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Walling: Mooseheads cap off best hockey year ever

Alex J. Walling

7/2/2013 1:12:57 PM

The Halifax Mooseheads have completed the best hockey year ever in this part of the country. There have been great Maritime teams in the past, but none come close to the team and individual accomplishments of the Mooseheads and some of their star players this year.

What a year! The Mooseheads had only seven losses in regulation time in the 68-game regular season.  That is the second best mark in the history of the QMJHL.  The best, by several tenths of a percentage point, was set by the Quebec Remparts in the glory years of Guy Lafleur.

The Mooseheads then won 15 of 16 games in the QMJHL playoffs.

Then they took the Memorial Cup.

And the accomplishments didn't stop there.

The junior leagues are normally dominated by older players, but would you believe three Halifax players were drafted in the first two rounds in Sunday's NHL Draft, including two of the first three picks overall? Nathan MacKinnon went first (Colorado), Jonathan Drouin went third (Tampa Bay) and Zach Fucale went 36th (Montreal).

Halifax was also built on good draft picks, along with some good trades.

"In fact, this season could be traced to trades of players to get picks and ultimately those picks led to a deal for MacKinnon and moving up in the draft to get Jonathan Drouin two years ago," said team owner and president Bobby Smith.

The Moose gave up a lot to get MacKinnon from Baie Comeau, but it was worth it.  Then with their first pick in the midget draft, the second pick overall behind MacKinnon, the Moose took a skinny kid named Jonathan Drouin. He was a virtual unknown to most Canadians six months ago, but that soon changed and ended up being the third pick in the NHL Draft on Sunday.

The third member of this year's Moosehead club to be selected in the NHL lottery was goaltender Zach Fucale, a kid who grew up in Rosemere, Quebec and adored the Montreal Canadiens. And of course, the Canadiens picked him in the second round.

So three Moose drafted in the first 36 selections. Youth was clearly served with this team.

East Coast Greatness

There have been good, if not great, hockey teams from Atlantic Canada in the past.

The Nova Scotia Vees became the first ever Canadian team to win the AHL Calder Cup in the 1971-72 season. It was the first of three championships for the Vees.

The New Brunswick Hawks had good teams in the 80's and the Cape Breton Oilers won the Calder Cup in 1993.

Even the St. John's Leafs had a very exciting debut in 1991-92 when they lost the AHL Final in seven games to the Adirondack Red Wings.  Not bad for a first year team.

But all these accomplishments pale in comparison to what transpired this year.

Its been a long time coming for Moose fans. Halifax became the first team from Maritime/Atlantic Canada to join the QMJHL in the summer of 1994. Their first coach and GM was Clement Jodoin.

Teams from the Maritimes have played for the Memorial Cup since then, as the Moncton Wildcats made it to the Finals in 2006 before losing to a Quebec team coached by Patrick Roy. Halifax even hosted the tournament in 2000, but the host Mooseheads did not get out of the semifinal.

The Mooseheads broke the mold this year, winning the president's trophy as QMJHL champs, and then winning the Memorial Cup to become national junior champions.

The Down Years

For a good two or three years (2008-2010) the Moose were one of the worst teams in Canada.  They were in or near the cellar in that time frame. But the kids held tough.

"For three years we lost more games than any other junior team in Canada.  It was part of the rebuilding process. We knew it would be hard, and it was hard, but it had to be done by our General Manager Cam Russell," Smith told TSN.ca. "It worked out as only four or five players were not with the team when they won the Memorial Cup. The bulk of the club has been with the Moose all their lives with so few trades."

Then came the MacKinnon trade, the drafting of Drouin, the pleasant if not surprising development of Furcale and with a few veterans acquired by trade, Halifax had a team that made a big jump last year and jumped right off the charts this season.

While the Moose were expected to be very good, few predicted such unprecedented dominance.

"It's an amazing story," says Chris Cochrane, a Halifax sports columnist. "I've been following sports all my life and never have I seen anything like it."

One man, though, had a good idea of what was in store. The late sports broadcaster and columnist Pat Connolly, who passed away late last August, told TSN at last year's training camp that, "if this team stays healthy they will win the Presidents cup and could do great things."

Pat, who was the team's P.A. announcer for 16 years, would have been proud.  This man was behind the microphone for the Calder Cup wins by the Vees and Cape Breton Oilers. And the Moose did not disappoint.

Checkered Past

In the past there was hope that always seemed to get dashed.  While they never won the President's Cup until this year, they came close.  They lost in 2003 to Hull after leading the best of seven 3-2. They dropped the last two games, including the last one at home.

They were back in 2005 but got beaten by Rimouski and a kid called Sidney Crosby.

Recently, there have been lots of MacKinnon to Crosby comparisons. MacKinnon made a Crosby-like impression on Roy when, as a rookie, he scored five goals against Quebec in a win.

Both are from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, which is part of Greater Halifax.  In fact the town signs say "Welcome to Cole Harbour, the home of Sidney Crosby".  I wonder if they will add Nathan MacKinnon to that some day?

Both went off to the hockey prep school of Shattuck-St. Mary's in the United States for one year and excelled. Both were the first picks of their midget draft. And, following Sunday, both were the first overall pick of the NHL draft.

But MacKinnon was able to achieve one thing that Crosby didn't – win a Memorial Cup. Crosby reached the final with Rimouski, but went down to the London Knights.

The Drouin story is even better. While MacKinnon was a star and had great lower body power as a midget, Drouin was under-sized. While he was the first player drafted after MacKinnon in the midget draft, he did not think he was big enough to play major junior and elected to stay in Quebec and play midget in the fall of 2010.

But the Mooseheads persisted and Russell convinced Drouin and his family that he had nothing to gain by staying in the midget league. Drouin came to Halifax before the Christmas break and that turned out to be a sterling move for both Drouin and the Mooseheads.

In the space of one year this kid became a national star.

He starred in the playoffs in 2011 when the Moose trailed Quebec 3-0 and then won the next four games to take the series with Drouin scoring the OT winner in game seven.

Then last year he became a household name to those who follow the world juniors.

"He made the team on the opening shift on opening day. He's just an amazing offensive talent," said Team Canada coach Steve Spott.

No member of the Halifax Mooseheads has ever won the QMJHL scoring title, but Drouin came close.  With one game left he was tied for the lead with PEI's Ben Duffy.  Drouin had a two-point night in his final game but Duffy had a five pointer to win. But Drouin only played 49 games!  He missed some due to an injury and a month being with the world juniors. In all, he missed 19 games and was the only junior in Canada to average two points a game.

Dan Robertson does the Moose Television play by play on Eastlink and has followed the team for 15 years. Drouin made an impression on the veteran broadcaster.

"I've never seen a better puck handler and his lateral movement is exceptional if not downright amazing,"said Robertson. "He is also deceptive strong in his lower body."

Drouin was named the CHL Player of the Year.

As for the year that just passed in Halifax, Robertson said it might take time for locals to realize how special the season really was.  "We will, in 20 years, realize what just happened.  From cellar-dwellers to the highest echelon of major junior hockey - it was a glorious and amazing season.  To think that a few short years ago the Moose only won 13 games!"

The summation of the season is incredible. President's Trophy winners, Memorial Cup champs, three top picks in the NHL draft – headed by MacKinnon at first overall, and Drouin being named CHL Player of the Year. Did we mention a franchise record for attendance? Almost 9,000 per game.

It doesn't get any better.  They are the best ever hockey team in Atlantic Canada.

For TSN.ca, I'm Alex J. Walling.