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Two QMJHL teams loaded up by trading 31 draft picks to take a run at a Memorial Cup that won't happen

It's not uncommon for top major junior clubs to load up ahead of the post-season in an effort to chase a league crown and Memorial Cup title, but what happens when the tournaments are cancelled?
Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Relatively speaking, the problems the hockey world faces pale in comparison to the hardship a lot of people are enduring when it comes to the crisis surrounding COVID-19. But if you’re going to feel sorry for anybody in hockey, you might want to save those sentiments for a couple of guys by the names of Ritchie Thibeau and Yanick Jean. And the teams they run.

Thibeau and Jean are the GMs of the Moncton Wildcats and Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL, respectively. And seeing their teams with a legitimate chance to compete for the Memorial Cup this season, they both went all-in at the league’s annual trade deadline. Like, really all-in. QMJHL teams, in particular, tend to treat draft picks the way we used to regard hockey cards as kids, but even by those standards, what Thibeau and Jean gave up to supplement their rosters was staggering.

Thibeau acquired three QMJHL stars for the Wildcats – center and Anaheim prospect Benoit Olivier-Groulx, defenseman and Detroit prospect Jared McIsaac and left winger and Tampa Bay prospect Gabriel Fortier – for a sum total of 13 draft picks and a 16-year-old prospect. All three of them will age out of junior hockey after this season. Jean went even further, acquiring five players for the Sagueneens for a total of 18 picks (18 picks!) and two players. Four of those picks were in the first-round of this year’s draft and they gave up seven first-rounders in total. The Sagueneens got Canadian World Junior Championship players Raphael Lavoie and Dawson Mercer, along with veterans Felix Bibeau, Patrick Kyte and Karl Boudrias. At least Mercer, who is a consensus first-round in this year’s NHL draft, will be back. Boudrias could return as an overager.

All told, the Wildcats surrendered – try to keep up here – two second-rounders and two third-rounders in 2020; a first- and second-rounder, plus two fourth-rounders and a fifth-rounder in 2021; and picks in each of the first three rounds in 2022. The Sagueneens gave up four first-round picks, two second-rounders and a fifth-rounder in 2020; two first-rounders, two second-rounders, one third-rounder and one fourth-rounder in 2021; and, picks in each of the first five rounds in 2022.

Now to be fair, there’s a good number of these picks that will end up back with their teams for players to be named later because that’s how they do things in the QMJHL. Teams in that league are a lot like the little girl with the curl in the Longfellow poem. When they’re good, they’re incredibly good. And when they’re bad, they’re horrid. But there’s little doubt that both teams have mortgaged a good chunk of a future for a present that no longer exists. Last night, the Canadian Hockey League announced that it will not award a Memorial Cup this season. It will mark the first time in 102 years the trophy has not been awarded. The Wildcats and Sagueneens were second and third overall in the QMJHL this season and one of them stood a very good chance of winning the league, and perhaps the biggest prize in junior hockey.

“We had 23 shattered boys last night,” Thibeau said. “They feel like they got cheated a little bit, but they all understand that this is a bigger thing than just our team and our league and our sport.”

That’s pretty darned mature for a bunch of teenagers who are chasing their dreams. And the thing is that for the majority of them, the dream will probably stop here. When the NHL comes back, the players will continue to pick up their enormous paychecks and have chances to win the Stanley Cup. But for a lot of players in junior hockey, this is the pinnacle. This is as good as it gets. Some will go on to play at higher levels, but a lot of them will move on to higher education and jobs in the real world.

As for the future of his team, Thibeau was realistic about the situation and did not lament the chances he took trying to build a championship team. The players they brought in gave them 25 games of the best they had to offer and he’s proud of what his team accomplished this season. There’s little doubt the league will make any accommodations to compensate the teams for losing their picks for virtually nothing and Thibeau isn’t expecting his competitive rivals to do him any favors.

“There’s really nothing we can do about it,” Thibeau said. “We can sit here and lament it or we can move on. We’re going to get ready for the draft and we’re going to get back to work, that’s what we do. If we keep looking in the rear-view mirror, we won’t see what’s coming in front of us.” As far as the draft picks, Thibeau isn’t worried. Some of them will be coming back, but not the first-rounders. “You always mortgage some of the future when you go for it,” Thibeau said, “but we’ll still be competitive and we’ll make another run at it in due time. If you look at our roster, we’ve been successful in getting players in mid-to-later rounds. And we just have to make sure we hit on those picks again.”

There are a lot of people who deserve sympathy. The Kelowna Rockets were supposed to host the event this year and that has been taken away from the organization, the players and hundreds of volunteers. The possibility of simply giving the event to Kelowna next year was discussed, but OHL commissioner David Branch confirmed to that the commissioners of all three leagues decided the rotation will continue and the OHL will host in 2021. That means the earliest Kelowna would get another crack at it would be 2023.

There are players who are up for the draft and who were playing for contracts in pro circuits next season and the pressure of the playoffs and the Memorial Cup would have provided the perfect stage for that. There are a good number of overage players whose careers simply ended without them being to say a proper goodbye to the fans for whom they played. But as Branch said, “The game of life is a little more important at the moment.”

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