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Peter Assaff

PAssaff181x200Peter Assaff has been covering the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League since 1998.  The English play-by-play announcer for Acadie Bathurst Titan home games on RogersTV since 2014, Peter has also provided play-by-play coverage of the Titan’s home games on the League’s webcasts since 2006.  The former Sports Editor at the Northern Light newspaper, he continues to write a weekly column on the QMJHL for the New Brunswick provincial daily, the Telegraph Journal. Assaf was honoured by SportsNB with the Pitney Bowes Sports Award for Outstanding Media Coverage in New Brunswick back in 2008.

 

 


 

 

Rookie race coming down to the wire

by Peter Assaff – February 23, 2018

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With a month to go in the regular season, it looks like the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year award is going to come down to a trio of players from a pair of teams who are no stranger to having top notch first-year players on their rosters.

Halifax Mooseheads forward Filip Zadina and a pair of teammates from the Rimouski Oceanic – winger Alexis Lafrenière and goaltender Colten Ellis – have all been putting up some pretty impressive numbers this season.

Czech-born Zadina, who was taken by the Mooseheads with the 11th overall pick in last June’s Canadian Hockey League European entry draft, led all first year players with 39 goals and 69 points heading into action on Feb. 21.

Lafrenière, who was taken first overall by the Oceanic in last June’s QMJHL entry draft, and only celebrated his 16th birthday in October, was tied with Zadina with 69 points, and just a pair of goals behind with 37.

Ellis, meanwhile, has been nothing short of outstanding between the pipes for Rimouski.

After seeing action in just three games with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles last season, thereby keeping his rookie status intact, the 17-year-old Whycocomagh, N.S., native is second amongst all QMJHL goaltenders with a sparkling 2.24 goals against average this season.  Add to that a .917% save percentage and a stellar 27W-6L-5OTL-1SOL record, and Ellis has distanced himself from all other rookie goaltenders this season.

No other first year players, at least at this point of the season, have come close to the impact these three have had on their respective teams. Zadina has helped the Mooseheads climb to first in the Maritime Division, while Lafrenière and Ellis have helped Rimouski lay claim to top spot in the East Division.

Both Halifax and Rimouski have seen their players take home Rookie of the Year honours in the past, with some pretty impressive names on that list.

Just last season, Swiss-born forward Nico Hischier became the fifth member of the Halifax Mooseheads to take home the award.  Hischier also took home the Canadian Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year trophy last year, before being selected first overall by the New Jersey Devils in the latest National Hockey League entry draft.

Prior to Hischier, current Winnipeg Jets forwards Nikolaj Ehlers (2014) and Philadelphia Flyers’ Jakub Voráček (2007), along with former NHLers Petr Vrána (2003) and Ladislav Nagy (1999), all laid claim to the Rookie of the Year award in the 24-year history of the Mooseheads franchise.

When it comes to the Oceanic, three players have won the award in the 23 seasons since the team set up shop in Rimouski.  That group includes three-time Stanley Cup Champion and Pittsburgh Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby (2004), as well as Vincent Lecavalier (1997), who retired from the NHL last year after a 17-year career that included a Stanley Cup win with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  The other member of the Rimouski Oceanic to win the QMJHL’s Rookie of the Year award was Petr Straka, who did so back in 2010.

Should Zadina wind up winning this year’s trophy, he will become the ninth European-born player in the last ten years to win the award.  On the other hand, Lafrenière and Ellis are hoping to put an end to a string of six straight import players to take home the honour.

There is no question that Zadina, Lafrenière and Ellis would all be a very deserving choice as this year’s QMJHL Rookie of the Year award, but one thing is for sure, with just five weeks left in the regular season that honour is still very much up for grabs!




A shout-out for the Titan from one of the franchise’s best

by Peter Assaff – January 26, 2018

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For every player who has a long career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, there comes a time when they go from being a prospect to becoming a bona fide starter.

For former Acadie-Bathurst Titan netminder Adam Russo, that moment came during a meeting with then head coach Real Paiement midway through his rookie season.

“The moment that probably marked me the most was when Real brought me into his office,” recalled the 2003 QMJHL and Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year. “He said to me ‘Adam do you want to be a number one? Or do you want to be a backup for the rest of your junior career?’”

That was December of 2000, when the 17-year-old Montreal native had been playing backup to veteran Simon Lajeunesse, who was a second-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators.

Russo had been drafted by Acadie-Bathurst six months earlier; on the same day the Titan swung a multi-player deal with the Moncton Wildcats that included acquiring Lajeunesse.

The trade was supposed to help Acadie-Bathurst become a contender that season. But early on the team and Lajeunesse both struggled, leading to the firing of head coach Roger Dejoie less than two months into the start of the campaign.

Roughly a month after replacing Dejoie behind the Titan bench, Paiement summoned Russo into his office.

“(Paiement) saw that I was just trying to sit back and let Lajeunesse do his thing,” recalls Russo. “I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but he asked me ‘Do you want to be the guy that does everything?’

“I said that obviously I wanted to be a number one, so he said ‘to get in there and take the net. Don’t respect (Lajeunesse) as much as you do. Take it.’”

That conversation, Russo said, was the turning point of his career. By January, he had wrestled the number one spot away from Lajeunesse and wound up leading the Titan all the way to the President’s Cup final in his rookie season.

“I was 17-years-old and wasn’t sure what the coach was going to tell me,” said Russo, who returned to Bathurst this week to be honoured by the Titan as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.

“But after that I finished the season with 35 games played. We did pretty well, finished the season strong and went to the finals.”

Now 34-years-old, Russo still plays professionally with Saint-Georges de Beauce of the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH). He also runs a goaltending school, where he passes along the wisdom he’s learned from his playing days.

Wisdom he learned from coaches like Paiement.

“It was all a learning process,” he said. “[Paiement] set me straight. He is probably one of the best coaches I ever had in my career. He’s got the hockey knowledge, but he also has the psychological knowledge too. He knows how to treat his players and how to get the most out of his players. I think he got the most out of me, of what I could do in my junior career anyway.”

Russo led the Titan to a pair of Presidents Cup final appearances in 2001 and 2002, the last time the club has gone that far in the playoffs. He also finished his career with a handful of league records, some of which still stand today.

Those records include 23 career shutouts, regular season and playoffs combined, as well as nine playoff shutouts. He is also still tied for the most regular season shutouts in a single season, with seven.

When his junior career was over, Russo played five seasons in Europe, four in Italy where he won a pair of league titles and represented that country at four World Hockey Championships, before returning home to North America to keep playing the game he loves.

He still follows the Titan too, and has some advice for his former team and their fans as they try to make a return trip to the league finals for the first time since 2002.

“The biggest thing I would say is just enjoy every moment of it,” said Russo. “Every single playoff run was amazing. That whole thing of bringing the team together and building [towards] something that was amazing, that ended up being pretty awesome.”

With two months left in the regular season, the Titan have a lot of hockey left to play before they can even think about making a long playoff run. That being said, as someone who’s been there before, Russo knows there is a lot of work to be done and there are no shortcuts along the way.

“To be honest with you, if you have that opportunity to take a run at it, just do every little thing possible,” he advised. “It really is the teams that do the little things right, that put in the extra little effort and the commitment and the dedication. It is all those little things that will make the difference in the end, especially in a playoff run.”

“As a player you only have four, maybe five years if you come in as a 16-year-old, to actually have an opportunity to win something – and not a lot of people do. There is only one championship every year, and 18 teams fighting for it, and you get fives chances max…so take advantage of every moment.”

That goes for fans too, who Russo said played a big part in the team’s success back when he was the final line of defence for the club.

“As fans, just enjoy every minute of it because you never know when, or if, you’ll get a chance [to see it] again.”

It’s been 16 years since the Titan made it all the way to the league finals, and nearly 20 since they earned a trip to the Memorial Cup. If they get a chance to do it again this year, one thing is for sure, one of the best players to ever play for the team will be cheering them along every step of the way.

 



On the move

by Peter Assaff – December 22, 2017

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For many players in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, a trip home for the holidays could also be the start of a new chapter in their playing careers, with several being traded at this time of the year each and every season.

With the junior circuit’s annual holiday trading period underway since December 18, general managers are busy wheeling and dealing and looking for ways to improve their respective teams before the January 6 deadline.

For some, that help will come in the way of players that will have an immediate impact.  While for others, prospects and draft picks acquired over the next few weeks will pay dividends down the road.

One thing is for sure, though, you can expect many moves to be made once again this year.

Last season, for example, a total of 50 trades were made over the three-week period. The Moncton Wildcats led the way with 11 moves, involving 18 players and 20 draft picks changing hands.

The Wildcats were at the beginning of a rebuilding process and saw several of their elite players move on to new destinations in exchange for pieces that will help them get stronger in the future.  For other teams, the reason to make big moves is to help them get one step closer to contending for a President’s Cup championship.

Looking back over the past seven seasons, beginning with the 2010-2011 season, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan have been the most active on the trade front, making a total of 57 trades. That’s an average of just over eight moves during the holiday trade period each year.  The Titan also holds the mark for most holiday trades in a single season during that period, with 14 coming in the 2012-2013 season alone.

This year looks to be no different for long-time Acadie-Bathurst general manager Sylvain Couturier, who had already pulled the trigger on five deals by the end of the third day of the current trading period.  With the Titan expected to be among a handful of teams vying for a league title by season’s end, Couturier promised more moves over the coming days.

Other teams to keep an eye on, if history repeats itself, are the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. They are second only to Acadie-Bathurst for the amount of trades made between the 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 holiday trading periods, with a total of 52. That represents an average of 7.43 trades a season.  The Quebec Remparts and Victoriaville Tigres follow with an average of 6.43 each; while the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and Shawinigan Cataractes are close by at 6.14 each.

On the other end of the scale are the Halifax Mooseheads, who are the least likely trade partners at this time of the year, averaging just three trades each holiday trade period.  The Mooseheads have made just one holiday trade twice since the 2010-2011 season.

Interestingly enough, the 2013-2014 Saint John Sea Dogs is the only other QMJHL team to make just one holiday trade, with every other team making at least two deals each and every year.

A total of 16 trades were made during the first three days of this year’s holiday trade period, with 18 players already changing teams.  With so much parity in the QMJHL and a trip to the Memorial Cup on the line next spring, expect a lot more moves by the time the holiday trade period officially comes to an end.



Rebuilding with experience

by Peter Assaff – December 11, 2017

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The Val d’Or Foreurs have one of the youngest teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season, with 11 of the 24 players on their roster aged 17 or younger.

What they lack in experience on the ice, though, they make up for behind the bench with the one of the winningest coaches in league history.

Current bench boss Mario Durocher made his coaching debut in the QMJHL over 20 years ago, and is on the verge of joining some pretty elite company. Entering action on December 11, Durocher was just two wins away from 500 career QMJHL regular season victories.

Only three other coaches, Richard Martel (589), Guy Chouinard (569) and Real Paiement (541) have reached that plateau.  And with 498 wins in 941 games behind the bench, Durocher has the best winning percentage among all four.

“I’m still here,” he chuckled while visiting a familiar building last week, the K. C. Irving Regional Centre in Bathurst, where he coached from 2004 to 2006. “Everywhere I went was a good experience,” he added.  “People are nice here and they enjoy their hockey.  I have good memories [from] everywhere I went, and Bathurst is one of those places.”

Durocher began his Major Junior coaching career with Sherbrooke, when he stepped behind the bench for one game during the 1993-94 season.  Since then, he has gone on to coach Victoriaville, Sherbrooke again, Lewiston, Acadie-Bathurst, Cape Breton, and Val d’Or. To nobody’s surprise, he leads all active coaches in games coached and in wins.

As a matter of fact, when the Foreurs hit the ice to play the Halifax Mooseheads last Friday, Durocher moved past Gaston Drapeau into sole possession of fourth place in games coached in QMJHL history. Again, he trails only Martel (1,171), Chouinard (1,121) and Paiement (1,101) in that department.

His 140 playoff games coached is also fourth in league history, behind the names of Benoit Groulx (166), Chouinard (153) and Paiement (150). His résumé also includes a pair of President’s Cup wins, with Victoriaville in 2002 and more recently with Val d’Or, in 2014.

With that many games under his belt, Durocher has been at the helm of a lot of different types of teams during his career. This year, Val d’Or is rebuilding with youth and nearly half of the players Durocher is coaching weren’t even born when he started his first full season behind a QMJHL bench, back in 2000-2001 with the Victoriaville Tigres.

A few weeks back, for example, the Foreurs had 10 rookies in their lineup against Bathurst – including six players who have yet to celebrate their 17th birthdays. “[Being] so young makes a difference in your team,” said Durocher, pointing out that a 68-game season is quite a jump from Midget AAA for rookies.

As rewarding as it is to help young players develop, it also comes with its own set of challenges.

“Travelling is also a big thing,” said Durocher.  “We are lucky that we fly to the Maritimes, but we are the only team doing that. They are kids, they are going to school.  We are close to exams, and we are close to Christmas, so there is a lot of stuff going on right now.  It is not easy.”

Despite those challenges, Durocher is happy with the way his team is playing. “If you look at the game [against Acadie-Bathurst] it was 1-1 after two periods,” said Durocher, of the 5-1 Titan win. “We were there, but it was experience that made the difference at the end.”

And for Val-d’Or’s young players, they are gaining that experience from one of the best to ever step behind a QMJHL bench.



The net view

by Peter Assaff – November 24, 2017

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The view from the crease is unlike any other in hockey.

Rather than moving up and down the ice with the flow of the puck, a goaltender spends his time either under attack or watching the action from the other end of the ice.

A hero on some nights, it can be very frustrating, to say the least, on others. But one thing is for sure, it certainly offers a unique perspective on the game.

Nearly midway through his fourth season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, 19-year-old netminder Reilly Pickard of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan has seen it all.

“My first year we weren’t a really good team. We were young and I was getting 40 or 50 shots a game, but now it is different,” said the Halifax, N.S. native.  “Now there are five, 10-minute, stretches where we don’t leave the other team’s end and that is pretty cool to watch.”

Originally drafted by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar back in 2014, Pickard was traded to the Titan midway through his rookie season.

The Titan missed the playoffs that year, and Pickard went just 2-13 following the trade with a 3.82 goals against average and an .888 save percentage.

Still, he showed promise and followed that up with a solid sophomore campaign where he helped his squad return to the post-season with a 25-25 record, along with a 3.15 goals against average and a .902 save percentage.

After moving up to sixth in the league’s overall standings last year, and winning their first playoff series in close to a decade, the Titan are currently fighting for first place in the Maritime Division.

“It is great to watch the players work,” he said.  “It is tough for me sometimes, not getting a lot of shots. But it is really fun to watch these guys go to work and I know that they are always going to have my back.”

That is especially true for the defence corps in front of him, especially with veteran Adam Holwell and sophomore Noah Dobson.

“It is really a pleasure to work with these guys. I have seen a lot of groups over the course of my career, but this one right now seems pretty special,” said Pickard. “Holwell has been around the block, five years in the league.  He’s been far in the playoffs and he knows what it takes.  I am always asking him what I can do better to help him out,” he added.

“And Noah [is] only in his second year, but he is mature beyond his years. He wants to learn, and I want to learn from him.  He is an unbelievable talent so whatever I can do to help him out, and help him help our team, I am going to do.”

“It is not just those two though; it is all six of our D and all 12 of our forwards,” mentioned the goaltender. “We’ve just got to help each other out on the ice.  That’s something that goes a long way.”

As for his own game, Pickard entered action on Nov. 24 sitting fourth overall with a 2.41 goals against average and says he is constantly working to get better every day.

“I am just trying to get better at all the little things,” he said.  “Once you get to this level everybody is talented, but you want to be able to separate yourself with the little things.  Obviously, I’m not the biggest goalie so I work on my battle level and being able to see pucks through screens.”

“This year, I think teams are trying to get to me [by] getting bodies in front of me and trying to get traffic and tips.  That is something I’ve struggled with to begin this year, so I’m definitely working on that and just trying to get better every day,” said Pickard.

“Something I’ve learned in my four years here is that you’ve got to show up every day and you’ve got to be ready to go when the puck drops. Obviously, it is still early in the season, but right now we seem to have a good thing going.  Hopefully we can build on that, and end up where we want to be.”

And while Pickard is currently enjoying the view from his crease, it’s the rest of the hockey world that is enjoying watching him play.



A timely call

by Peter Assaff – November 10, 2017

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Drop by the offices of Acadie-Bathurst Titan General Manager Sylvain Couturier and odds are you will find him on his phone.

But unlike so many people today, Couturier isn’t playing a game or checking his social media accounts.

No, the man they call ‘Sly’ spends most of his time talking to agents, scouts and other general managers – constantly working on ways to improve his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team.

Couturier took over the role of general manager with the Titan in 2005, after having been both a player and coach with the team.  Since that time, Acadie-Bathurst has consistently been one of the busiest teams in the Canadian Hockey League when trading period rolls around.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that Couturier managed to pull off a major trade well over a month before the league’s next trading period is set to begin. One that could have a major effect on the outcome of the QMJHL’s Maritime Division.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has three trade periods each year; one at their annual entry draft, another just before the start of the regular season, and a third over the Christmas Holidays.  This year’s holiday trading period runs from Dec. 18, 2017 to Jan. 6, 2018. Outside of that, only over-age players, draft picks, prospects, or European Imports can be moved from team to team.

“My job right now is to try to improve the team any way I can [but] I’m limited by what I can do,” said Couturier.  “I am working hard to get more players here to help us improve our team. But besides free agents and (European) players, there isn’t much I can do.”

So, on Nov. 2, Couturier sent the rights to Russian forward Vladimir Kuznetsov, prospect Christopher Farmer, along with first, second and third round draft picks in 2020 to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. In exchange, the Titan welcomed Russian forward German Rubstov and received a second-round pick in 2020.

For Couturier, it was time to make a move, and ultimately the trade came down to a pair of factors.

First, expectations remain high for the Titan this season, even though the team stumbled out of the gate. Secondly, Kuznetsov decided to stay in Russia this season after failing to generate any interest from National Hockey League teams during the two seasons he played with the Titan.

Rather than moving on from Kuznetsov right away though, Couturier continued to talk to the player and his agent in hopes of finding a way to get him to come back to the Titan. After months of talks, Couturier just couldn’t wait any longer and pulled the trigger on the deal.

The trade paid immediate dividends as well, with Rubstov helping the Titan to a pair of 6-3 wins over the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in his first two games with his new team on Nov. 3 and 4. Skating alongside veterans Antoine Morand and Jordan Maher, Rubstov, who was a first round draft pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers in 2016, combined with his linemates for a goal and two assists in the first game.

In their second game with the Titan, the trio of Morand, Rubstov and Maher were respectively named the first three stars of the game and teamed up for a combined seven points and a plus/minus rating of +7.

The Titan hope that kind of production is a sign of things to come, and just the spark they need to make their way up in the standings.

With the league just past the quarter mark of the 2017-18 season, the Maritime Division looks to be very much up for grabs.  Just a handful of points separate the top five teams in the division and, despite its tough start, the Titan is very much in the thick of things.

One week after making the trade to acquire Rubstov, the team trails the division-leading Moncton Wildcats by just three points in the standings, with a pair of games in hand.

For now at least, it looks like Couturier made the trade at just the right time. Just don’t be surprised if ‘Sly’ has a few more moves up his sleeve over the next couple of months.

One thing is for sure; you can bank on him spending plenty of time on his phone between now and then.



No need for panic

by Peter Assaff – October 27, 2017

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It shouldn’t come as any surprise that fans of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan are a little concerned about the team’s slow start to the 2017-2018 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season.

Those fans have been waiting a long time to cheer on a winning hockey team, and were confident this was finally going to be their year heading into this season.

After years of rebuilding, the team seemed poised to make a run at a President’s Cup.

At least that is what it looked like after the team won their first post-season series in nearly a decade when they swept the Quebec Remparts in the opening round of last spring’s playoffs.

Even a heartbreaking loss to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the second-round series that went the distance in April didn’t seem to dampen spirits, with most believing that the best was yet to come.

Unfortunately things haven’t gone according to script in the first month of the season for the Titan.

After taking five out of a possible six points in their first three games last month, the team has struggled.  Four straight losses followed that opening homestand, and heading into the final weekend of October Acadie-Bathurst found themselves in fourth place in the Maritime Division, with just six wins in their first 15 games.

But is it really time to panic? Veteran defenceman Adam Holwell, who was traded to the Titan from the Moncton Wildcats midway through last season, sure doesn’t think so.

“We aren’t in any panic at all,” said the St. John’s, Newfoundland, native.  “Everyone is saying the Titan are supposed to be so good but we are not doing too well.  It is 15 games in and everyone is counting us out already, but we have a really good team.  We’ve had times where a lot of guys were out of the lineup with injuries or suspensions.  Obviously, we have to learn to win like that. But I think we’ve done a good job with what we’ve got.  When we have all of our guys we are a really good team, and I think everyone in the room knows that.  Come playoff time, I think it is going to be a fun time for us.”

And Holwell has seen struggles get turned around before.

“My third year in Moncton, we did really well,” he explained.  “We lost to Rouyn [Noranda] in six games in the third round [of the playoffs] and we had a chance there.  But if you rewind three months before that playoff round, even two months, we were on a nine-game losing streak.  That was in February, and at that point, everyone was counting us out.  I think the message that I want to give the guys is…everything is a building process towards the playoffs.  Obviously we want to be playing well, but we want to build towards the playoffs.  That is the message I want to give to the guys.”

And that is the message fans need to take as well.  Despite their sluggish start the Titan head into the weekend just five points out of first place overall. They have also just added a pair of new free agents, and Slovakian defenceman Michal Ivan has finally joined the team.

Yes, it has been a long time since the team has been to a President’s Cup final – 2002 to be exact – but there is still a lot of hockey left to play.  And plenty of time before anyone needs to be hitting the panic button.