366 days. No, that’s not a typo. It didn’t just feel long, it was long. Leap year long.
2020 has come and gone and ‘noteworthy’ doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. While reading this article you may stop (several times even) and think to yourself, was that really this year?
Year 15 (Part II)
The Sea Dogs began 2020 with a sense of urgency. A mediocre start to the 2019-20 season saw them near the bottom of the standings with the nightmare scenario of missing the playoffs for a third straight season looming. The Christmas trade period was fairly quiet in the Port City; overage forward Jeffrey Durocher was acquired in a deal that sent Nicolas Guay to the Rimouski Océanic in the only transaction of note. Saint John would look to its core of 17-year-olds to improve in the second half and carry them to a playoff berth.
Defencemen Jérémie Poirier and William Villeneuve were in a neck and neck race for the franchise record for points and assists by a Sea Dog in a single season while Poirier inched closer to the most goals by a Sea Dogs blueliner in a single season. The two jockeyed for position with fellow 17-year-old Brady Burns for the team lead in points right down to the wire with the eventual honor going to Villeneuve. Villeneuve would go on to break both the franchise records for points (58) and assists (49) in a single season and take home the scoring title for defencemen league wide. Poirier finished just behind his D partner in second place with 53 points and set a new franchise record for defencemen with 20 goals in a season.
On February 7th, the Sea Dogs were set to host the Halifax Mooseheads at TD Station with Juno Award winner Classified performing during the intermissions. This one-of-a-kind event presented by TD was one every fan had circled on the calendar. However, in true 2020 fashion, plans changed. The weather was treacherous and Halifax was unable to travel to Saint John. After several late postponements, the game was officially cancelled. Classified said ‘not a problem’ and instead performed an extended set to a very appreciative crowd and the Sea Dogs followed it up with an intersquad game and a shootout. In a year overflowing with unique moments and surreal circumstances this night may have topped them all.
Following a 5-4 home win over the Cape Breton Eagles on February 29th, the Sea Dogs clinched their first playoff berth in three seasons. For over-ager Nicholas Deakin-Poot the accomplishment was especially sweet. It was his final season of junior hockey and in his four prior seasons he had yet to experience playoff hockey. For the core of 2002-born players who had played through a disappointing rookie season that fell just a point short of the playoffs, it was a chance for revenge.
Of course we’re all well too familiar with what happened next. On March 17th, 2020 the QMJHL announced the cancellation of of the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sea Dogs finished with 61 points in 64 games, a playoff berth and an abundance of “what-ifs”.
The 2020 off-season was anything but normal. Questions swirled around what to expect for the 2020-21 season. Is the 2019-20 season done for good; what about the QMJHL Draft; the NHL Draft; what about hockey?
As social distancing and quarantining became common phrases some normalcy returned to the spring hockey calendar. Teams and General Managers began to prepare for the QMJHL draft while trades and signings trickled in. On May 11th, the Sea Dogs announced the signing of long sought after prospect and native New Brunswicker, Peter Reynolds.
Three weeks later, it was announced power forward Cam MacDonald would be joining Peter in Saint John.
While Peter and Cam were well known in junior hockey circles there was still a name to be added to the team with more mainstream recognition. On June 19th, three time Stanley Cup Champion Greg Gilbert was named head coach of the Saint John Sea Dogs. Gilbert had spent time as head coach of the Calgary Flames and was awarded AHL Coach of the Year and OHL Coach of the Year prior to joining the Sea Dogs.
The QMJHL Entry Draft is a celebration for teams and players alike. Prospective players and their families from around Quebec and the Maritimes gather in the host city while scouts and hockey operations hunker down to make final adjustments to a season’s worth of evaluations, game notes and interviews. Following the QMJHL draft lottery that saw the Sea Dogs secure the third overall selection the QMJHL announced the 2020 Entry Draft would be completed online with an accompanying livestream of the first round. The spectacle of live fans and a grand stage would be missing, but the joy and excitement of players and teams was still front and center.
With the third overall selection the Sea Dogs drafted forward Leighton Carruthers from Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia. Leighton celebrated the news from the comfort of his home surrounded by family.
The draft continued over day two with the Sea Dogs completing ten more selections. In addition to the 12 prospects, the Sea Dogs also added a pair of veterans in forward Nicholas Girouard and defenceman Christopher Inniss in trades with Drummondville and Rimouski respectively. The excitement for the upcoming season was at a fever pitch.
Training Camp. Same, but Different
Players arrived for the start of Training Camp 2020 on August 30th but not without a quick pitstop. For players reporting from outside the Atlantic Bubble, they would need to isolate for two weeks before attending camp. A small price to pay for players hungry to play.
Training Camp is typically a chance for the fans to catch their first glimpse of new players acquired from trades and signings through the summer and from the draft; this year they would have to wait. Doors were closed to the public and camp rosters were limited. Camp rosters usually start with 50+ players vying for a spot, but the 2020 edition saw just 28 players attend. Among those 28 players were newly acquired forward Liam Leonard and goaltender Creed Jones who arrived in Saint John by way of trades in early August. It was also the debut of Sea Dogs head coach, Greg Gilbert.
Saint John played seven exhibition games including a home game on September 1st against the Acadie-Bathurst that included fans–the first team to do so in Atlantic Canada.
A Season Like No Other
The setup for the 2020-21 Regular Season was like no other in history; teams would only play within their division. For the Sea Dogs that meant 12 games each against their Maritimes Division rivals. Maritimes teams would not travel to Quebec and fans were only permitted to attend games in the Maritimes with restrictions around social distancing and limited capacity in place.
On October 2nd, the Sea Dogs opened the 2020-21 season on the road in Acadie-Bathurst. It was their first game in 209 days. 24 hours later they would host the Charlottetown Islanders in front of 1467 fans at TD Station for the 16th home opener in franchise history.
The NHL Draft is typically held in person during the summer, however this year like the QMJHL, the NHL Draft was held virtually in October. The QMJHL was front and center as Alexis Lafreniere was selected first overall by the New York Rangers. A pair of Sea Dogs defencemen were drafted, Jérémie Poirier to the Calgary Flames 72nd overall and William Villeneuve to the Toronto Maple Leafs 122nd overall.
The regular season rolled on with minor hiccups along the way while some Quebec teams played in a protected environment to make-up for missed games. Unfortunately the season came to a pause after the dissolution of the Atlantic Bubble and increasing cases of COVID-19 across Canada. The QMJHL announced an extension to the Holiday break beginning November 30th through January 3rd, 2021. The season is expected to return in January with games beginning on January 22nd.