MONTREAL - The Stanley Cup may be one of the most difficult trophies to win in the world of sports, but the Memorial Cup isn't all that far behind.
For some Canadiens players, their Memorial Cup triumphs marked the first time they captured a major championship in their respective hockey careers.
Hoisting the Cup is something none of them will ever forget, and the long and arduous road required to earn that honor made their victories feel that much sweeter.
"It's tough just getting to that tournament. Not only do you have to win your own league [within the Canadian Hockey League], you have to go through four rounds of playoffs against the best teams from other leagues as well. It's a pretty tough thing to do," admitted Shea Weber, who won the Memorial Cup with the Kelowna Rockets in 2004.
The headlines are focused on the main event in May, but those who have been there know the real work starts before the actual tournament even kicks off.
"It was really hard to get there. It's a grind. It's like winning a Stanley Cup, except then you have to go play another series," explained Michael McCarron, whose Oshawa Generals were crowned Canadian Hockey League champions in 2015. "To win it you have to win five series, basically. It's tough to get there. It's even harder to win the Memorial Cup. Winning it was probably one of the best moments of my life."
The season starts with 60 teams - coming from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and Western Hockey League (WHL) - embarking on a marathon journey that culminates with the awarding of the Memorial Cup at the end of May. From those 60 teams, only four will get the chance to fight for the ultimate prize. One of those four spots is reserved for the tournament host, but home ice hasn't proven to be much of an advantage to teams over the years.
Since 1983, when the tournament expanded to add a fourth team to the mix, only nine host teams have gone on to win it all in front of their hometown fans. McCarron was a member of one of the many host teams that couldn't take the championship in front of their fans - the 2014 London Knights.
"When we hosted, it was tough. I think we had the best team on paper. Maybe we thought it would be easier, but [every team] is already a winner when they come to the Memorial Cup. It's tough to play against teams that are on fire coming in after winning their League," remembered the Canadiens' first-round choice from 2013, who was unable to come up with a win at Budweiser Gardens three years ago.
Knowing that the level of competition elevates during the annual affair, some teams with high hopes of winning will make personnel moves in the months leading up to the event to ensure they match up against the other league champions. Still, having the best team on paper doesn't always translate to success on the ice.
Nathan Beaulieu was a member of a powerful Saint John Sea Dogs roster, which also including the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Tomas Jurco, and Simon Despres, when he won the Canadian championship in 2011. Beaulieu insists that the key to their success that year wasn't necessarily their talent, but how they used it.
"We just came together as a team, that's the biggest thing. We had a slot of superstar individuals, but as a team, we were a super-team. When you put them all together, we had everything that a championship team needs. That was the biggest difference in winning the Memorial Cup," attested the Strathroy, ON native, who participated in two career Memorial Cup tournaments and was named to the tournament All-Star team in 2011.
While many players eventually made their way to the professional ranks after their stints in Junior, for others, the Memorial Cup tournament was their last experience playing high-level organized hockey.
Although they may have moved on in their careers since those conquests -- some on the ice in the professional ranks and others in their chosen professional fields -- the emotions, the highs and lows they experienced along the way, and all the hurdles they overcame together in order to raise the Cup forged a bond between those then-teenaged teammates that will never be broken.
"I was fortunate enough to be on some good teams. I got to go to the tournament on three occasions, I experienced a lot being there, and it was a lot of fun being on those teams. I'm still in touch to this day with a lot of the guys that I've played with on that team. We've forged some friendships in Junior that we'll never forget," concluded Weber.