How young Maritime hockey players make it to the NHL

Photo by Tom Bateman

Hockey dreams

Brandon Gormley’s dreams were built on a pond in his hometown of Murray River, P.E.I.

Every day after school, Gormley gathered up some friends to play Canada’s game until it was time to go home.

One day, Gormley and his friends were playing pickup when Charlottetown-native Danny Stewart joined them.

At the time, Stewart was playing for the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League on a line with another Maritimer — Cole Harbour, N.S.’s Sidney Crosby.

“We weren’t very old at that time so we really looked up to him. To get to play pond hockey with him was a real treat for us,” Gormley said.

“[On the ponds is] where it all starts.”

But Gormley’s dreams didn’t die when the streetlights came on.

He was drafted into the National Hockey League two years ago, going 13th overall to the Phoenix Coyotes.

And this past year, he suited up for team Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship, an annual tournament that’s become a Christmas tradition for many Canadian families.

For Gormley, the dream is within reach.

But 20 years ago, hockey players toiling on ponds in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island weren’t allowed to dream big, Roger Shannon said. He’s the associate general manager of the Shawinigan Cataractes, the team Gormley plays for in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

At that time, most kids didn’t know anyone who made the NHL. Maybe they had the same skill level and passion, but they didn’t know how to make the dream come true.

“We were pretty much tied to our regions. We didn’t venture outside them very often,” Shannon said. “We didn’t have the wherewithal to just go where we wanted to go. We didn’t have the contacts and the ability.

“When that all opened up, and people started to see that the kids in Ontario are the same as the kids in Prince Edward Island or New Brunswick or Nova Scotia…they’re just kids. The key to the whole thing is it’s the opportunities that we provided.”

From hockey have-nots to a hockey hotbed

Yvon Vautour was the exception.

Vautour grew up in Saint John, N.B. looking up to players on local senior teams. Like many talented players from the Maritimes, he left home as a teenager.

At 17, he signed a QMJHL contract with the Laval National and played his first season with them in 1973-74.

But when he got to Laval, he knew his conditioning was worse than the Quebec players, who spent almost double the amount of time on the ice each week.

“Sometimes the kids from the Maritimes would come up and they might not have been given the opportunity to showcase themselves because maybe their conditioning wasn’t as good,” Vautour said.

“A lot of guys like myself [were] not given the opportunity. Or a lot of guys would get homesick and come home.”

Vautour went on to a five-year NHL career with several teams.

Now, he spends time priming the next generation as an assistant coach with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL.

The Sea Dogs have only been in the Quebec league for seven years.

Last spring, they edged teams from the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League to win the Memorial Cup, becoming the first Maritime team to win it. They’re the top-ranked team in the country again this season.

But the QMJHL hasn’t always been a hockey staple in the Maritimes.

Like Vautour, Nathan White grew up in Fredericton watching a lot of senior hockey. The QMJHL was something you read about in the back of an issue of The Hockey News, but that’s where the knowledge ended.

“[The QMJHL] was seen as a very Quebec thing and something that we never really had or understood in the Maritimes,” he said.

White used to cover hockey for the Telegraph-Journal and later as a freelance reporter. Now, he works as the marketing and communications manager with the Sea Dogs.

Now 31, he was living in Halifax when the Mooseheads joined the QMJHL during the 1994-95 season. It was the first Maritime team to join the league.

He remembers talented players having to leave the province to get noticed when he was growing up. Today, scouts are travelling here to find talent, and he’s seen it happen.

At a Sea Dogs’ playoff game against the now-defunct Lewiston MAINEiacs last year, White said three members of the Edmonton Oilers’ top brass scouted the game. Five Sea Dogs were drafted in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, three in the first round.

“People have heard of Saint John through hockey now because of the success the team has had in winning the Memorial Cup and having high-ranked prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau,” White said.

Getting to meet a player who has been drafted into the NHL gives kids hope that their dreams can come true, he added.

For some kids in Nova Scotia, James Sheppard was that person.

Sheppard, a Halifax-native who played major junior hockey with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, was drafted ninth overall in 2006 by the Minnesota Wild.

He’s missed almost two full seasons after a bad ATV accident, but is now a member of the San Jose Sharks organization.

He didn’t realize the NHL could be a reality for him until he saw his spot on the draft rankings.

“Young players just need to know that they have a chance…to know that [the dream] actually exists and that there’s ways to go there.

“When you’re trying to achieve a goal like that, it’s a dream because it’s so far off but in no way is it a fantasy land.”

He pointed to more development and time on ice through high-level hockey schools in the region as one reason why the game is developing in the Maritimes.

“It’s just the evolution of hockey. Younger kids now just know a lot more. They’re exposed to a lot more. They play all year round now.”

The exceptional year

One program responsible for helping young players develop is the University of New Brunswick V-Reds Prospects program.

Shannon, who’s also general manager of UNB hockey, said the program’s main goal is to put kids from this region on a level playing field with kids from Ontario or Western Canada.

At first, some people were skeptical about kids playing hockey year-round, Shannon said.

“Once that stigma was dismissed and kids and parents then could do those things, then the kids just started developing at a faster pace.

“All of a sudden they’re as good as the kids in Ontario.”

Gardiner MacDougall, head coach of the men’s hockey program at UNB, is a big piece of that puzzle.

He lives and breathes hockey, 365 days of the year, spending his off-season helping run clinics and development programs for promising young players.

“Programs like [the V-Reds Prospects] are giving people the extra edge. The kids have dreams now and it’s how big your dream wants to be.”

The 1992 Prospects class, players born in 1992 who went through the program, is proof of this.

The class includes a who’s who of top NHL prospects, from Gormley to Sean Couturier, Zack Phillips, Gabriel Landeskog, Jaden Schwartz, Morgan Ellis and Nathan Beaulieu.

“There are certain years that are really good and then it drops off a little bit. The [1992-age] group was just an absolute exceptional year,” Shannon said.

“We knew years in advance…how good it was going to be.”

Couturier, who grew up in Bathurst and now plays for the Philadelphia Flyers, has fond memories of playing in the Prospects program.

“We travelled a lot with the V-Reds Prospects around North America. We got to play against the best players in North America.”

Looking back on how the players from the 1992 year have developed, Gormley appreciates the opportunity to have gotten to play with some of the best players in his age group during the off-season.

“To have that quality of coaching and to look at the rosters that we had there, the players they were able to get together…you get those guys together when we’re 13, 14 years old, it’s pretty impressive to see how everyone develops,” he said.

Programs like the V-Reds Prospects might be giving players opportunities and tools to make the NHL, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to how much you want it, MacDougall said.

“The key there is a desire that you really want to be it. It goes back to desire and how big your dream is.”

Gormley wanted it badly enough to follow hometown friend Brad Richards, now a superstar with the New York Rangers, to Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.

It meant leaving his home, family and friends behind at 14.

“I knew I was a talented player in the Maritimes. With that being said, I didn’t [go] west of Toronto. I didn’t know what was out there,” he said.

“I had it in my head that [leaving home] was going to be easier than it kind of was. It kind of sunk in there when I went to get on the plane and I had to leave my family and friends behind.”

It was the best decision Gormley made in his hockey career because he was surrounded by people with the same goals as him.

Today, he realizes how lucky he was to have that opportunity. Some of the kids he grew up with on P.E.I. ponds weren’t as lucky.

“Looking back, kids at home that…had a lot of talent that grew up playing with me, you get caught up hanging around with the wrong kids.”

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