SAINT JOHN, N.B. — After a three-year wait, the biggest prize in major junior hockey is once again up for grabs.
The host Saint John Sea Dogs entertain league champions from Edmonton, Hamilton and Shawinigan, Que., in the 2022 Memorial Cup beginning Monday and ending when a new winner is crowned June 29.
The last two Memorial Cup tournaments were scrapped due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies last captured the championship in May 2019 at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax.
“No one foresaw what COVID would bring us, but it is just great to be back and heading toward a bit of a normal execution of the Memorial Cup,” said Canadian Hockey League president Dan MacKenzie.
The Sea Dogs open the round robin Monday when they host the Ontario Hockey League champion Hamilton Bulldogs.
The Western Hockey League's Edmonton Oil Kings and the Shawinigan Cataractes — Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions for the first time — are the other teams.
Edmonton’s deep roster features four first-round NHL draft picks who skated with Canada’s world junior team, including the WHL playoffs most valuable player Kaiden Guhle, He was Montreal’s top pick, 16th overall, in the 2020 draft.
Guhle, Edmonton captain Jake Neighbours (taken 26th overall by St. Louis in 2020), forward Dylan Guenther (Arizona’s ninth-overall pick in 2021) and goaltender Sebastian Cossa (Detroit’s first selection, 15th overall, in 2021) helped lift the Oil Kings to a 50-14-4 mark during the regular season.
The Oil Kings, No. 2 in the CHL’s final year-end rankings, claimed the WHL title with wins over Lethbridge, Red Deer, top-ranked Winnipeg and Seattle. They return to the Memorial Cup for the first time since winning it in 2014.
“We are very fortunate to have the type of team we have,” said Edmonton coach Brad Lauer. “But that does not mean we are going to win. We have to go out and play our game. Our guys understand that. They know no one is going to give it us.”
After Neighbours returned from a nine-game stint with the Blues early in the season, the Oil Kings acquired Guhle from Prince Albert to bolster the lineup.
“The last two years have been very difficult on the kids and to be able to play for a championship, I know our guys were very excited,” Lauer said. “Just to see their faces when they did it — as a coach, it was a tremendous feeling.”
Shawinigan went 40-24-4 in the regular season and then defeated Rouyn-Noranda, Gatineau, Quebec and Charlottetown for franchise’s first league title.
Shawinigan clinched the championship on forward Pierrick Dube’s winner 41 seconds into extra time in Game 5, which was the team's QMJHL-record seventh overtime victory of the playoffs.
“For the players, the staff and the organization, it was a dream of a lifetime,” said Shawinigan head coach Daniel Renaud.
“There are no words that can express how happy we are as a team. It was amazing. Fans have been waiting for this for the last 53 years and it was the first time we got to win the President Cup….It was a very special moment.”
QMJHL playoff MVP Mavrik Bourque, a first-round Dallas pick in 2020, recorded 68 points in 31 regular-season games.
Teammate Xavier Bourgault, the Edmonton Oilers top selection in 2021, added 75 points in just 43 contests. The duo, both also members of the national junior team, combined for 44 playoff points.
The Bulldogs, ranked No. 3 by the CHL, outlasted the Windsor Spitfires in a classic seven-game OHL final.
Mason McTavish, Anaheim’s top pick at third overall in 2021, is another veteran of Canada's world junior team along with Neighbours, Guhle, Cossa, Guenther, Bourque and Bourgault.
McTavish was also the youngest player on Canada's Olympic hockey team in Beijing in February.
Teammate Logan Morrison earned the OHL playoff MVP award with 39 points to back his 100-point season. Bulldogs defenceman Nathan Staios was the OHL’s top blueliner.
He's the son of general manager Steve Staois, who is a veteran of 1,001 NHL games, predominantly with Edmonton.
“It definitely makes it more special — with all the COVID stuff, with all the home workouts and obviously you don’t have all the motivation all the time but we knew one day it would be worth it and that is this game right here,” Morrison said after winning the OHL crown Wednesday.
McTavish joined the team in an early-season deal with Peterborough.
He recorded 40 regular season points in 24 games with the Bulldogs before adding another 29 in 19 playoff contests.
“When I got here, I knew there was something special going on here,” McTavish told reporters after the Game 7 triumph Wednesday. “I was able to fit in right away.”
The host Sea Dogs were sidelined in a stunning first-round playoff loss to Rimouski after a 47-17-4 regular season led them to third place overall.
Saint John fired head coach Gordie Dwyer a month out from the Memorial Cup and replaced him with Gardiner MacDougall, on leave from his role as head coach of the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey program.
Under his guidance, UNB has won seven University Cup titles since 2007.
New York Islanders prospect William Dufour was named the QMJHL's most valuable player after leading the Canadian Hockey League with 56 goals.
The 20-year-old from Quebec City feels he and his teammates have done their best to adapt to the sudden coaching change.
“I can’t say it was easy to turn the page,” Dufour said. “It was tough for us but like our coach said, sometimes you have to go down a little bit before you can go forward. I just can’t wait to play that first game.”
Saint John general manager Trevor Georgie engineered six deals at the trade deadline.
He acquired Ottawa prospect Philippe Daoust, Pittsburgh prospect Raivis Kristians Ansons and a pair of players from the 2021 QMJHL champion Victoriaville Tigres: defenceman Vincent Sevigny and goaltender Nikolas Hurtubise.
They joined a lineup that includes Calgary Flames prospects Yan Kuznetsov and Jeremie Poirier and Toronto draft pick William Villeneuve on the blue-line.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2022.
Kevin Barrett, The Canadian Press