsided.
The former NHLer won’t divulge the league’s rationale for the decision, but whatever reason given to him by QMJHL disciplinary prefect, Raymond Bolduc, he’s not buying it.
“All I can say is, it just wasn’t satisfactory,” said Russell.
To make matters worse, instead of showing any semblance of contrition, Erne went on the attack again through the media. In Erne’s estimation, Drouin injured himself.
“He wasn’t far from the boards and I pushed him pretty hard,” Erne told Halifax Metro reporter Andrew Rankin. “I thought it was a dive and I thought everybody else did, too. I wouldn’t have even gotten a penalty if he didn’t dive into the boards.
“If he dives and goes head first he’s going to hurt himself.”
During the same game, Halifax forward Darcy Ashley was cross-checked in the throat by Quebec’s Nick Sorensen. Sorensen, a Swedish import, received a match penalty for the incident. The QMJHL reviewed the cross-check and changed the infraction – which carries automatic one-game suspension – to a game misconduct, which carries no suspension. Sorensen won’t miss a shift.
So there is no solace, however small, for the reigning QMJHL and Memorial Cup champions.
The sense of league bias against the teams in the Maritimes is nothing new. Very few coaches or GMs on the east coast want to talk publicly about their perceived slights for fear of being sanctioned by the league office. Russell said he’d rather not comment when asked about whether he believes there’s any kind of favouritism towards Quebec-based teams.
“I can’t touch that,” said Russell, with a laugh.
At the 2012 Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, Que., then-Saint John Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant spoke out about his team getting the “short end of the stick” when it came to the officiating in his own league. He was fined. When pressed the next day about whether he felt there was some bias against teams from the Maritimes, he quietly said: "Yeah, there is."
These latest decisions, combined with those of the past, have only exacerbated those feelings. An automatic suspension is overturned. Drouin is the biggest name in the league, yet hitting from behind and injuring him goes unpenalized.
If this is how the QMJHL protects its brightest star, how will it protect its lesser lights?
“You’re talking about the CHL player of the year,” said Russell. “Obviously we want to protect all our players, whether you’re a first line player or a fourth line player, but the reality is too, that you have your superstars that are great for the game.
“This is definitely something that nobody wants to see.”
Russell said he and team owner Bobby Smith are investigating whether or not they can appeal the QMJHL’s judgement. Given the league’s recent decisions, the Mooseheads shouldn’t waste their time.