Less than a year ago, after the Canadian Hockey League accepted bids from candidates that hoped to play host to the Memorial Cup, Quebec City and Saint John were the last ones standing.
From the outside it looked like a colossal mismatch. Quebec City has a population of more than 800,000, an NHL-sized arena, and a junior team coached by Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy.
Saint John is a modest place with fewer than 70,000 residents – New Brunswick’s entire population is less than Quebec City’s – and a rink that seats 6,600.
Deep down it was hard to imagine Saint John would prevail in the battle to land the 102nd round-robin tournament, through which the top major-junior team in Canada and the United States is crowned.
It had tried once previously to secure the Memorial Cup and lost to Shawinigan, a city smaller than itself in Quebec. The host site rotates among venues in the OHL, QMJHL and the WHL.
“We really didn’t expect to get it,” Scott McCain, the owner and chief executive officer of the Saint John Sea Dogs, said this week. He is a New Brunswicker and also the chairman of Toronto-based McCain Foods, the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen potato products. “It was highly emotional for us to overcome those odds.”
The Memorial Cup kicks off on Monday with a game between the hometown Sea Dogs and the Hamilton Bulldogs of the OHL. The two other participants in the nine-day event are the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL and Shawinigan Cataractes of the West Division of the QMJHL. The Sea Dogs are in the league’s Maritimes Division and received an automatic entry when Saint John was selected to be the host.
It is the first Memorial Cup since 2019; it was cancelled after that because of restrictions related to COVID-19. As such, thousands of fans are pouring into Saint John, a port city on the Bay of Fundy that suffered tremendously during the worst of the pandemic.
In any given summer as many as 80 cruise ships call on Saint John, some with 5,000 or more passengers who disembark a short walk from Uptown. (That is what locals call downtown everywhere else.)
Nearly $70-million was lost in cruise-ship revenue in each of the past two years, and tourism dried up almost completely.
A study generated after the 2019 Memorial Cup in Halifax showed that approximately $10-million was injected into the local economy.
“We certainly feel very strongly that we will be in that range if not more,” said Paulette Hicks, the chief executive officer of Envision Saint John, a regional economic-development agency. “These are exciting times here.
“It validates what this type of event does to a destination.”
Traditionally the host city would have several years to prepare for the Memorial Cup. In Saint John’s case it alerted the CHL of its intent to propose to be the host in June, had to submit its bid about six weeks later, and then had only 10 months’ notice when it won over an incredibly strong opponent.
“We thought probably that we were the Bad News Bears but decided to go for it,” Hicks says. “We had a lot of work to do. The reward at the end is how it lifts the economy. Events like this really elevate us.”
Saint John built its proposal not around hockey but around a myriad of other things that would accompany it. A daily block party. Free nightly concerts. A speaker series with experts brought in to talk about mental health, racial equality, LGBTQ issues, women’s hockey. Vendors in a waterfront village constructed entirely out of converted shipping containers. A fan fest. A ball hockey tournament at a recently constructed venue beside the Sea Dogs’ home rink.
“It is going to be a hell of a party,” McCain said.
The Sea Dogs have proved to be a strong franchise and have won one Memorial Cup and three Presidents Trophies over 17 years. They lost in the Memorial Cup semi-final in 2017 and then decided to rebuild with hope of having a competitive team to coincide with another bid.
McCain never forgot the disappointment he experienced in losing the previous attempt to become the host.
“I remember sitting in the room when the announcement was made,” McCain said. “Shawinigan outmuscled us. Jean Chrétien supported its bid. We got outmanoeuvred. Ever since then it was always in the back of my mind.”
No site visits were made by CHL officials because of the coronavirus. In support of its application the Sea Dogs and a related host committee submitted a nearly 400-page document and 15-minute video. They were downloaded and sent to the league one minute before the deadline expired.
“We knew we had left everything on the table,” said Trevor Georgie, the president and general manager of the Sea Dogs. We were excited and we were nervous. We knew we would be devastated if we didn’t get it. We had told everyone we could be the host. There were government officials, players, families … so many people counting on us.”
Georgie, who is from Mississauga and had previously served as the marketing co-ordinator for Toronto FC, was hired to run the Sea Dogs in 2016 at age 27.
During his final interview, he met with McCain in his office in Toronto. The club owner talk about priorities, which included arena upgrades, naming rights, establishing a Sea Dogs Hall of Fame and hosting the Memorial Cup.
“When he described it, I could see what it meant to him and what it would mean to the city and hockey fans,” Georgie said. “All the other points were important to him but I could see where his passion was.”
Before they put pen to paper, McCain invited him to sit in the seat in which he makes business decisions for an empire worth billions.
“He told me to have a seat in the big chair and asked, ‘How do you feel? Can you see it?’” Georgie says.
Then he accepted the position.
“At that moment, we committed to this and we were not going to stop until we got it.”
On the morning last September when Saint John was awarded the Memorial Cup, McCain, Georgie and Mark-Anthony Ashfield, the chairman of the local host organizing committee, huddled in the Sea Dogs offices inside TD Station, their home rink in Saint John.
The CHL had scheduled Zoom calls to be made to both organizations.
As the group sat waiting anxiously, there was no call.
“We were antsy,” Georgie said. “It got quite quiet. We all wondered what was happening. We were afraid the CHL was telling Quebec that it had won.”
Instead of calling, CHL president Dan MacKenzie had travelled to Saint John to deliver the news in person but was prevented from entering the building by a staff member. When he finally got in and found his way to the office where they were waiting, a celebration ensued. “It was like Christmas morning,” Georgie said. “It is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
As preparations for the Memorial Cup took off within the community, the Sea Dogs traded away nearly half of their roster. They finished the regular season winning 32 of their last 38 games with 15 successive victories at the end.
Then they lost in the first-round of the QMJHL playoffs.
“If we weren’t hosting the Memorial Cup we would have been done,” McCain said.
At that point Saint John’s head coach Gordie Dwyer was fired and replaced by Gardner MacDougall, the long-time coach at the University of New Brunswick who has guided teams to seven national championships. MacDougall is merely on loan from UNB until the Memorial Cup is over.
It is now just days away. Hotels are jammed. The Strumbellas are to perform a concert beside the water on Saturday night. The Cup itself arrives by boat on Sunday. The puck drops Monday.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Ashfield, the host organizer. “It feels like it has been a sprint at a marathon distance.”