Will this be the year the Halifax Mooseheads win it all? There are those who will tell you it’s about damn time.
Halifax has had a franchise in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League---one of Canada’s three elite professional-hockey-player factories---since 1994. The team has produced close to two dozen players who’ve played in the NHL, including such stars as goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Anaheim Ducks, enforcer Jody Shelley of the San Jose Sharks and sniper Alex Tanguay of the Calgary Flames.
It has put more bums in seats---6,000 to 8,000 on any given game night and close to 3.5 million overall---than virtually any other junior hockey team in the country.
And it has come tantalizingly close to on-ice team success, too, once getting to within one game of winning its league championship and once---when Halifax hosted the Memorial Cup in May 2000, giving the Mooseheads an automatic entree into the annual tournament that determines national bragging rights---came as close to Canadian junior hockey’s top prize as the semi-finals.
But in sports, coming close means you lost.
And winning is still the only thing.
But winning isn’t easy, especially when teams are made up of mostly 15-to-19-year-old boys. The best young players get drafted out of midget leagues before they can shave and often long before their bodies have grown into their ambitions. The teams devote three or four years to developing those bodies and their skills and then spit them out---most at 19, a few at 20---into the world of professional or college hockey, or just out into the world.
Which leaves only a brief window in which the stars can align and a team can win it all.
Across Canada, teams hoping to win a junior league championship usually start by drafting well. But that is just the beginning. After trying to figure out which---among the dozens of gangly 15-year-olds with oodles of natural talent---will blossom and mature into disciplined, determined professional prospects, they must nurture those chosen few to the point where they reach what the team’s brain trust convinces itself is the critical mass needed for a legitimate chance at that season’s championship.
At that point, the wheeling and dealing begins. Teams trade away their own future draft choices for other teams’ already proven stars like so many hockey cards, loading up on veterans for what they hope will be that one perfect playoff run.
Win or lose---and only one team can win---they will then begin the process all over again the next season, trading away their own returning stars in order to obtain new draft choices and younger talent from the next team that thinks it’s primed to make its bid for glory.
It is, arguably, even more complicated to win in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. It’s not just that in order to win the President’s Trophy, emblematic of league supremacy, a team must win three gruelling best-of-seven series in a row. To complicate matters, the Q League has a well-earned reputation for truly Byzantine managerial gamesmanship.
In January 2003, for example, a Mooseheads team that believed it had the potential to go all the way engineered a complex trade with Cape Breton, acquiring three veterans from the Screaming Eagles for its playoff run that spring. At the end of the season, the Mooseheads completed---almost---the rest of the deal by sending four of its best young players to Cape Breton so that team could make its own run for the title the next season. And then---remember this is still all part of the same deal---Cape Breton agreed to return three of those players back to Halifax again the next year so Halifax could try once again for the prize. Ultimately, neither team succeeded in winning a championship and the league eventually outlawed such “multiple-future considerations” deals.
Teams still desperately look for ways to outmanoeuvre one another. But under current majority owner Bobby Smith, a former NHL great who bought the team from Moosehead Brewery in 2004, the Mooseheads have become less eager participants in the league’s frenzied player swapping. Smith has said he prefers to build his team through the draft, hopefully avoiding the boom-and-bust cycles many other teams go through.
The problem is that Smith’s steady-as-she-goes management style has failed to produce the winner that, for many fans, is still the sine qua non of the whole business.
Which brings us to this hockey season. Over the past few years, the Mooseheads have drafted well. Two seasons ago, they landed Jacob Voracek, a brilliant player from the Czech Republic, as one of two European players each team is allowed to carry on its roster. In his first season with the team, Voracek not only won the league’s rookie-of-the-year award, but he was the seventh player picked in last summer’s NHL draft, making him the highest Moosehead ever selected.
But Voracek, who will almost certainly become an NHL star someday, is far from alone among potential pros on the team. When the Mooseheads began play in September, they boasted six players from a roster of about two dozen who’d all been drafted by NHL teams---including veterans like 19-year-old defenceman Andrew Bodnarchuk and winger Ryan Hiller, both from Hammonds Plains---and a number of up-and-comings who will likely be chosen in this summer’s draft.
Which may be why even Bobby Smith was moved to boast during last fall’s training camp that this could be the best Mooseheads team ever.
Even others who closely follow the rising and falling fortunes of Q league teams---journalists, scouts, bloggers---agreed the Mooseheads finally had most of the pieces in place to be legitimate contenders this season.
What did they need to finally tip that balance? Tangibles? A proven goaltender? Another first-line defenceman?
Or perhaps---just perhaps---the need was none of the above. Perhaps what this team really needed was an intangible---a player who not only brought his own winning track record to the rink but who could also reunite with his two best friends---friends from childhood, best buddies who had already won championships together and wanted nothing more than the chance to do it one more time before they went their separate ways into the world of professional hockey.
Perhaps what the Mooseheads really needed was to reconnect the Hammonds Plains Connection.
Our story, like all good Canadian hockey stories, begins on a backyard rink. Two of them, both in Hammonds Plains, a sprawling suburb of subdivisons---from modest to executive---scattered like seeds along either side of the old trunk highway between Bedford and Tantallon.
Dave Hillier and his wife were among the many who arrived in Hammonds Plains during the building boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s. They constructed their dream home on a large lot in Highland Park, near Cox’s Lake.
Hillier soon built his first backyard rink ---a low-key affair with a few boards framing a plastic tarp---so his oldest son, Ryan, then three, could learn to skate. Within a few years, that rink had morphed into something far field-of-dreams grander.
“I brought in an excavator to dig a hole to try and get rid of a swampy section beyond the backyard,” Hillier explains. But the hole quickly filled up with water, so he decided to transform his new four-feet deep pond into a 100’ by 60’ winter rink, complete with high boards, streetlights and a 20’ by 20’ shed called “Camp David”---furnished with a woodstove, couch and TV--- where his sons and their hockey-mad friends could take occasional refuge from the cold. He even made over his Honda 4x4 into a makeshift Zamboni, which he used to make his ice surface perfect.
Not surprisingly, the Hillier rink became a community hangout.
Perhaps not surprisingly too, Ryan quickly developed into an excellent skater and hockey player. He scored so many goals in the novice house league that the next year the coach for the area’s TASA Minor Hockey Association Atom AAA rep team “came calling.”
Playing in TASA is where Ryan first smacked---literally---up against young Bradley Marchand. Marchand lived in Hammonds Plains, too, just a 10-minute drive away from Hillier in Glen Arbour, a new subdivision built around a golf course, where his father had also built a backyard rink.
“It wasn’t even close” to the Hilliers’ rink of dreams, Marchand admits with a laugh, but it was more than adequate for a two-year-old learning to stay upright on his skates. And to play hockey. Like Hillier, Marchand soon became a star in competitive minor hockey, but as a member of TASA’s Bedford rivals, the Whalers.
Today, Marchand remembers the time that Hillier---who he claims was already “a minor hockey legend” by the age of eight---hit him during an on-ice scrimmage. “I ran him back,” Marchand tells me. Hillier’s memories are similar, except he claims he was the aggrieved party. They do agree, however, that although they attended the same elementary school, “we didn’t really even like each other very much back then.”
That all changed in Grade 7 when they ended up playing hockey together for Madeline Symonds Middle School and---through the magical mystery of male bonding---suddenly became best friends.
The next summer, 14-year-old Andrew Bodnarchuk and his family arrived in Glen Arbour from Winnipeg. Though he remembers being apprehensive about making new friends in a new place, Bodnarchuk says an uncle who’d lived in the area encouraged him by telling him there were “a couple of younger guys in the neighbourhood who played hockey.”
Andrew played hockey, too. And pretty well.
Within a few days, he’d met a hockey-playing kid named Justin Smith who introduced him to his friends, the hockey-obsessed Marchand brothers, Brad and his younger brother Jeff, who lived just down the street.
In September, back at school, they all hooked up with Ryan. That winter they not only starred for their school team but also for the TASA rep team, the Mighty Ducks (Marchand had transferred over from Bedford), where they were coached by Andrew’s dad, Scott, and Brad’s father, Kevin.
In their second season together they won the city bantam championship.
The three---by now Hills, Chucksy and Marshy---became inseparable on and off the ice. “We hung around all the time,” Brad says.
What did they do?
“Well, hockey, of course,” Brad begins.
“Ground hockey, too,” Ryan adds.
“Ball hockey,” Andrew says. “Street hockey…”
They try---and fail---to remember how else they filled their days.
“Dirt biking,” Brad says finally, triumphant. “Four-wheeling.”
“We lived on a lake,” Andrew adds, “so there was that, too.”
“And we were always on the golf course,” Brad reminds them. “We’d sneak onto the course and look for lost golf balls. And try not to get caught by the course marshalls.”
In truth, however, it was hockey that kept them together and, ultimately, split them apart.
In 2004---the same year their Dartmouth Subways team won the provincial major midget hockey championship---all three were drafted by Quebec major junior teams: Ryan by hometown Halifax, Brad and Andrew by the Moncton Wildcats.
While the other two reported to their separate teams, Andrew balked. On the advice of family and friends who believed he should at least consider trying to get a hockey scholarship to an elite American college---players who choose to play major junior hockey in Canada lose their eligibility to play later for American colleges---Andrew opted to bide his time that winter at St. Paul’s, a small New Hampshire prep school with a well-regarded hockey program.
The following summer, Moncton, having written him off as a lost cause, dumped Bodnarchuk back into the expansion draft, where Saint John, which was about to begin playing in the league for the first time that season, snapped him up. They quickly---so quickly it was probably the result of yet another secret deal---traded his rights to the Mooseheads for a veteran goaltender. The Mooseheads quickly convinced Bodnarchuk and his family---if they hadn’t already---that the team could offer as good an education package as any American university and better preparation for a professional career. Best of all, he could live at home with his family. And hang out with his friends.
“We are thrilled that Andrew has selected the Mooseheads to continue the development of his hockey abilities,” general manager Marcel Patenaude told reporters that July.
Two-thirds of the Hammonds Plains Connection was back together.
It was a done deal.
It was early December 2007, nearly two-and-a-half years after Bodnarchuk had officially joined the Mooseheads and the three friends had been dreaming, speculating and what-iffing about a reunion for most of that time.
Brad Marchand had known he was going to be traded somewhere since the beginning of training camp back in September 2007. That’s when Val d’Or’s head coach and general manager, Eric Lavigne, had called him into his office to inform him, “out of respect,” that he would be gone from the Foreurs by Christmas.
The Val d’Or Foreurs had made their ultimately unsuccessful run for the league championship in 2006-07. That meant 2007-2008 would be a rebuilding year and Brad Marchand---at 19 one of the team’s bona fide returning stars---would become trade bait.
He was attractive bait. Marchand, a small but feisty forward with a reputation for being prepared to do whatever it takes to win, had spent his first junior two seasons with the Moncton Wildcats, where he blossomed into an important cog on a talented team that won the league championship, then played in the 2006 Memorial Cup tournament.
At the end of the season, he was dispatched to the about-to-be-ready-for-prime-time Val d’Or team to complete one of those notorious trades-within-trades in which, this time, he was the “future consideration.”
Though he was initially reluctant to report---Val d’Or was French-speaking and far from home---Marchand eventually joined the team and enhanced his reputation as a winner by not only leading the league in playoff scoring but also by practically carrying the weary Foreurs on his back in last year’s final series.
Perhaps even more important in terms of marketability, Marchand had been one of just two dozen junior players from across the country chosen to play for Team Canada in the 2006-2007 world championship tournament, which Canada had won, as well as in an eight-game “Super Series” against Russia’s best under-20 players this past summer.
No wonder then that, after Lavigne made it known last fall he was willing to entertain offers for Marchand’s services, eight different teams eagerly sniffed the Foreurs’ dressing-room air. By early December, four had made what Lavigne considered serious offers. He narrowed those down to two. One of them, he confided to his young star, was Marchand’s hometown Halifax Mooseheads.
Which was, of course, where Marchand desperately wanted to go. He and his boyhood best buddies, Bodnarchuk and Hillier, had spent the previous summer hanging out at the gym and the beach, talking about exactly that. “We were confident,” Marchand allows, “but you never knew for sure.”
Marchand did know that Mooseheads’ general manager Marcel Patenaude had been doing his due diligence. During the course of the fall, he and team owner Bobby Smith had approached Hillier and Bodnarchuck with questions. What’s Marchand really like? Is he a character guy? How would he fit in with the rest of the team? Hillier and Bodnarchuk, who were as keen to have Marchand as Marchand was to join them, had been texting and talking to Marchand about those supposedly confidential discussions.
And yet there were at least two major hurdles to any trade to the Mooseheads.
Though the Mooseheads were quite clearly legitimate contenders, many observers believed the team already had more than enough offensive talent. They believed Patenaude should trade, instead, for a top defenceman or a proven goaltender to shore up the team’s sometimes glaring defensive deficiencies.
There was also the question whether Bobby Smith’s reticent Mooseheads would really be prepared to offer Lavigne a deal he couldn’t refuse for Marchand.
“I’ll do what I can,” Lavigne had told him, “but they’re not going to get you for nothing.”
Which was why Marchand was nervous when Lavigne finally called him into his office. The Mooseheads, the coach told him, had offered less for his services than the other team. But then Lavigne smiled.
“Brad,” he said, extending a hand, “we’ve reached a deal with Halifax. It’s done. You’re going to the Mooseheads.”
The only hitch was that under league rules, designed to prevent teams from disrupting their young charges’ lives during their school terms, trades are permitted only during certain brief periods, including the December school break. This year’s trading period would not officially begin for another two weeks.
“You can’t tell anyone until then,” the coach told him.
Marchand insists he didn’t, that his almost daily calls and text messaging with Bodnarchuk and Hillier were still couched in “wouldn’t-it-be-great-if” terms, but it seems doubtful he could keep such news from his best friends.
Not that any of that matters now.
The Hammonds Plains Connection had reconnected and would get one last chance to play for---and perhaps win---one more championship together.
It is a snowy, blowy Saturday afternoon in March, the day before the Mooseheads’ final game of the regular season, the day after the team had finally---in their second-to-last contest---nailed down first place in their division with a convincing win over the lowly PEI Rocket in Charlottetown.
It has been that kind of year for the team. No one doubts the individual talents, but the team itself has often been annoyingly, incomprehensibly inconsistent all season long, losing---sometimes by lopsided scores---to teams they were expected to defeat easily.
Even though they’ve won far more often than they’ve lost and have been in, or close to, first place all season long, the team’s long-suffering fans are impatient. For most of the season, the team’s online fan message boards have been rife with that frustration. Fire the coach...Get rid of the general manager...Get a goaltender. Hillier’s a puck hog...Whoever said Bodnarchuk’s a number one defenceman?...Who traded for that lazy Marchand anyway?...We should have gone for a goaltender...
“You mean MooseTalk?” Andrew Bodnarchuk laughs when I mention the criticisms. “I haven’t been on that in…what…a year and a bit.” And he professes he’s learned to ignore the occasional booing from “40-year-old guys who’ve probably never even played the game. When I was 17,” he adds, “it bothered me, for sure, but you learn to deal. They pay their money.” He laughs. “Hey, I go to see Rainmen games and I’m up there in the stands screaming and yelling, too!”
We’re sitting in the empty, forest-green, still-stale-with-the-sweat-of-generations-of-young-hopefuls Mooseheads dressing room, deep in the bowels of the Halifax Metro Centre. Bodnarchuk, Hillier and Marchand have agreed to come in on their off-day to talk to me about their friendship and their futures.
“Hills is the world’s worst driver,” Marchand announces loudly to Bodnarchuk as they all sit down together in a corner of the dressing room. “He almost killed us coming here today.”
Hillier is sheepish. “I was reaching down for a dime on the floor and, well…” He tries to explain, shrugs, laughs. “It wasn’t my fault.”
The three all still live at home with their parents in Hammonds Plains and often drive to the rink together.
“You should see Andy’s Beemer,” Marchand tells me. Bodnarchuk bought a BMW last month after he signed his first pro contract with the Boston Bruins. Both Marchand and Bodnarchuk were drafted in 2006 by the Bruins, Hillier the same year by the New York Rangers.
With his own first contract, which he signed last fall, Marchand bought a building lot from his father, a real-estate developer. “I got it for $40,000 and it’s worth, like, $70,000,” he tells me. He adds he’s now considering buying another lot, “a lake one this time.”
Marchand looks over at Hillier mischievously. “Hillsy doesn’t have a contract yet,” he tells me, “but he doesn’t need one. His father bought him a new car!”
When he sees me making notes, however, Marchand is quick to add, “He’s going to get a contract soon, too.” He turns to Hillier. “You will. Soon.”
Theirs is a relationship that seems based, in part, on such easy, teasing banter and in much larger part, on a deep well of affection and loyalty.
Bodnarchuk and Marchand share the same personal trainer---one of their minor hockey coaches. They’re trying to convince Hillier to switch to him as well. “Then we could all train together,” Marchand tells him.
They still spend most of their time together. On and off the ice. Last week, for example, Hillier and Bodnarchuk and their girlfriends spent the afternoon at the Discovery Centre “just hanging out.”
Hillier can’t help himself. “Brad doesn’t have a girlfriend,” he announces.
“This week,” Marchand shoots back.
The three are also already beginning to make their post-Mooseheads plans. After taking part in development camps for their respective NHL teams this summer, they will attend official tryouts. None of them expect to make the NHL directly out of junior, but they’re hoping to serve their apprenticeship with Boston’s and New York’s top American Hockey League farm teams.
Which would be convenient.
Marchand and Brodnarchuk say they plan to get an apartment together in Providence, Rhode Island, where Boston’s AHL team is based. New York’s farm team is in Hartford, Connecticut, less than two hours’ drive away. “Whenever we have a few days, we’ll try to get together,” Bodnarchuk says.
Bodnarchuk and Marchand, of course, would be even happier if Hillier got traded to Boston “so we could all room together.”
That is unlikely.
Which leaves this as their last season together and the Halifax Mooseheads as their last, best chance for one more championship together.
They will each be expected to play a key role in the team’s playoff fortunes: Andrew is the team’s captain and its best defenceman, Brad and Ryan were number two and three in team scoring behind Voracek during the season. And one of the reasons the Mooseheads traded for Marchand, of course, is that he has a history of winning when it counts.
“I guess it seems odd outside the circle for the three of us to be playing together like this,” Andrew allows of the curiosity that has grown up around their relationship since the trade. “But for us it seems more odd to have been playing against each other.”
“We all know it’s our last year,” adds Ryan, “maybe the last time we’ll all play together. So it makes it fun to get on the ice every day.”
“What I love,” Marchand tells me, “is when one of us scores a goal and we’re skating back by the bench and you see the other guys sitting there smiling at you. It’s special.”
More special would be winning it all. “It’d be incredible...like being back in Bantam,” Marchand laughs. “Only better.”