Acadie-Bathurst Titan @ Saint John Sea Dogs – Harbour Station; Saint John, New Brunswick
Those of us that live in the American Northeast are lucky enough to be surrounded by major professional sports teams. In the corridor between Washington, DC and Boston, there are a combined 28 teams in the NHL, MLB, NBA, MLS, and NFL. In about a seven hour drive, you can see about one fifth of major professional sports teams in North America, most of which are competing in the best leagues in the world. In our region, developmental leagues do not play a major role in sports culture, and with supporting your favorite team or teams sometimes being a full-time hobby, it is understandable that a lot of us in the Metropolitan area are largely unfamiliar with junior hockey and the CHL. Many consider the leagues of the CHL (the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) the best developmental hockey leagues in the world, and a majority of NHL players are coming out of major juniors in Canada (although NCAA players and American juniors are coming into the league at increasing rates). However, many American hockey fans see names like Kelowna Rockets and Drummondville Voltigeurs only in blurbs next to NHL draftees and in biographical information about players on their favorite NHL teams. Even in places in the United States where developmental and amateur hockey are popular, like New England and Minnesota, college hockey is the primary product consumed. Aside from American hockey fans in the Pacific Northwest and Michigan, where there are a number of CHL teams, most have not experienced Canadian junior hockey first hand, even those who are familiar with the CHL and its teams.
Until recently, I was like most hockey fans in our area, and largely unfamiliar with Canadian juniors. Only in the last couple of years have I started paying close attention to prospects before they are drafted and playing in the minors, and have become familiar with the format of the CHL and the Memorial Cup. Juniors had always been interesting to me, though. The idea of kids as young as fifteen being drafted, leaving their families to go to whichever city by which they were chosen, and being subjected to the trading process at such a young age seems crazy to a lot of us. Before adulthood, these players are having their jerseys sold and worn by fans they do not know, and have memorabilia, like bobble-heads and posters, made in their image. In the QMJHL, a lot of kids are thrown into a place where they are unfamiliar with the language. Players from the U.S and Atlantic Canada can be drafted or traded to a city in Quebec, and players from Quebec can be sent to an English-speaking city in Atlantic Canada. As far as some state and provincial laws, as well as the by-laws of the NCAA, are concerned, these players are considered professional. It is a stark contrast to the system of college sports recruitment that we are exposed to more in the United States, where kids wait until they are 18, and carefully choose the school that best fits their needs and the needs of their families.
Junior hockey also offers a diversity of experiences for fans and teams, unlike in the NHL, where you can walk into almost any stadium and find minor aesthetic and layout differences, but are cut from the same template. Junior hockey can take you into local rinks with some seats and bleachers for spectators, moderately sized civic centers, and state-of-the art arenas. The 18,000+ seat Centre Videotron in Quebec City is the newest NHL-caliber arena, and the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL were the first and so far only team to occupy it. Junior players in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver get to share buildings with NHL teams, rubbing shoulders with some of the best hockey players in the world and playing just under the noses of NHL front offices. The CHL also brings its fans and players to every kind of city and community imaginable. There are franchises in some of the biggest and most bustling metropolises in North America like Vancouver and Seattle, major cultural centers like Quebec City and Halifax, cookie-cutter American suburbs like Plymouth, Michigan and Kennewick, Washington, and in forgotten mill towns like Baie-Comeau, Quebec, and Bathurst, New Brunswick. Last week I had the opportunity to go to a CHL game, and I thought I would share my perspective on the experience.
Over the Christmas vacation, my girlfriend and I were visiting family in New Hampshire, and decided to take a somewhat impromptu trip to Saint John, New Brunswick. Despite the warnings that New Brunswick is a summertime destination, we got up before sunrise one morning, and took the trip from the White Mountain region in northern New Hampshire, across Maine into New Brunswick, and to Saint John. The trip itself was excellent, although New Brunswick is definitely a place to visit in the summer. During our only full day there, we had plans to travel to a few of the major tourist-destinations in the south of the province that got derailed by a snowstorm. We ended up spending all of our time in the Uptown neighborhood in Saint John where we were staying, which was great (it is the city’s downtown), but we missed out on seeing the Hopewell Rocks and the highest tides in the world, among other things. New Brunswickers seems to hate the snow and cold. Everyone was holed up for most of the time we were there, and Saint John was a ghost town. We are already planning on going back in the summer around National Acadia Day, which is on August 15th. Our first night in town, the local Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League were in town hosting the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, another New Brunswick team from the town of Bathurst in the northeast of the province (Acadie is the French term for Acadia). We took a few hours out of our time exploring Saint John and headed to Harbour Station, the home stadium of the Sea Dogs.
Sea Dogs banners at Harbour Station
The Saint John Sea Dogs, Eric Gelinas’ junior team, boast a number of NHL alumni, producing names like Simon Depres, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nathan Beaulieu and Mike Hoffman since their inception in 2005. The Sea Dogs dominated the Q for three years, finishing first in the regular season from 2009/2010-2011/2012. They made history in 2011 by becoming the first team from Atlantic Canada to win the Memorial Cup, a trophy that has been awarded since 1919. The Acadie-Bathurst Titan were a founding member of the QMJHL in 1969 as the Rosemont National, and relocated to Bathurst in 1998 after many years in Laval, Quebec. Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy both played for Titan during their time in Laval. Illustrating the connection some players have to their junior teams and the cities they played in, Titan alumni Sean Couturier, Patrice Bergeron, Roberto Luongo, and Mathieu Perrault own shares in Titan, and are a part of an ownership group that bought the team in 2013 to prevent its relocation. Couturier is actually from Bathurst, and his father is the team’s general manager. Saint John is having another good year, and is second in the Maritimes Division behind the third of the New Brunswick teams, the Moncton Wildcats. Acadie-Bathurst is below .500, but all but two teams in the league make the playoffs. Some consider Saint John a serious contender for this year’s QMJHL championship.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to get to know a city or place is through their sports teams and fan base, so I was looking forward to meeting fans before the game if possible. We went to a popular restaurant a few blocks from the stadium before the game, and there were a few groups of people in Sea Dogs gear, including a large family at a table next to us. They seemed excited that someone from out-of-town was going to a game, and were all eager to discuss the Sea Dogs with me. In all of the craziness around Christmas, I had totally forgotten that the World Juniors had started a few days before, and they were disappointed to have to tell me Thomas Chabot and Jakub Zboril were in Finland playing for their countries after I had mentioned that I was looking forward to seeing those two play. They were quick to let me know I had the chance to see Joey Veleno, who is in his first season as a fifteen year old after being granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada and allowed to play in the CHL a year before most are eligible to be drafted. He is only the fifth player to be granted this exemption, after John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, and Sean Day (a 2016 NHL draft eligible defenseman playing for Mississauga in the OHL). You may not have heard of Sean Day before now, whose exemption many believe was an effort by Hockey Canada to ensure he represents Canada at the international level, as his unique upbringing as a Canadian national raised in Michigan would make him eligible to play for the United States. Day was the first and only of the five to not be drafted first overall in their respective CHL drafts, and he is not slated to go particularly high in this June’s NHL draft, but Veleno is with otherwise elite company, and I quickly forgot about Chabot and Zboril (who both went in the first round of last year’s NHL draft) when I discovered I would be able to see a player of Veleno’s caliber. I was only slightly insulted when the family patriarch told me he was impressed that someone “from the States” knew enough about hockey to be familiar with their players.
To get to the game from where we were, we were instructed to take the Saint John “pedway” to the stadium, a pedestrian sky-walk system that connects many major destinations in Uptown Saint John. People in the city seemed very proud of this system, and we were told to take it almost everywhere when we were asking for directions. Like I said, New Brunswickers really seem to hate the cold. As we headed toward the stadium, it became clear pretty quickly that Sea Dogs games are a big community event for people in the area. Family and friends were running into each other, chatting and comparing tickets and seat locations, and groups of obnoxious teenagers instead of congregating at the mall or the movie theater seemed that night to all be at Harbour Station. That is the kind of environment every sports club that attracts spectators should be trying to cultivate, and it was a nice thing to experience. Even though it seemed like half of the town was at the game, only one of every four or five people were actually in Sea Dogs gear. People were representing with their apparel the wide array of NHL teams that have sizeable support in Saint John. The Bruins and Canadiens are definitely the most supported NHL teams in the city, and when I would ask locals about who is the most popular NHL team, the answer tended to go back and forth between Boston and Montreal. There was also a sizeable Flames presence, which I later found out was because the Flames housed their AHL affiliate in Harbour Station from 1993-2003. The Saint John Flames were formerly the Utica Devils, who were bought by Calgary and relocated after Martin Brodeur’s last season with Utica in the AHL.
We went through the pedway system from the restaurant, through an Olympic-sized aquatic sports center, and descended a set of stairs to enter Harbour Station. The stadium is a moderately sized venue, and seats about 6,000 people. It is the primary venue for the city, and also houses a professional basketball team, along with hosting the city’s bigger concerts. There is one small entrance foyer before you go onto the main concourse, and all 3,000+ people that went to the game had to pass through this small hall, which included a small team store, a few ticket windows, and is the body of the Saint John sports hall of fame. Inductees have their hand-drawn pictures along with biographical information covering the walls. We were told the pace of life is slower in Saint John, and there was no bigger culture shock than when we were waiting for an absurd half an hour for tickets, and I was the only one visibly frustrated that the line was not moving as the game was about to get underway. There is nothing I hate more than not being settled in my seat for the opening puck drop.
I have seen the videos of Oilers fans and other crowds in Canadian NHL cities passionately singing their national anthem, and knew patriotism was a little bit more prevalent in Canada than in the United States, but I was very surprised by the level of reverence shown by the crowd during “O, Canada”. We were still in line for tickets, and when the anthem started, everyone stopped what they were doing, employees and spectators, and not a single sound was made by anyone during the anthem. Everyone removed their hats, and even the obnoxious groups of teenagers had their heads bowed in silence until the anthem ended. I could have guessed it would be a different experience than hearing the Star-Spangled Banner at Prudential Center, and it isn’t that we (as Americans in general) are not respectful of our national anthem, but the scene was to me almost shocking. When we finally pushed through the line when the anthem was over and got our tickets, the first thing I noticed when we went through the doors onto the concourse was the smell. It smelled entirely like local rinks I played in growing up. There was the strong stench of popcorn mixed with sweaty hockey equipment, rink ice, and gasoline from the zamboni I loved so much as a kid, and if anyone else has spent any time in small local rinks, you know exactly what I am talking about.
The game was about ten minutes in by the time we got into our seats. The one narrow concourse left everyone shoulder to shoulder even when the puck was in play. I tried to take a walk to see if I could grab a Sea Dogs hat and to check out the posters of their NHL alumni and draftees they had draped on the supports throughout the concourse, but during intermission, there was no getting around. Think of trying to push through the single concourse at the Meadowlands after the game when everyone was rushing for one of a handful of exits. There are two levels at Harbour Station, an upper section and a lower section. We were advised by fans to get tickets downstairs, but with our student ids tickets in the upper section were half the price. After celebrating the exchange rate when we got our Canadian money in Bangor, Maine, we quickly discovered the insane prices in Saint John did more than make up for the C$1.29-$1 rate we got when getting Canadian dollars. We looked for every way to save a few dollars so we could afford their expensive beer. I don’t love sitting low anyway.
One thing I noticed initially was the handling English and French at the game. The QMJHL is a league primarily in French-speaking cities with French-speaking fans and French speaking players. It is headquartered in Boucherville, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal, and I’d be willing to bet Bill 101 (the Charter of the French Language, a law in Quebec) dictates French as the primary language of league operations. While New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in Canada, Saint John is entirely an Anglophone city. It has heavy Anglo-Saxon roots, and although it is the largest city in a bilingual province, French is confined to public signage, a language only spoken by people from out of town and transplants. At Harbour Station during Sea Dogs games, there are two separate public address announcers, one who addresses the crowd in English, and a second in French. However, a third voice comes through the public address system in more of a master-of-ceremonies role, doing advertisements and assuring fans to take advantage of the discount on Sea Dogs hats at the team store. Those were done only in English. I am curious if the inclusion of the French announcer was due to league-wide policy, provincial law, or if they include it when playing a team from a Francophone area like Bathurst. My guess is that all teams are required to include French in the PA announcements due to a large number of players being Francophone, thus it is necessary even if both teams involved are from English-speaking regions, but I cannot be sure.
The game itself was nothing short of ridiculous. After a well battled first period in which shots were about even, Saint John exploded for four goals in the second, including a short-handed and power play goal, both late in the period. Game over, right? Not even close. After Saint John came close to making it 5-0 early in the third on a power play, Bathurst turned it on and scored three goals before the 15:00 mark of the period, cutting the lead to one. They would score twice more in the period to take a 5-4 lead in front of a stunned crowd, only to have Saint John tie it with their goalie on the bench late in the third. The game went to overtime, with both teams having quality chances, but Titan scored to end the game 6-5.
Forward Mark Simpson was the only prospect that played in the game that is relevant to any Metropolitan area team. According to Wikipedia, his NHL rights are owned by the Rangers, but the only evidence I dug up of him with the Rangers was his playing with New York at the Traverse City Tournament, an annual prospect tournament in Michigan that takes place in September. He was not ranked by Blueshirt Banter’s prospect rankings in July, and they admitted they didn’t know much about him when he was added to the tournament roster. Simpson is a New Brunswick native himself, from either Fredericton or Rothesay, a suburb of Saint John, depending on who you believe. He has spent his entire major junior career in his home province, playing first for the Moncton Wildcats, and is now in his second season with Bathurst. He went undrafted in 2014, and is putting up solid numbers in his over-age year. When Mark first steps on the ice, he certainly grabs your attention. He is around 6’4-6’5, and as a 20 year old at the junior level, he stands literally head and shoulders above the rest. I was incredibly impressed with his play until I learned that he is an over-age player, but he possesses some quality skills nonetheless. He is an impressive puck handler with a very quick release. He scored twice in the game against Saint John and added an assist, his first goal belonging on the highlight reel. He might not have the skating ability to cut it at the NHL level, but if he fills out (he’s a skinny guy for his size, listed at 185 lbs.) he could develop a power game to go along with those skills he has on the puck. He is at a point per game pace right now with Bathurst and having by far his best year, but again, he’s 20. I will be interested to see where he ends up when his junior career ends after this season.
Ten members of Saint John and Acadie-Bathurst combined have rights owned by NHL teams, and two of them, Thomas Chabot, whose rights are owned by the Ottawa Senators, and Jakub Zboril, who was drafted in June by Boston, were away at the World Juniors. For Saint John, I was most impressed with their top line as a unit, which consisted that night of Daniel Del Paggio, Spencer Smallman (Carolina) and Mathieu Joseph (Tampa Bay). They controlled the game in the second period, moving the puck and cycling at will. They would toy with Bathurst in their end, until natural finisher Mathieu Joseph decided to break to the front of the net to look for a pass from one of his line mates. Joseph had three goals, capping off the hat-trick with the game tying goal in the dying moments of the third, slamming home a great feed from Del Paggio on the doorstep. Joe Veleno, the fifteen year old, did not take over the game, but he was impressive, especially for his age. He did score for Saint John on his own rebound after collecting the puck right on top of the crease. He went to the dirty areas, and his feet never stopped moving. He is a hard worker, and his is a name you should start hearing in the next couple of years. Another Sea Dog that stood out to me was defenseman Oliver Felixson. The Finn was getting top pairing time with the absence of Chabot and Zboril, and his play in the defensive zone was smooth and effortless. He easily rubbed out any puck carrier that dared to try to go between him and the boards, and his excellent gap control resulted in plays that went to the middle of the ice deflated by easy poke checks. His vision on breakout passes was also excellent. He is slated to go in the second or third round in this year’s NHL draft.
As for Titan players, aside from Mark Simpson standing out with three points, Vladimir Kuznetsov, who is apparently not the brother of Capitals forward Evgeny, was all over the ice and was always looking for ways to create space off the puck in the offensive zone. A few times he would wait along the boards until the defense forgot about him or lost sight of him, and break for the backdoor play. He is a smart player who is eligible for this June’s NHL entry draft. Titan Captain Guillaume Brisebois was another stand-out for Bathurst. The Canucks product is a solid two-way defenseman, creating chances for his side on the offensive end and joining the rush without compromising his team’s defensive form or ignoring his own defensive responsibilities. He set up the game winning goal in overtime for Bathurst, hitting a streaking teammate far side for an easy goal.
Inside Harbour Station
The fans were not quite what I expected. They were all very focused on the play and every turn the puck took, but when the Sea Dogs scored, there was only a dull roar from the crowd, and just about everyone stayed in their seats. I found myself standing out of excitement after Saint John tied the game late in the third, and I looked around to realize I was the only one in my section. I almost felt rude. Fans clapped and cheers did come up after goals, but I definitely expected a louder group of fans. They were more responsive to bad penalty calls, and were the loudest as a crowd when a penalty was called against a Sea Dog towards the end of the third. I have always noticed fans in Canadian NHL cities don’t jump out of their seats the same way we do in most American cities, but I didn’t think I would be the only one standing after such a dramatic goal.
When the game ended, we took the pedway back into the heart of Uptown Saint John to an Irish pub, expecting to run into Sea Dogs fans having a few beers after the game. Instead, we were the only ones at the place, which closed at 11 p.m. It was a Monday, to be fair, and everyone probably rushed home to prepare for the impending storm. The experience overall was excellent. The game was a lot of fun, the fans and people in Saint John were friendly (almost too much so), the city was beautiful and interesting, and the three meals we ate out while we were there were the three best meals I have had in a long time. Who knew Saint John was a culinary diamond-in-the-rough. I am not sure if New Brunswick is worth the 12+ hour trip it would be from down here during winter, but I would definitely recommend going to the Maritimes in the summer. I can’t wait to go back and see what the area really has to offer. If you do find yourself there in the winter, or are vacationing to more wintertime-appropriate destinations like Montreal or Quebec City, definitely do not miss the chance to go see a QMJHL game. I have only scratched the surface, and hope to explore the experiences of other cities and fan bases in junior hockey and the CHL.