May 21 2014 ISN –
The scene looked so familiar to Steve Begin.
The Foreurs arrived in Val-d’Or around 3 a.m. after defeating the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in Game 7 of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship series.
The players exited the plane in the middle of the night during a work week to the warm, welcoming arms of their home fans, ready to share the President’s Cup with a legion of passionate fans who had no interest in sleeping just yet.
“The airport was full,” said Begin, an assistant coach of the Foreurs. “It was jammed with people waiting for us. The main street downtown was crazy. That’s how Val-d’Or is.”
Begin would know. He was part of the 1998 team that won the franchise’s first league championship. That team won the league crown on home ice, sharing the achievement with the fans that partied into the streets. The fans weren’t going to miss the opportunity to share in the team’s joy just because the cup was won on the road.
Begin is hopeful this year’s Foreurs can accomplish something the 1998 team — and the 2001 team, which brought a second title to the small community — didn’t by winning a national championship. Knowing the passion of the fan base, who consider themselves every bit a part of the team as the players, a MasterCard Memorial Cup would be the biggest celebration the city has ever seen.
“Val-d’Or is just like Montreal,” Begin said. “They take it so seriously. The fans are great. They’re part of the team. It’s such a small city and it’s great to play there. I played there three years and it was a blast.”
The city is located in northern Quebec, approximately 500 kilometers northwest of Montreal. It’s a mining community with a population of 32,000 that lives and breathes with its hockey team.
Their fans have been treated to some good hockey over the years. The list of alumni includes notable professionals in Begin, Roberto Luongo, J.P. Dumont, Brad Marchand and Kris Letang to name a few. Anthony Mantha, a first round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2013, could be added to the list given all he has already achieved in his remarkable junior career.
“To play for this organization, it’s such an honour the last three years,” he said. “It’s a team with a lot of history. They had some excellent players. My goal for the next couple years is to become a pro and that’s the dream of all young hockey players. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they talk about me in the future.”
The alumni are watching the Foreurs closely. In addition to Begin, who now works for the team, Boston Bruins forward Marchand sent the current players a video message in the playoffs, wishing them luck and urging them to make the most of what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Begin passed along that same message, stressing that the 1998 team, which lost all three of its MasterCard Memorial Cup games, enjoy the experience but to make sure they return to Val-d’Or without regrets.
For Begin, who retired from his playing career in January, joining the Foreurs as an assistant coach for the playoff run brought him back to his playing days. In a way, his mere presence embodies the message he passes along to the players since the pull to jump back on the ice is insatiable.
“Every day I talk to the boys before games,” he said. “I walk in with my stick and I say, ‘you guys are lucky. I wish I would be there with you, skating and playing.’ I tell them, ‘you guys have a great chance. Make sure you enjoy it.’
“I keep telling them that I feel like you’re in jail,” Begin joked about being so close to the action but not being able to join them on the ice. “You have handcuffs behind the bench because there’s nothing you can do but encourage them. You want to go and help but you’re a coach. You just tap them and say, ‘hey, good job,’ or ‘make sure you do this right.’”
His experience in Val-d’Or was the same in 1998 as it is now for the players he coaches. The emergence of Mantha as the next great star following in a long list of impressive alumni from the small mining community indicates one thing, as far as Begin is concerned.
“I guess the scouts did a good job,” he said with a smile. “Mantha is a great player. He’s a sniper – he scores so many goals. He’s going to be there (in the NHL) one day, that’s for sure.”