There is truly nowhere quite like Newfoundland and Labrador. The people who are proud to call it home – and really, pride only scratches the surface of those feelings – are equally unique. This includes the many outstanding athletes that have made the jump to the ranks of professional hockey; many of whom received their first taste of life away from home in the QMJHL over the past few decades.
The Right Fit
Prior to the mid-2000s and the establishment of the former St. John’s Fog Devils franchise, Newfoundland hockey players were, in essence, free agents, unhampered in their quest to pursue a junior hockey career anywhere in the country and with any team that showed the right amount of interest.
At first glance, it’s an enviable luxury. However, it wasn’t always the easiest situation for both the players and the organizations that brought them on board.
“Back in the late ‘60s and in the ‘70s as well, there were a number of Newfoundland hockey players who went away to play, mostly in Ontario back in those days,” St. John’s Telegram Sports Editor Robin Short explains. “A lot of those guys came home. Newfoundlanders are a little different. A lot of them got homesick. That didn’t go over too well with a lot of those teams.“
As time rolled on, players from around the province began to find a home in the QMJHL. By the mid-‘90s, Newfoundlanders started making their mark on the league in ever-increasing numbers. This led to a number of newly-minted fan favorites, including Ryan Walsh (Cape Breton), Michael Ryder (Hull) and Patrick Yetman (Cape Breton/Moncton). Ryder and Yetman would parlay their time in the Q into pro careers and, in the case of Ryder, a Stanley Cup championship with the Boston Bruins in 2011. It also opened a development door for several other players from the province.
“I think that most kids here (at the time) understood that if they had any hope at all of getting into a pro career, they had to get out of here and play major junior elsewhere,” Short recalls. “But, if anything, what guys like Ryder and Walsh and Yetman were doing was proving to kids back home that this was doable.”
A Team of Their Own
Although the QMJHL was gradually gaining a reputation as a proving ground for numerous players from The Rock, it wasn’t necessarily viewed as a destination for a team within the league. That thought process changed abruptly when, first, the St. John’s Maple Leafs, the area’s long-time AHL franchise, pulled up stakes in 2005. With that, the opportunity for a major junior club suddenly presented itself. Enter the St. John’s Fog Devils.
To say the transition from the Leafs to the Devils created a range of feelings would not be a stretch of the imagination by any means.
“After the AHL left and the Quebec League came to town, there was a certain degree of excitement,” Short, who cites Kris Letang and Brad Marchand among the top players to visit Mile One Stadium during that era, recalls.
“Not many had watched [QMJHL hockey] but they knew about it, so there was some anticipation,” adds Short. “Of course, it was junior hockey, which isn’t really as quick as the AHL and a bit more disorganized, but there’s two ways of looking at that. You can look at it in a negative light, or you can say ‘You know what? It’s actually more entertaining because if I’m going to see more odd-man rushes, more 3-on-2’s and 2-on-1’s, then hey, I’m all for it!”
Unfortunately, what to this day remains the only iteration of major junior hockey in the province made its exit after just three seasons, off first to the Montreal neighborhood of Verdun and eventually Blainville, where it currently resides as the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. However, the impact left on the St. John’s area can’t be dismissed as insignificant. If anything, the time has come to give the Devils their due.
“It’s too bad because when the team left, they were coming off their first year (above .500),” recalls Short. “There was a feeling there that the team was just coming around and people were starting to understand the cycle of junior hockey. The feeling was that there were some good young players on that team and maybe if they were around for another year or two, they might have made some noise. I’m not suggesting they would’ve won a championship, but they were going to be a whole lot better than they were the first couple of years.”
“It Grew me up Quickly”
Though the Q left the province in 2008, the tradition of the league playing host to several talented Newfoundlanders never waned. Likewise, many of those players who made the jump over the years have earned countless memories and endless hours of development on their path to pro careers. Few know this better than someone who went from a kid in St. John’s to a pro all over the world.
Luke Adam was 15 years old when the Fog Devils made their debut. Little did he know how intertwined the franchise and, indeed, the league at large would become with his own story.
“(The Fog Devils) came when I was in my only year of midget,” Adam explains. “The AHL had just left and people didn’t know a lot about [the QMJHL]. So, I played that year of midget and, as things went on, my season was going pretty well and it started to become more of a reality that I might get the chance to play at home leading up to the draft.”
Adam was a top ranked prospect headed into the 2006 QMJHL Draft. The Fog Devils held the seventh overall pick. The script seemed pre-written for a young player that was weighing all options.
“I had been considering either going to university or playing major junior,” he remembers. “(Reporting to the Fog Devils) ended up working out great. I could stay at home, and finish high school with friends in St. John’s. (They were) only (in St. John’s) three years, so I was super fortunate it was able to happen that way. I wish it could’ve lasted a little longer because the year after, we had a pretty solid year in Montreal. I don’t think it was really given enough time to work out.”
After one season with the Montreal Junior, it was back east once again for Adam when he was acquired by Cape Breton during the 2009 off-season. No matter the location however, the veteran of 90 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets still credits all that was afforded to him in the Q.
“I give a lot of credit to (the QMJHL for) how everything was done,” said Adam, who has spent the past four seasons in Germany’s DEL with Mannheim and Dusseldorf. “My four years there definitely prepared me to go pro at 20. It grew me up quickly. (Former Cape Breton Head Coach) Mario Durocher was one of the best, if not the best, coach I’ve ever had. He was instrumental in my career and put so much trust in me. As soon as they brought me in (to Cape Breton), he valued me. To play for him and how he treated his older players and just how he was as a coach, he was a great man and he prepared me a lot.”
The Tradition Continues
The pipeline of talent from island to mainland remains fully turned on. Despite the ever-changing landscape of junior hockey, those who hail from Newfoundland and Labrador remain a focal point in the QMJHL.
Over the years, we’ve seen the likes of Ryan Clowe (Rimouski) and Adam Pardy (Halifax, Cape Breton) take lessons learned in the Q and adapt them to roles at the pro level, to the tune of more than 800 NHL games. In more recent years, Clark Bishop went island hopping from Newfoundland to Cape Breton, only to invariably land stints with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Then there’s the local boys who ventured to the league, only to eventually come home and make good. Stories punctuated by the sight of defenseman James Melindy (Moncton) and forward Zach O’Brien (Rouyn-Noranda, Acadie-Bathurst), a two-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the QMJHL’s Most Sportsmanlike player, raising the ECHL’s Kelly Cup in 2019 as members of the first-year Newfoundland Growlers.
It’s a string of history that continues to be written. Most recently, on rinks in Drummondville and Chicoutimi, courtesy of 2020 New Jersey Devils first round selection Dawson Mercer. Of course, his story of Newfoundland born and bred success could face stiff competition from a slick center currently playing his trade in Gatineau named Zach Dean. Then there’s Mount Pearl’s Brad Yetman, who took his time as a defenseman with Shawinigan, Rouyn-Noranda and the then-PEI Rocket and parlayed that into a coaching career that has guided him to an assistant role with the Huskies.
You see, it’s a story that has no visible ending. For to witness a brand of skill and character rooted in foundations as old as time, one only needs to turn its attention to Canada’s youngest province.