Mathieu Joseph was 14, a young Quebec kid watching at home in a household that also includes his younger brother, Pierre-Olivier, about to turn 12 at the time.
The Joseph brothers, destined as they were to be standout QMJHL players, watched as the Saint John Sea Dogs won the Mastercard Memorial Cup in Mississauga, Ont., with a 3-1 victory over the host Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.
That powerhouse squad is now immortalized as 2011 Mastercard Memorial Cup champions, with the photographic evidence on the wall at Harbour Station, home arena of the QMJHL champions.
“I’ve seen the big pictures on the wall in Saint John,” said Mathieu Joseph. “I want to be on that wall too.”
To get there, the silky-smooth Sea Dogs forward and his teammates will need to get past the OHL champion, Erie Otters, who are themselves loaded with skill, in Friday night’s Mastercard Memorial Cup semi-final.
Both teams offer a fascinating and somewhat contrasting portrait of two uber-successful Canadian Hockey League franchises.
On one hand the Otters have shown a capacity to produce superstar players since not long after they moved to Pennsylvania 21 years ago. Starting with Brad Boyes, and all the way up to Connor Brown, Connor McDavid and Alex DeBrincat, the Otters have had four players win a total of five Red Tilson awards. Throw in other star forwards such as Dane Fox and Dylan Strome, among others, and there has been an embarrassment of riches on the shores of Lake Erie.
But it’s only added up to one OHL championship since Boyes’ team lost in overtime in the Mastercard Memorial Cup semi-final 15 years ago to the Victoriaville Tigres. That came this year when the Otters came through an ultra-tough OHL Western Conference and then defeated the Mississauga Steelheads in five games to capture the Robertson Cup.
“We handled elimination games before in these playoffs,” said Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch, in specific reference to overcoming the defending Mastercard Memorial Cup champion London Knights in overtime of Game 7 in the OHL Western Conference semifinals.
“It gives us the confidence that we can do it again.”
Team captain Strome agreed.
“There has been a lot of desperation (situations) this playoff and we’ve rose to the occasion,” said Strome. “Hopefully we can do it one more time tonight.”
Saint John too has had many players come through the organization, the biggest of which was Jonathan Huberdeau, who was MVP in 2011’s national championship triumph. The difference is that the Sea Dogs have three QMJHL titles since that time and are making their third Mastercard Memorial Cup appearance.
“It just shows the winning tradition of this organization,” said Joseph. “We had a couple of hard years when I was first here as a 16- and 17-year-old. But it’s been pretty much the same group of guys that have been here since then and it’s really good to see that you can come back from (adversity) and become champions.”
Whatever happens Friday night, the end is nigh for two different groups of players who have enjoyed much success, and some pitfalls long the way.
“I try not to think about it,” said Strome of any retrospection of the group he leads and the fact that almost half the team has been together for a few years, since McDavid led the team that lost in the OHL Final to the eventual Mastercard Memorial Cup champion Oshawa Generals in 2015.
“We were talking among ourselves the other day that we can’t believe this is about to end. We’ve done ourselves proud to this point but we’re not going to be satisfied until we get these last two wins.”
Joseph, who played with Strome on Team Canada on the World Junior, looks back in amazement that the season (and his major junior career) is about to end. But like Strome, he doesn’t want it to be tonight.
“It’s a long year,” said Joseph. “I haven’t stopped, I think I’ve had three or four days off once. After we won the President Cup we knew it was going to be a hard tournament and it’ has been tough.
“We’re happy to be in the semi-final but we’re also not satisfied.”