Huskies hope to add Memorial Cup to their rich hockey history

Huskies

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies' Peter Abbandonato, left, shoots on London Knights goalie Tyler Parsons during first period CHL Memorial Cup hockey action in Red Deer, Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (Jeff McIntosh / CP)

TORONTO — Jean-Paul Charlebois has been piecing together the history of hockey in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., going on two decades.

The 76-year-old play-by-play man for the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies remembers the Quebec mining town near the edge the Ontario border — about 625 kilometres northwest of Montreal and 215 km east of Timmins, Ont. — winning midget championships in the 1950s. He can talk about the senior teams of the 60s that chased the Allan Cup, and he knows the names of all the NHL players born and raised in the area, not just Hall of Famer Dave Keon. But winning a Memorial Cup championship is the story he’s still waiting to tell.

"That’s the dream. It almost came true being beaten by the London Knights in overtime," said Charlebois, referencing the Huskies’ loss in the 2016 Memorial Cup final.

Rouyn-Noranda joined the QMJHL in 1996 after the Laser were relocated from Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., and it wasn’t until 20 years later that the Huskies qualified for their first and only Memorial Cup appearance as league champions.

Instead of taking a step back after their run to the final for the Canadian Hockey League’s biggest prize, the Huskies stayed competitive with two more post-season appearances and then put together a record-setting 2018-19 season that might give Charlebois a chance to voice his missing narrative.

They entered the playoffs as the No. 1-ranked squad in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League and continue their quest when they open third-round action against the Rimouski Oceanic on Friday.

"We have an identity, the way the Huskies play the game, our scouting staff has done a great job at picking great talents. This year we’re a little older and we came out to play," said Huskies forward Peter Abbandonato, who won the Jean Beliveau Trophy as the QMJHL’s leading scorer.

Abbandonato was diagnosed with mono on Monday and will miss all of the third round, but the Huskies have enough depth and solid goaltending to make up for his absence.

"It’s a big loss for us but I think the guys are going to play for him," said Charlebois. "I am still confident we can go through the third round."

Abbandonato added: "I believe in them. I just sit back and watch now."

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Charlebois points to current Ottawa 67’s head coach Andre Tourigny as the one who built the foundation for the Huskies’ run of success since joining the league.

After a handful of coaches came and went through the team’s first seven seasons in Rouyn-Noranda, Tourigny was hired in 2003 and would be in charge for a decade — the longest tenure of any coach in the team’s 23-year existence — before joining Patrick Roy as an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-14. Rouyn-Noranda advanced to the post-season in nine of Tourigny’s 10 campaigns and made their first President’s Cup final appearance in 2007.

Gilles Bouchard took over and guided the organization to its first league championship and a Memorial Cup berth. When he left in 2018 to join the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, Tourigny’s former assistant with the Huskies, Mario Pouliot, returned to Rouyn-Noranda as head coach after leading the Acadie-Bathurst Titan to a Memorial Cup championship last season.

Despite the changes, Tourigny’s structure for organizational success has stayed intact with strong scouting and the ability to develop draft picks from within, like Abbandonato, who is now 21 and in his final year of junior eligibility.

"Andre really changed the identity and culture of the team, first year [1996] we had two coaches, one coach for only 10 games." Charlebois said.

"Bouchard came in and kept the same culture and identity. They knew each other well."

Charlebois was born and raised in Rouyn-Noranda and put in a career in education at the local college before retiring at 60. He had no intentions of starting a second career, but found himself involved with the Huskies in 2003 when he was asked to consult on arena renovations. When the radio play-by-play announcer couldn’t make a road trip in 2005, Charlebois, who had some experience in broadcasting, stepped in and called a playoff game against the Moncton Wildcats.

He’s now going on 15 years as the voice of the Huskies.

"That’s when I tried and I did it for the rest of the series and I haven’t stopped yet," joked Charlebois.

Charlebois ventured out in early retirement to write a book on the history of hockey in his hometown but after compiling his information he realized that he could pen one solely on the Huskies, which was released in 2006 on the 20th anniversary of the team and translates to ‘A Dream Come True.’

Charlebois continues to hope Rouyn-Noranda can win a Memorial Cup despite being one of the smaller markets in the CHL. It was when the Flin Flon Bombers from Northern Manitoba beat the powerhouse Montreal Junior Canadiens for the Cup in 1957 that he believed it was possible to win it all, with the small-town Bombers creating a David vs. Goliath storyline that still stands out in his mind today.

"I was very impressed that a small city like that could win a major national championship at the junior level against a team like the Canadiens and I sort of dreamt that that could happen in Rouyn-Noranda one day," said Charlebois.

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