The Halifax Mooseheads will host the 2019 Memorial Cup as part of their 25th anniversary celebration.
The credentials are evident. Not only do the Mooseheads attract more than 8,000 fans nightly, their on-ice achievements are also readily apparent, where this season the club finished first in the QMJHL’s Eastern Conference with 102 points. Furthermore, few franchises have churned out top-level talent like Halifax, a club that counts Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Nikolaj Ehlers, Timo Meier, and Nico Hischier among its many alumni.
Like any successful organization, it starts at the top, where the Mooseheads have a dedicated owner in former NHLer and Nova Scotia native Bobby Smith, who after assuming a majority share implemented a new organizational culture that goes beyond building the next wave of hockey stars.
“As I say jokingly, we didn’t teach Nathan MacKinnon how to skate fast,” Smith told the Canadian Hockey League. “We have a program in place from the manager and the coaches we hire, and the emphasis we put on player development. It’s not just about winning every single game.”
It’s that sort of environment and the track record of success that has followed – MacKinnon and Drouin led the Mooseheads to the Memorial Cup in 2013 – that has transformed the club into a destination franchise, one that today has little difficulty in bringing the best of the best to the organization.
Of course, it’s not only the on-ice talent, as the Mooseheads can also point to former bench boss Dominique Ducharme, who spent five seasons in Halifax before leading Canada to gold at the world juniors and later joining his hometown Montreal Canadiens as an assistant coach.
“We had a great draft, which led to great development, which led to winning a Memorial Cup, and it’s gone from there,” said longtime Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell, at the helm since 2008. “Then you look at players like Ehlers and Meier who wanted to come to Halifax and play for a great coach like Dominique Ducharme and to play for an organization that just won a Memorial Cup. The history starts to build itself and helps promote your program.”
Added Smith, “You see a Swiss player like Nico Hischier, when he was contemplating coming to the CHL, one of the first things he did was talk to Timo Meier and ask him what his experience was like in Halifax. I’ve always said our best ambassadors are our former players.”
The success has continued for the Mooseheads, who last year saw forward Filip Zadina selected in the first round of the NHL draft, the latest feather in the cap for the organization. Right-wing Raphael Lavoie is next up, slated to be an early selection this June.
“He has the physique, skating ability, and the talent to be a top pick,” Smith said. “The last two years, he has been a top-end player getting special attention from the other team every game.”
As for Russell, he credits the team’s scouts and talent evaluators for continually finding and attracting top players, both in the midget draft and European recruitment. Of course, that comes easy when you consider the culture the Mooseheads have established under Smith’s ownership and Russell’s tutelage.
“Bobby has worked extremely hard at turning this into one of the top franchises in the CHL,” Russell said. “The other side of that is we’ve had success at developing players and helping them get to the next level, which in turn snowballs for us.”
Smith added, “It’s very close to an NHL environment in Halifax. You go into your experience with our team knowing that this organization will do everything it can to help you reach your potential as a player, whether you’re the first pick in the NHL draft or a good junior player who is going to go on to Canadian university hockey.”
Still, it didn’t always come so easily for the Mooseheads. After piecing together four division titles over an eight-year period but always coming up short in the postseason, the club hit the reset button, ushering in an era of change that brought with it a new organizational direction.
“It took a while. We really struggled,” Russell explained. “We were the worst team for two years, and we changed our philosophy to where we were going to save our draft picks, draft well, develop our players, and bring them up through our organization. I think we have done a good job of that over the last seven or eight years.”
Today, it means something to be a Moosehead, a new attitude that began to take shape beginning with the team’s second-overall selection of Drouin in the 2011 QMJHL Entry Draft. Alongside MacKinnon, the two were major pillars in Halifax’s 2013 Memorial Cup championship.
“To get players of that caliber, it was such an incredible experience to watch them play every night. You knew right from the start that those two were going to be stars,” Russell said. “At the end of the day, fans want to see the skill and the exciting players, and that’s why we work as hard as we can to try to bring those players to our organization.”