They may be the hosts of the 2019 event but for the Halifax Mooseheads, the road to the Memorial Cup will, quite fittingly, begin on the road.
And then some.
The Mooseheads begin their 2018-19 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League campaign in Saint John on Friday night.
Due to ongoing renovations at the Scotiabank Centre, the Harbour Station stop will be the team’s first on a grueling 15-game road trip that will see them travel to Quebec on two separate occasions and visit the home rink of every Maritimes Division rival at least once.
After four years away from the league, the busy first month will be an opportunity for the club’s new bench boss to get reacquainted with some formerly familiar surroundings.
Eric Veilleux was a QMJHL head coach for almost a decade, amassing an impressive record of 347-208-45 in nine seasons behind the benches of the Shawinigan Cataractes and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
He left the league in 2014 to join the pro ranks, most recently spending the past two seasons as head coach of the San Antonio Rampage, the Colorado Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate.
In May, the Mooseheads announced that Veilleux would be taking over the reins from Jim Midgley who had been let go following a second round sweep by the Charlottetown Islanders.
Despite his lengthy hockey resume as both a player and coach, Veilleux admits he has never encountered a road trip to begin a season like the one the Mooseheads are about to embark on.
But he isn’t complaining.
“In order to be a good team and have success in [the] playoffs, you need to be able to play well on the road,” Veilleux said on Wednesday.
“A team that works hard, that competes hard, regardless of where they play, they’re going to have success. That’s what we talked about on day one during our first meeting and the guys seemed to have grasped it pretty good.”
With a month-long training camp finally in the team’s rearview, Veilleux says he likes what he has seen from the Mooseheads so far.
“[I was] very impressed with the effort that these guys put in. They worked hard. They do have quite a bit of talent — I’m not going to hide it — it’s just a matter of combining both of them together. There’s also the play without the puck. Scoring goals is going to sometimes win you some games but playing good defensively and working hard is going to win you series. That’s what wins championships.”
He knows what he’s talking about.
Veilleux was behind the bench of the Shawinigan Cataractes when the team hosted the 2012 Memorial Cup.
After a disappointing second round exit in the QMJHL playoffs, Anton Zlobin delighted the Cataractes faithful when he scored 17:51 into the first overtime period of the championship final against the London Knights to give Shawinigan its first-ever Memorial Cup.
Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell believes that experience makes Veilleux a good fit in Halifax.
“[Veilleux’s] a fiery coach and he’s a coach that gets the most out of every player. He understands the process of hosting and all of the tough battles that we’re going to face along the way and the pressure that’s going to be there so we just love his experience and his tenacity.”
Russell is no stranger to these challenges either. This will be his fifth time vying for major junior hockey’s ultimate prize.
He competed for the Memorial Cup twice as a player with Hull in 1986 and 1988, once as an assistant coach when Halifax last hosted in 2000, and he finally captured it in 2013 as the the general manager of one of the best junior teams ever assembled.
“[A Memorial Cup season] is a different season. There’s lots of stress, there’s lots of pressure on the players. I think it’s our job to keep everybody on an even keel and you have to understand that the season isn’t won over the course of a couple of games or a month. We’re going to have good runs, we’re going to have bad runs so it’s just about keeping your eye on the goal and understanding that it’s a long road to get there.”
When things get rocky — and no doubt, at some point during this long season, they will — the team can also look to new additions Antoine Morand and Jordan Maher for leadership. The pair won the Memorial Cup in May with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan before being acquired by the Mooseheads in a trade for a package of picks the day before the QMJHL Entry Draft in June.
“You can’t buy experience,” Veilleux said.
“These guys, they didn’t just win the cup. It’s tough. It’s a tough road. There’s a lot of adversity, regardless of what team you play on, when you win a championship. [With Morand and Maher] having gone through that, that’s going to definitely make everybody feel a little bit better when we go through adversity.”
And with a 15-game road trip to begin one of the most important seasons in the club’s history, combined with missing a number of players to NHL camps, as well as injuries to veterans Jared McIsaac, Kyle Petten and Ben Higgins, there will be no shortage of it to start the year.
But the team’s new coach isn’t fazed.
“I think we have a great group of players, a great group of individuals, and I can’t wait to get the season started.”
The puck drops at 7 p.m. on Friday night in Saint John. You can follow along with all of the play-by-play action from Harbour Station — and all 68 home and away games this season — on NEWS 95.7.