Dogs’ Life: Inspiration drives Saint John’s championship run

Vincent Ethier/LHJMQ Media

If there is a blueprint for the construction of the Saint John Sea Dogs it might be: Build from the draft and then fill gaps. It’s a philosophy head coach Danny Flynn swears by after seeing it in action when he went to three straight Mastercard Memorial Cup tournaments in the early 1990s with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

“We’re not a team that was traded to put together,” said Flynn, an assistant coach under Ted Nolan with Greyhounds in 1991, 1992 and, 1993 when they finally won the championship. “This team was built and developed and some players were added where we needed to strengthen some areas, so we’ve got a lot of guys who have been together for three or four or five years.” Among the longest serving are captain Spencer Smallman and alternate captain Matthew Highmore, who have spent the past five seasons with the newly crowned QMJHL champions.

It’s a closely knit group.

“That’s an advantage for us —our chemistry — just because of how long everyone has been together,” said Smallman. “We’ve grown up together as young men and young players.”

The chemistry stands out on the ice as well.  This season the Sea Dogs were the top team in the QMJHL finishing first with a 48-14-5-1 regular season record. They were one of the top scoring teams in the league with 287 goals for, with the scoring coming by committee. There were four players —Bokonji Imama (41), Mathieu Joseph (36), Highmore (34) and Smallman (30), who had scored 30 or more goals in the regular season. All four lines have the ability to contribute offensively which makes them difficult for the opposition to contain.

The Sea Dogs are just as balanced on the blue line with defensive leaders like Thomas Chabot, Simon Bourque, and Czech native Jakub Zboril. Saint John gave up the second fewest goals in the regular season with Flynn demanding defensive responsibility from all his players.

The two-way approach showed itself in the playoffs as the Sea Dogs stormed through to the QMJHL Championship, defeating the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in four straight games to win the President Cup.

Chabot, a first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, became a household name for Team Canada when he was named best defenceman and MVP at the 2017 World Junior Championship. His scoring touch and work ethic —he played more than 43 minutes in the gold medal shootout loss to the U.S. —garnered him fans from coast-to-coast. Chabot also earned QMJHL playoff MVP honours as well.

“Thomas is probably the most high-profile player of the group,” said Flynn. “We like to think there’s a lot of depth on our defence and all seven of those guys make significant contributions.”

Many of the Sea Dogs were returnees from the relatively young team that went deep into the 2016 playoffs before losing to the Shawinigan Cataractes in the semifinals. It was a good learning experience, but Flynn— making his sixth Mastercard Memorial Cup appearance as a coach — and general manager Trevor Georgie wanted to make sure they had the right pieces to take the extra step and win a championship.

At the deadline, the team added three veterans who were key to their playoff success: goaltender Callum Booth, forward Julien Gauthier and Bourque. All three additions have previous Mastercard Memorial Cup experience.

Booth was with the host Quebec Remparts in 2015, the same year Bourque’s Rimouski Oceanic represented the QMJHL as league champions. The 20-year-old Carolina Hurricanes prospect finished his regular season in Saint John with a 2.35 goals against average and a .903 save percentage and he only got better once the playoffs started, backstopping the franchise to their third league title.

“Callum has come in and fit in so well,” said Flynn of the Montreal native. “He’s very mature and very intelligent. He’s got a very professional approach and was very solid for in the playoffs.”

Gauthier was a part of the 2014 President Cup champion Val-d’Or Foreurs who went to the Mastercard Memorial Cup in London, Ont. He represented Canada with teammates Joseph and Chabot at the World Junior, adding to the familiarity.

“We’re like a family here,” said Gauthier. “Even though I wasn’t here a long time I always felt like I was part of it. Even in practice, sometimes really good teams don’t take the time to work hard, but we try to make it competitive every day.”

Off the ice, that family has faced its share of adversity. In October, the team’s beloved equipment manager, David Kelly, took a leave of absence to once again get treatment for a rare form of thyroid cancer. Kelly — known to many simply as DK— garnered support throughout the Canadian Hockey League and on social media with the popular hashtag #TeamDK. He returned to the team in February with deserved fanfare.

In early March however, the Sea Dogs were rocked when they learned that their teammate, Finnish defenceman Oliver Felixson, 19, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma — a cancer of the blood and lymph nodes. It’s generally regarded as a treatable and potentially curable form of cancer.

“It came as complete surprise and it was definitely a heartbreaker,” said Smallman. “We use that as motivation now because [Felixson] was a warrior and a guy who blocked shots and would sacrifice his body for the team. He can’t be here because of his health and sometimes we take that [health] for granted so we’re going to put our bodies on the line like we know he would.”

Felixson returned home to his native Helsinki for treatment, but keeps in close contact with his teammates. Prior to Game 5 of their third round series against the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, Felixson sent a message of encouragement which was written on the dry erase board in the dressing room.

It was a simple gesture that had a profound impact on his teammates.

“We all saw it as we were going on the ice and it meant a lot to us,” said Smallman.

Coach Flynn believes that while providing his teammates with motivation to make it to the Memorial Cup, Felixson has also kept them grounded and focused on the big picture at times when hockey can seem all-consuming. It’s a simple message.

“Live every day,” he said. 
“Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

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