Everyone Comes From Somewhere: Hockey Factories

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For many hockey fans the primary reason to follow the QMJHL and the entire Canadian Hockey League is to identify the prospects who will one day play in the National Hockey League.

Franchises like the Halifax Mooseheads and the London Knights are known as much for what their stars will do in the future as for the championships they could win in the present. Of course, for fans in cities with CHL clubs, the reality is different as their hometown team is their priority. But just like CHL provides a great breeding ground for playing in the NHL, the players making up these CHL teams played hockey at a high level before playing major junior. This week we look at some of the more successful teams (and regions) when it comes to breeding QMJHL talent.

Not surprisingly given the name of the league, over 55 per cent of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s players come from the province of Quebec. An overwhelming majority of those players come up through Quebec’s midget triple ‘A’ league. While each of that league’s 15 clubs can boast alumni playing in “the Q”, some clubs are more successful in producing major junior players than others.

Collège Antoine-Girouard can list 29 former players among the QMJHL ranks, enough for a full team and then some. Chicoutimi overager Sébastien Sylvestre (27 points in 27 games) and Val-d’Or 17-year-old Nicolas Aubé-Kubel (19 points in 22 games) would give a Collège Antoine-Girouard alumni team two strong centres. There would be no shortage of offense on the blueline either, with Drummondville’s Nikolas Brouillard (third in league scoring among defencemen) and 16-year-old stud Jérémy Roy in the mix. The midget triple ‘A’ squad can also claim notable NHLers Kris Letang (Pittsburgh and Val-d’Or) and Max Talbot (Colorado and Gatineau) as their own. Perhaps even more impressive is the quantity of goaltending: Sherbrooke’s Francis Desrosiers, Rimouski’s Philippe Desrosiers, and Baie-Comeau’s Philippe Cadorette, all starting goalies in the league this season, used to call Collège Antoine-Girouard home.

Collège Esther-Blondin and Séminaire St-François also have contributed their fair share of players to the QMJHL, 27 and 23, respectively. The present version of Collège Esther-Blondin begin in 2008-2009 and they’ve already seen one of their own chosen first overall in the Q draft (Daniel Audette in 2012 by Sherbrooke). Audette is having a fine season, as his Sherbrooke teammate and fellow Collège Esther-Blondin alum Dominic Talbot-Tassi (20 points in 23 games as a defenseman). Other notable stars from this team include Chicoutimi forward and Phoenix Coyotes draft pick Laurent Dauphin and Moncton goaltender Alex Dubeau. Séminaire St-François can counter with its alumni list of offensively gifted blueliners Guillaume Gélinas (Val-d’Or) and Dominic Poulin (Baie-Comeau). Forwards of note to come through that program are Drummondville’s Christophe Lalancette and Baie-Comeau’s captain Félix Girard. Their NHL products include Boston’s Patrice Bergeron (Acadie-Bathurst) and Columbus’s David Savard (Baie-Comeau/Moncton) as well as Dallas rookie Alex Chiasson who chose to play NCAA instead of playing major junior.

Being the second largest province in the QMJHL territory, Nova Scotia is unsurprisingly a large supplier of talent with more than 30 Bluenosers playing their trade in the league. That’s similar to the number of Europeans in the circuit as each club is permitted to carry two on the roster, although not all do. Of the ten European countries icing QMJHL players this season, Russia leads the way with nine. What might be shocking to some is that there is also a similar number of players in the QMJHL from Ontario. While the OHL gets first dibs on all players born in that province, with nearly 40 per cent of Canadians living in Ontario many hockey players fall through the cracks.

Generally the very best prospects are identified early in their careers and stay in Ontario for their junior days, but there are exceptions. In 2008 Gatineau won the President’s Cup with a team lead by Ontarians Claude Giroux and Paul Byron. Traditionally most Ontarians in the QMJHL play in Gatineau due its proximity to their home province or with one of the Maritime clubs because it gives them a chance to play in an English community. True to form, Gatineau has five players born in the province on this year’s roster while Bathurst, Cape Breton, Charlottetown and Halifax each have three. The influence has also spread to Drummondville who is employing four players from Ontario this season.

While most players from Ontario are serving in depth roles, Halifax’s Mackenzie Weegar is a defenceman who plays a key role at both ends of the ice and is a draft pick of the Florida Panthers. Before coming to the Quebec league, Weegar played Jr. A for the Nepean Raiders, a team that also produced Moncton’s Cameron Yarwood and Gatineau’s Steven Johnston. A majority of the 40-plus players who played Jr. A, including American leagues like the USHL, before coming to the QMJHL did so in Ontario. There are also a few handfuls of players who played in the OHL before coming into the QMJHL.

Only Moncton’s scrappy Kyle Haas (Saskatoon Blades) and Saint John overager Lukas Walter (Tri-City Americans) called the WHL home before coming to the QMJHL. There aren’t many westerners in the QMJHL but Saskatchewan is the only province that cannot lay claim to a Q player. However, the league is not without a Saskatchewan influence. Perhaps the most famous midget triple ‘A’ program in Canada belongs to the Notre Dame Hounds, as players flock to Wilcox, Sask., to play there. P.E.I. native Brad Richards did so before winning a Memorial Cup with Rimouski in 2000 and a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004. The current legacy of the Hounds in the QMJHL is held by six players, most notably Halifax’s Andrew Ryan (26 points in 24 games) and Rouyn-Noranda’s Liam O’Brien (17 points in 22 games).

Just across the bridge from O’Brien’s birthplace of Halifax is a city called Dartmouth where Sidney Crosby played his midget hockey for the Dartmouth Subways before winning the President’s Cup for Rimouski in 2005, a Stanley Cup for Pittsburgh in 2009 and of course an Olympic gold medal in 2010. Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins also used to play for the Subs. The best current ex-Dartmouth midget player may be 17-year-old Matthew Highmore, a first round pick in 2012, who is putting up a point a game through 22 contests this season with the Saint John Sea Dogs. The Dartmouth program was replaced this year by the Newbridge Academy Gladiators, but eight former Dartmouth midget remain in the QMJHL. Eight is also the number of former Fredericton midget triple ‘A’ Canadiens in the QMJHL this season, making it the leader in producing current Q players among teams in the New Brunswick/P.E.I. league. Overager Peter Trainor of Rimouski (22 points in 22 games) and Saint John’s 18-year-old Oliver Cooper (20 points in 22 games) are the most successful of the ex-Habs.

Newfoundland and P.E.I. also provide the QMJHL with quality players, but the small size of those provinces makes the league yearn for more representation from south of the border. Americans from 11 states make up approximately 5 per cent of the pool of players in the QMJHL. The largest American contingent comes from Massachusetts. Unfortunately for QMJHL fans, an overwhelming majority of hockey playing kids in that state grow up wanting to play college hockey. Cameron Darcy was likely one of those kids, but after leaving Northeastern University last season he decided to come to Cape Breton where he now finds himself in the top five in league scoring. While the Q’s brass is likely happy for Darcy’s decision to come to the Q, they likely hope for stories Cameron Askew instead. Askew, a 16-year-old Boston native, was chosen by Drummondville in the first round of the draft and reported to the French community without hesitation.

Time will tell if more Americans will make their way up to the QMJHL in the future. If that becomes the case, we can only guess as to which prep schools and New England Jr. A outfits would follow the lead of great programs like Collège Antoine-Girouard, Collège Esther-Blondin and Séminaire St-François in terms of producing QMJHL talent.