The Mooseheads and the city of Halifax based their Memorial Cup campaign around the simple phrase “We’re ready”.
That preparation was successful, culminating with being awarded the hosting rights for the 101st Memorial Cup 13 months before a puck was dropped at Scotiabank Centre. Moncton was the other bid, mounting an impressive effort centred around the spectacular new Avenir Centre, home of the Wildcats.
With that significant accomplishment done, it’s now time for the Mooseheads to deliver the goods on the ice; the goal is to replicate what the Windsor Spitfires did two years ago by winning the Memorial Cup at home.
There is no perfect way to build a Memorial Cup host roster and GM Cam Russell has taken a varied approach. Some teams do it through the draft and others load up through roster moves. Many times, it’s a combination of the two, as was the case this time around in Halifax.
“We went our whole season without having our full lineup,” said Mooseheads head coach Eric Veilleux. “Even when you get guys back from injuries, they still need time to get their touch back and get back up to game speed. Once we had everyone playing at the same time, that’s when we were at our best.”
The Mooseheads first went to work as far back as 2015 when they started putting their initial building blocks in place. They picked scoring winger Arnaud Durandeau seventh overall in the QMJHL draft and then took it up a notch the next year by manoeuvring their way into a bumper crop of high picks.
They took centre Benoit-Olivier Groulx with the first overall pick they won in the draft lottery, then traded their way into the No. 2 spot to nab franchise defenceman Jared McIsaac. They later got No. 1 goalie Alexis Gravel 20th overall and blue-chip forward Raphael Lavoie at No. 29. At that point, they had a core worthy of making a legitimate pitch to host the Memorial Cup.
During that successful bid process, general manager Cam Russell continued to add pieces through the draft and then went about putting the finishing touches on his team with a few calculated moves. He acquired Edmonton Oilers prospect Ostap Safin from the Saint John Sea Dogs and 19-year-old sniper Maxim Trepanier from the Gatineau Olympiques, both wingers.
But Russell made his most consequential moves with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Charlottetown Islanders.
Russell addressed his need for experience and leadership by targeting veteran forwards Antoine Morand, Samuel Asselin and Keith Getson. Morand and Asselin won a league championship and Memorial Cup in 2018 with the Titan and came to Halifax in separate deals. Upon their arrival, Morand was named captain and Asselin got an A, while also leading the league in goals with 48.
Getson was a last-minute pickup who earned league-wide respect for leading the Islanders to back-to-back trips to the semifinals in 2017 and 2018. Like Asselin, he is an overager.
The man charged with pulling it all together on the ice was Veilleux. He coached the host Shawinigan Cataractes to a Memorial Cup title in 2012 and guided the Mooseheads to a 49-15-2-2 regular season record in his first year behind their bench, good enough for third place overall.
“Even when you win a game, it’s no good if you took shortcuts or if you didn’t work hard,” said Veilleux. “That was our focus every day and every day all season.”
Perhaps just as impressive, Veilleux navigated a difficult playoff draw given how the Mooseheads side of the bracket was stacked with top teams. That tough journey included Halifax overcoming deficits of two games on two different occasions against the Quebec Remparts, a series victory that required two victories on home ice to prevail in seven games.
Though the Mooseheads come into the tournament having not won the QMJHL crown, they have good depth throughout the lineup and the advantage of playing at home. They will be a difficult team to beat in those circumstances. Not to make too fine a point, but it will take a team that is ready to knock the Mooseheads out of the 2019 Memorial Cup.