The Saint John Sea Dogs have made history.
And the most remarkable part is they could well have a better team in 2012.
The Sea Dogs became the first team from Atlantic Canada to win the Memorial Cup on Sunday night, edging out the host Mississauga St. Michael's Majors 3-1 to take home the 93rd edition of junior hockey's national championship.
In only their sixth season of existence, Saint John finishes the year with a stunning 77-11-1-2 record between the regular season, playoffs and Memorial Cup, winning wire-to-wire in one of the more dominant years in junior hockey history.
Most impressive of all, the Sea Dogs did it with a young cast, one that was a step ahead of the veteran Majors early on and then clung to that narrow lead the rest of the way.
Defenceman Simon Despres, rarely used by Majors coach Dave Cameron at the world juniors, opened the game's scoring with a terrific one-man effort shorthanded two minutes in.
Teammate Zack Phillips -- one of nine Sea Dogs expected to be picked in this June's NHL entry draft -- then made it 2-0 late in the first, giving the CHL's top team a two-goal cushion.
Mississauga made things mighty interesting over the final 40 minutes, however, getting a goal from plugger Riley Brace late in the second and coming close to netting the equalizer several times.
But after the Majors dominated the play for much of the third period, the Sea Dogs caught a break with four minutes to play, with a 2-on-1 and snipers Phillips and Jonathan Huberdeau on the attack.
Huberdeau, a sure-fire star projected to go in the top three in the draft less than a month from now, capped the play off with a highlight-reel deke to put the game away and help solidify tournament MVP honours.
"I can't say we didn't panic because there was a lot of panic," head coach Gerard Galland said. "The kids weren't playing that well and they were taking it to us.
"I told the guys, boys it's going to take another goal, the way they're coming at us. Sure enough, Huberdeau gets a chance and he buries it. I mean, that's the kid. That was the hockey game right there."
The biggest hero for Saint John was ultimately netminder Jacob DeSerres, who went from allowing nine goals in last year's final as a Brandon Wheat King to earning redemption after making 34 saves on Sunday.
DeSerres was mobbed by media after the game, but not before being embraced on the ice by his parents, Luc and Sharon, who watched their son rise to the occasion and earn first star with several brilliant stops.
It was a long way from where he was a year ago, after being the goat in the Wheat Kings' loss and released by the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that had drafted him in the third round two years earlier.
"He was pretty disappointed, but it didn't take him very long before he decided this was his dream and he wanted to keep playing," Sharon DeSerres said. "He was going to give it the best shot that he could this season and he did."
"Today was his best game of the season," Gallant added.
Unable to make up for their previous losses, however, were Cameron and Majors captain Casey Cizikas, who suffered a third consecutive punch to the gut together after losing in both the world junior gold-medal game and in overtime of Game 7 in the OHL finals.
"They say that losing toughens you," Cameron said quietly after the game. "Well right now I feel like a 10-cent steak, to tell you the truth."
A Mississauga win could have also meant big things for junior hockey in the Greater Toronto Area, with the Majors' first Memorial Cup in 50 years potentially capturing the imagination of more fans than the 2,000 or so lonely souls that were taking in many playoff games at the Hershey Centre.
That wasn't to be, even if Cameron felt his team deserved a better fate.
"You can't really say a whole lot right now because the emotion is there, but the message I'll give them at the end of the day is they gave themselves a chance to win an OHL championship and a chance to win a Memorial Cup," Cameron said. "It didn't work out. Life's not always fair."
For Saint John, the championship will bring even more recognition for Gallant, the long-time NHLer who took over the Sea Dogs two years ago with close friend Mike Kelly, a fellow Prince Edward Islander who became the team's director of hockey ops and associate coach.
After taking home his second CHL coach of the year award on Saturday, Gallant suddenly has NHL teams calling, with the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers the most interested among the five teams on the hunt for replacements.
The early word, however, is that he could pass on a move up in order to take a run at leading Saint John to a repeat performance at the Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, Que., next spring.
With a roster loaded with draft eligible players -- including four tabbed to go in the first round -- Gallant should have the horses to pull it off.
"There's no doubt we'll have a good chance," he said.
And who knows what opportunities will be available then?
For now, Gallant, Kelly and their team are headed back to New Brunswick, where there was a parade planned, win or lose, and Gallant mandated everyone -- even those supposed to attend this week's NHL combine in Toronto -- come along for the ride.
One imagines it'll be far more festive with the trophy in tow on Tuesday, as it breaks new ground the further east it goes.
"It'll be crazy," Phillips said. "The whole city's been waiting for this."
"It definitely proves that teams from the Maritimes can be the best in the country and compete with anyone," forward Ryan Tesink said.Report Typo/Error