Reflecting on a championship: ‘It was … it was Magic’

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Chad Denny, one of the original three Maineiacs still on the team, hoists the President’s Cup above his head after the team was victorious over Val D’Or.

Mike Caron of Lewiston strained his eyes and peered at his 12-inch computer monitor.

Sweat dripping from his beard after rushing home from work on an unseasonably warm May evening, Caron tapped away at his keyboard to bring up the Lewiston Maineiacs’ livestream via the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League website.

“My girlfriend hated my playoff beard,” Caron remembered.

She hated the beard, but loved Caron’s reason for growing it. It was, after all, the playoffs. And on this night, their beloved hockey team was can’t-miss watching, beard or not.

“Made it home just in time,” Caron remembered. “I had no projector, just the monitor.”

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Across town, a legion of fans gathered at a watch party at the Ramada Inn and Conference Center, where a projector hung from the ceiling, casting its glow on a large white screen against the wall.

Down the road, Fast Breaks dialed in, too. Across the city — and the world — private viewing parties of all sizes connected devices to the Internet, hoping to watch history.

“I was listening to the game on a computer web stream,” said Marc Couturier, originally from Greene. “I was watching the video stream initially, but the feed cut out, so I went to (radio announcer Jeff) Mannix’s radio feed instead. In a way, that was fortuitous because it fed the emotions so much better.”

Couturier, now living just outside Salt Lake City, was in Alberta, Canada, at the time with his wife, Bri, working toward a doctorate degree at the University of Alberta.

“I was actually in my apartment watching the game while being so bummed that Edmonton was not in the playoffs after the amazing 2006 cup run,” Couturier remembered. “I was live-chatting with other fans in the chat board in real time also as a moderator. Bri was listening to it with me and we were cheering. We actually had video on one laptop, which was grainy, and audio on another from Mannix.”

Hockey fever had truly gripped Lewiston-Auburn and surrounding communities.

The Maineiacs were on the cusp of winning the QMJHL’s President’s Cup, and they would become the first United States-based team to ever do that.

*****

Five-hundred-fifty-five miles to the Northwest of Lewiston, in tiny Val d’Or, Quebec, Maineiacs owner Mark Just was holed up in the team’s locker room. Twelve minutes and 45 seconds remained on the clock in Game 4, and the Val d’Or Foreurs scored to pull within a goal at 2-1.

“It was impossible,” Just said. “(Sebastien) Piche was injured that night, and he kept coming back to me and reporting to me what was going on out on the ice. I said, ‘Don’t come back until we’re up by a couple of goals.’”

Lewiston never went back in front by two, but Piche reassured Just. Nine-year National Hockey League veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier, then an 18-year-old superstar-in-the-making enjoying the finest season of his junior hockey career, was on fire. He was, as Piche reported to Just that night, figuratively standing on his head in the third period.

“You know what you’re on the verge of doing, so you’re sitting there, riding the emotions,” team athletic therapist and equipment manager Tom Bourdon said. “Bernier is standing on his head and Val d’Or’s throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you.”

“It’s crazy, because we talk about it and I get chills,” said Danick Paquette, a 16-year-old rookie forward on the team. “It was like, ‘Let’s go, clock, go down.’ Seeing guys out there, like (Simon) Courcelles, sacrificing to block shots and on faceoffs. It was amazing.”

After the Maineiacs dominated the first two periods of the potential championship-clinching game, Val d’Or found another gear in the third. The Foreurs scored at 7:15 to cut the Lewiston lead to 2-1, and, aided by a string of penalties over the next 10 minutes, maintained nearly constant pressure on Bernier and the Lewiston defense.

But they held.

Bernier and his acrobatic saves, the team and its penchant for blocking shots and shutting down passing lanes, held a star-studded Val d’Or team in check in the waning minutes and earned the sweep — and the championship.

Just, Piche and the other skaters not playing in that game, and a host of off-ice staff who’d made the journey emerged from the tunnel and joined the players and coaches on the bench — and then on the ice — partaking in a raucous celebration in front of a handful of loyal Lewiston fans who’d also made the trek, and a smattering of local fans, most more curious than happy.

This was, after all, the first time a team based in the United States had won the title in the 38-year history of the QMJHL.

“It’s the way we did it, not just that we did it,” head coach Clem Jodoin said. “Everybody was fitting in a mold. Sometimes, you have the players, and you have the mold, but they don’t fit. There was chemistry on this team, everyone fit the mold. It was unbelievable. It was something, it was … it was magic.”

Building a winner

Jodoin’s tenure with the Maineiacs began in 2004, after the team’s inaugural season produced a ninth-place finish and a first-round playoff exit.

“I called him when he was coaching in Minsk (Belarus), coaching with a 17-and-under team, and told him we had to make a change in Lewiston,” Just remembered. “I told him we needed him, and he asked when. I told him, ‘Tomorrow.’

“He said, ‘Are you serious?’ And I said ‘Of course.’

“You know what my answer will be,” Jodoin told Just, “just let me call my wife.”

Jodoin was both the team’s head coach and its general manager, making all the key hockey personnel decisions. Unlike many GMs, though, Jodoin retained his scouting staff, headed by Serge David. It was, he said, a no-brainer.

“My head scout, he was fantastic,” Jodoin said. “I went to him, and said, ‘These are my needs,’ and for the first five rounds, we addressed those needs. After that, you shut the books and say, ‘keep drafting.’ They were all important picks, but at least you cover your needs first.”

Three years later, it proved to be his best decision. Eighteen of the 23 players on the Maineiacs’ championship roster were drafted by the team. The other five were either traded for or invited to training camp before the championship season began.

“We didn’t buy any championship,” Jodoin said. “We built a championship. That’s why I am proud of it. We didn’t buy any players, we built it one player at a time. All we did was done the right way.”

Apart from the talent, Jodoin, said, attitude was everything.

“In the first year, I remember I came into the room and the equipment from the rookies was all wet in the shower,” Jodoin said. “It took me an hour, I said, OK, rookies on one side, veterans on the other, this is bad for the veterans. I didn’t want the rookies to turn into veterans like that. We had to change the whole philosophy of the team. No more initiation. Let’s have some respect for everyone. It’s not that, because you are a veteran, you are ahead of everything. You need the rookies if you want to win.”

There was a small regression in Jodoin’s first at the helm as the players adjusted to his systems and his style of coaching. The team went 32-30-0-8 before pulling off an upset sweep of Shawinigan in the first round of the playoffs. The Maineiacs then ran into Sidney Crosby and the juggernaut Rimouski Oceanic in Round 2, and were on the other end of the broom to finish the season.

Another draft and another season later, Lewiston won 36 regular-season games, but fell in six games in the first round of the playoffs to Halifax.

But Jodoin wasn’t worried. He knew what the team had for assets, and he was confident in the staff and players he had on hand.

“I remember, the year before, I said to Clem, ‘Where are we at? What do you think we need?’” Just said. “He said, ‘We will be in Vancouver next year. We’re ready.’ With his ability as a great Renaissance man, his ability as a coach and a great communicator with the kids and just all-around great guy and knowledgeable on many subjects, a guy that could get the respect of kids 16 to 19 years old, which isn’t easy, and have them do the right things.”

During training camp in 2006, Jodoin identified two missing pieces — brawn and brains. The team acquired Simon Courcelles from Quebec, and Triston Manson from Shawinigan, each for draft picks.

“We did it at the beginning of the season, and after that, we never made one trade,” Jodoin said. “We kept the same team from Day 1 up to the last day. Try to find me some teams that have done that. Not many. Not many.”

Those moves, Jodoin said, balanced the team.

“On each line we had some depth, on each line, everybody brought something,” Jodoin said.

Nearly perfect

Just was nervous throughout much of the season, particularly when he was able to watch one of the team’s games in person. On Wednesday, April 11, 2007, he was a wreck.

That night, the team as a whole fell flat in Game 3 of the second round against Halifax. Yet, until a late-third-period goal, the Maineiacs actually led the game.

“I remember, that afternoon, I posted on Facebook, ‘Can’t wait to sweep the Moose and go out to the Dome in Halifax tonight,’” Manson remembered. “I look back on it now and think, ‘Man, we were cocky.’ And that’s why we lost that game.”

Peter-James Corsi scored with 4:33 to play in regulation to tie the game at 2-2, and Ryan Hillier ended it 3:15 into overtime on the Mooseheads’ 55th shot of the game. Bernier set the team record for saves in a playoff game that night with 52.

“I was sick that night,” Just remembered. “I remember going out that night, it was the first night we’d lost, and Clem sat down next to me and said, ‘Mark, if that will be the worst thing that will happen, we’re going to have a pretty good playoffs. Don’t worry about it. You can’t win all of them.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, but we should have won.’ And he calmed me down and said, ‘Yes, but that is over with. Let’s come back tomorrow night and finish it off.’ And we did.”

The loss turned out to be the only loss of the playoffs that season for the Maineiacs, who had also closed out the regular season with 10 consecutive victories. In the team’s final 27 QMJHL contests that year, it went 26-1.

The final

Val d’Or reached the final on a much longer path. The Foreurs swept Chicoutimi in Round 1, and also took five games to win Round 2 over Baie-Comeau.

But their trip through the league semifinal was a war with Cape Breton. That season, three teams were considered the class of the league — Lewiston, Val d’Or and Cape Breton. All three had multiple scoring threats, all three had solid goal-tending, and all three were amped up for a run.

But only two of them had to meet in the semifinal round, and thanks to the best record in the regular season, the Maineiacs avoided that match-up. That left the Foreurs and Screaming Eagles to battle for a spot in the final. All the while, Lewiston, which swept Val d’Or in the semifinal round, waited.

“We had a week off to rest every time, and Clem understood one thing,” Bourdon said. “Rest is a big weapon. We weren’t burying them with work or practice. Playoffs are supposed to be fun. The weather is nice, and to be able to hold those guys’ interest with everything else that can go on, that’s not easy. You had to have quality practice, and we did, but it has to be fun, too. And it was.”

The Foreurs had to win in Cape Breton in Game 5 just to force a Game 6 back home. And then, they had to win again at home — 1,220 miles west — three nights later to force a Game 7. They did. And for good measure, they won Game 7, as well, earning the right to play Lewiston, in Lewiston, on three days’ rest. The Maineiacs had been idle for nine days.

As expected, Lewiston dominated Game 1. The Maineiacs outshot the Foreurs 29-18. They earned more power-play chances. They won more faceoffs. And they did it with only one goal from what most considered the team’s “top” line of David Perron, Marc-Andre Cliche and Pierre-Luc Faubert.

And Lewiston continued to rotate its defensemen through the lineup, as well. All eight defensive players on the roster played throughout the season, and all but one, due to an injury, saw action in the final series.

Game 2 was much more indicative of how close the teams really were. It was also indicative of the Maineiacs’ penchant for clutch performances. Faubert netted his second and third goals of the final, including the game-winner in the third, to help the Maineiacs hold serve at home for a 2-0 series lead.

The real test came on the road, in the small mining city of Val d’Or, three nights later.

Expecting a more physical game, what Lewiston got instead was a game of speed, low penalty numbers and low shot totals. In short: excellent defensive hockey.

Trailing 3-2 after two periods, the Maineiacs broke out in the third. Consecutive goals by Cliche, Chad Denny and Faubert in the game’s final 11 minutes broke the Foreurs’ spirit.

That physical game Lewiston was looking out for in Game 3? Val d’Or gave it to them in Game 4. But, for their efforts, the Foreurs started a parade to the penalty box, and the Maineiacs stayed patient and took advantage. Perron scored at the same time a penalty was called on Val d’Or’s Samuel Richard. He scored again on the ensuing power play, putting the Maineiacs ahead by two.

Still anxiety-ridden, Just poked his head out of his bunker.

“(Piche) looked at me,” Just recalled, “and said, ‘Mr. Just, don’t worry, we’ve got it. Bernie is standing on his head, there’s nothing that they’re going to do, and we’ve got it made.’”

Lewiston maintained most of the pressure in the second period, buoyed again by more power-play time than Val d’Or. But that all changed in the third period. The Foreurs fought off yet another shorthanded station and Jerome Samson scored on the penalty kill to pull the home team within one.

For the seven of the following nine minutes, the Maineiacs played a skater short due to penalties, including more than two full minutes of 5-on-3 Val d’Or advantage.

He’d been excellent all season, but in that moment, Bernier was elite.

“Obviously a big part was Jonathan Bernier,” Paquette said. “He stopped everything. Without a goalie, you cannot win much.”

Mannix counted down the seconds for those listening back home.

“As it got down to the last minute, and Lewiston got a couple of clears, it was certainly thrilling to know that this was about to happen,” Mannix said. “I knew there were so many people in Lewiston that were excited, so many people in Val d’Or that were excited. It was pretty neat. It’s something that I haven’t experienced since, and is still a highlight of mine, professionally, personally, everything about it is still one of the absolute best moments I’ve ever experienced.”

The aftermath

Players and support staff spilled onto the ice. They shook hands with the Foreurs in the sport’s grand tradition. A few of the players whose hands they shook that night — most notably Brad Marchand and Kris Letang — went on to play in the NHL. Three Maineiacs — Cliche, Perron and Bernier — did, as well.

But in that moment, there were no thoughts of the NHL. Those were instead reserved for celebration and reflection, of which there was plenty.

“My excitement level was for the players, how happy I was for what they did,” McKnight said. “Especially that last minute, all that work they’ve done, all the games they’ve played, they’re going to pull this off here in the last minute. Everything I thought of was for the players.”

The players skated with the Cup. They drank from it. They celebrated like the teenagers they were. But when they got back to the team hotel, just after 11 p.m. and before any of them dispersed for the night, they came together again — all of them — alongside their coaches and support staff.

“It was such a casual, impromptu thing that we did, it meant a lot,” McKnight said. “Everybody got their chance to breathe in the experience, from the players to the coaches, to the volunteers to the staff. Sitting in that lobby for an hour or so, with the Cup, and the only people around were the players and the staff. That was pretty special.”

Even some unexpected visitors added to the joviality of the moment.

“I remember the referees, after we swept Game 4 in Val d’Or, they came back to the hotel, and Brad Marchand came by after the game, too, and said, ‘Mr. Just, congratulations, you have a great team. They were terrific and they deserved to win.’ I really appreciated what he was saying, and I told him that, because we didn’t get much of that.”

*****

In Lewiston-Auburn, fans who’d been listening or watching celebrated, too.

“Just your normal yelling at the computer when good things are happening, and really yelling at it when something bad happened,” Caron said.

Luckily for Caron and the rest of the team’s legion of fans, there was more good than bad.

After the team won the game, thoughts turned almost immediately to a “proper welcome home,” Caron said.

“We were all on the Maineiacs (Internet) forum, talking about meeting the team at the (Longley) bridge to show them a proper welcome home,” Caron said.

The team caught a charter flight from Rouyn-Noranda to Sherbrooke, and then bused home from there. Somewhere along Route 26 in Oxford County, the bus caught up to the team support staff’s minivan. A bit farther down the road, the two vehicles were flanked by county and local police, which gave the team an escort the rest of the way to its home rink in Lewiston. Along the way, they passed a smattering of fans standing along the side of the road, waving, tooting horns and flashing signs. On the bridge between Auburn and Lewiston stood the largest such contingent.

“I remember it being, like, one o’clock in the morning, riding down the road, horns blasting and flags waving all the way to the Colisee,” Caron said.

An even larger crowd — hundreds of people — greeted the team at the rink.

It was a whirlwind, for sure, and one that, for the players, wasn’t quite over. Still on the horizon was the Memorial Cup in Vancouver, British Columbia, featuring the champions from the Ontario and Western Hockey Leagues, as well as the host Vancouver Giants.

The Maineiacs fell short at that final tourney, winning their opening game before losing three straight to end the season after the injury bug truly hit the team hard for the first time all season.

“It was sad that we had the injuries that we had at the Memorial Cup,” Jodoin said. “It would have been different. I believe that. It would have been different. But it’s part of the game. You control what you can.”

And control things the team did, building a contender — and a champion — of which a community could be proud, one about which people still speak with reverence.

“That was absolutely the most special moment of my life until my kids,” Manson said. “I think about it often. I don’t think you realize when you’re actually doing it what’s really going on. There’s people now I’ll play hockey with, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, he played in the Memorial Cup.’ People still bring it up 10 years later.”

“As a little team, as a little organization, we did well,” Jodoin said. “We were a team. We were not a bunch of individuals. We were a team. All of us.”

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Lewiston Maineiacs Simon Courcelles, Tom Michalik, Peter Delmas, Marc-Andre Cliche, Jonathan Bernier and Chad Denny carry a banner around the ice after clinching first place in the QMJHL in 2007.
Lewiston Maineiacs owner Mark Just tries to stay composed after a series of perceived bad calls by the officials during the second period. Darcy Goyette, left, and Travis Brackett wave a banner after a Maineiacs goal. Denise Cloutier, lower right, of Lewiston, her husband Ron, Greg Gilbert, of Turner and his wife Nancy celebrate the Maineiacs win with the crowd at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston in 2007.
Maineiacs head coach Clem Jodoin hoists the President’s Cup above his head.

David Perron of Lewiston battles Kristopher Letang for a loose puck.Michelle Spear of Lewiston, right, and Courtney Vradenburgh, 19, of Turner, make some noise as the Maineiacs take the ice in Val D’Or.
Triston Manson holds the President’s Cup over his head after the Maineiacs swept the final round, finishing in Val D’Or 2-1.The Maineiacs’ Kevin Marshall and Val D’or’s Brad Marchand battle for possession in the second period.Marc-Andre Daneau walks past the banner signed by fans with words of encouragement outside the Maineiacs’ locker rooms in Val D’Or.
Maineiacs fan David Jalbert of Lewiston, center, celebrates what turned out to be the game winning goal by Sebastien Piche in the second period.

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