RIMOUSKI, Que. - The Rimouski Oceanic's success comes down to aggressive management and great fans, says the city's best-known former NHL player Donald Dufresne.
Dufresne, a former defenceman who is now an assistant coach of the Oceanic, has seen the junior team reach the MasterCard Memorial Cup three times in the past decade. However, this time it is not as champion of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League but as the host team.
"It's like a gift to the fans," Dufresne said Friday as his team got set to face the WHL-champion Kelowna Rockets in the tournament's opening game. "The organization decided to bid and they put a lot of effort into getting the Cup here.
"It's a chance for all the people around here to see what it is and to be part of it. I'm sure they'll remember it a long time."
The 5,000-seat Colisee is all but sold out for every game of the tournament, which also includes the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League and QMJHL-champion Drummondville Voltigeurs.
More than 3,000 fans turned out Thursday to see the Memorial Cup arrive in town aboard a Canadian armed forces helicopter.
Oceanic banners and Go Nics Go signs are everywhere in the city of 42,000 on the shores of the lower St. Lawrence river, just north of New Brunswick about 500 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
"That's the way it is in Rimouski - when they get something, they really put everything into it to make sure it's a nice event," added Dufresne.
The team moved to Rimouski in 1995 from St-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, Que., near Montreal and has since become a fountain of NHL talent.
Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards were its first major stars, with Richards leading the Oceanic to a Memorial Cup victory in Halifax in 2000. Then Sidney Crosby spent two seasons in Rimouski before taking the NHL by storm with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Czech centre Michael Frolik, drafted 10th overall by Florida in 2006, is another former Oceanic player.
"A lot of great players came through here and there's going to be more," said Rimouski forward Patrice Cormier, a Cap-Pele, N.B. native who helped Canada win gold at the world junior championship in January in Ottawa.
Cormier called it an almost ideal place to play because it is in the geographic centre, close enough to the teams in the Maritime provinces and those in Western Quebec to keep the bus rides relatively short at about four to five hours.
And the team is usually good. It fell back after Crosby jumped to the NHL, but the squad is a strong one again under new coach Clement Jodoin, losing in the league semifinals to Drummondville.
"The organization, the (team owners) Tanguay family and (president) Andre Jolicoeur put a lot of effort into bringing those players here," said Dufresne. "We're always trying to get good European players too."
The 42-year-old Dufresne was born in Quebec City, but moved to Rimouski when he was nine and considers it home.
While other players have come from relatively nearby places like Matane and Riviere-du-loup, Que., the only NHL player since Dufresne is former Oceanic forward Michel Ouellet, now with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL.
Dufresne won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, but was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He also spent time with St. Louis before he retired in 1997 after two seasons with the Edmonton Oilers.
A regret is that he never brought the Stanley Cup home.
"It happened so quick that year and during that summer I was traded to Tampa, but it wasn't mandatory then that a player gets the Cup for a day," he said. "You had to ask for it and I didn't.
"But I had a good time in Montreal and I have good memories from there."
The Memorial Cup will actually Dufresne's fourth. He played in one in 1987, although his team, the defunct Longueuil Chevaliers, were knocked out early. The other appearances have been as an assistant coach.
Now he wants to help win another for Rimouski, a small city that has learned to think big.
"The first thing the fans like here is effort," he said. "A lot of times we had players whose talent wasn't the best, but they remember those players."