Sea Dogs ‘accomplished great things’ in 2016-17

Aaron Bell/CHL Images

Although the Saint John Sea Dogs came up short in their bid to win the Mastercard Memorial Cup, the 2016-17 club will go down as one of the best in franchise history.

The Port City squad captured its third President Cup in 12 seasons, sweeping the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in four straight. The series-clinching victory capped a memorable QMJHL playoff run that saw the Sea Dogs post a 16-1-1-0 record. Then it was on to the Mastercard Memorial Cup, where they went 1-3 and bowed out in the semifinal to the Erie Otters.

“We had the team to maybe win it, but we didn’t,” Saint John defenceman Simon Bourque said. “I’m disappointed, but at the same time, I’m just really proud of the effort we had this year. We accomplished great things and we can be proud of ourselves and keep our heads high.”

Sea Dogs captain Spencer Smallman, the team’s all-time leader in games played with 293, joined the club as a 16-year-old rookie in 2012. There was lots to reflect on after his team played its 90th game of the season on May 26.

“We just have a really high-character group with a lot of resiliency,” Smallman said. “A lot of guys in our locker room are going to be successful in hockey, and a lot of guys who maybe aren’t going to be successful in hockey are going to be successful in life. We’re just such a close group. It’s just really tough right now, but I’m sure the pain will ease over the next little bit.”

The campaign was a coming out party for Sea Dogs blueliner Thomas Chabot. The 19-year-old from Ste.-Marie-de-Beauce, Que., was named CHL defenceman of the year after copping MVP honours for the QMJHL playoffs and world juniors. After the semifinal setback in Windsor, the Ottawa Senators prospect stressed the importance of recalling the positives.

“It hurts, but we can’t just think of the four games we played here in this tournament,” Chabot said. “We have to think about the 86 others we played this year. We have a lot to be proud of. We battled the whole year, we won our league. We didn’t play the way we wanted to (at the Memorial Cup), but that’s the way hockey is sometimes.”

Chabot, who started the season with the Senators and made his NHL debut before returning to Saint John, is one of several Sea Dogs poised for the pro ranks next year. Others who have signed NHL contracts include Bourque, Smallman, Jakub Zboril, Nathan Noel, Julien Gauthier, Matthew Highmore, Mathieu Joseph and Callum Booth.

Sam Dove-McFalls and Bokondji Imama were drafted in 2015, but neither had signed through late May. Dove-McFalls is eligible to play in the QMJHL next year as a 20-year-old, but Imama is moving on after completing his overage season.

Regardless, the Saint John roster is set to undergo an overhaul.

“That’s one of the best parts of junior hockey,” Saint John head coach Danny Flynn said. “It’s different than pro hockey because guys there can play for the team for 15 years.”

Next season will be an adjustment for Flynn, who became the 20th head coach in QMJHL history to win 300 games en route to capturing the Ron Lapointe Trophy as the league’s coach of the year. The veteran bench boss took the Sea Dogs to the 2016 semifinal, a stepping stone to earning the right to raise the President Cup in 2017.

“There’s lots of love in that room and lots of character, and guys who grew up together,” said Flynn, a CHL coach of the year finalist. “They came in as boys and they’re going out as men. We had a close-knit team that played real hard. It was a great character group of kids. They came from far and wide.

“I call the Quebec League the league of second chances. A lot of guys have come here and rekindled their careers. You have to look at a guy like Mike Hoffman, who came to this league and ended up as a 20-year-old MVP for Saint John (in 2009-2010), and he was a step away from being in the Stanley Cup final.”

While Flynn is understandably proud of how his teams have fared on the ice during the last two seasons, he’s also pleased that 13 of this year’s players were in university. Others were enrolled in high school and CEGEP courses.

“We have a great school program in Saint John,” Flynn said. “It’s one of the things I think that Saint John does better than anybody. We had a lot of kids, even NHL-drafted and signed guys, who were proud of the work they did in school. They don’t just burn their books when they sign a contract. School is a big part of our program in Saint John.”

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