REGINA – Most of his teammates had long left the ice as a sweater-less Adam Holwell skated around the rink with the trophy in a bear hug and pressed closely against his shoulder pads.
It was going to take a lot to pry the MasterCard Memorial Cup from his hands.
“Last game of my career, it’s unbelievable,” the over-age defenceman said. “You can never imagine how it feels.”
Holwell’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan capped off an amazing second half of the season by claiming Canadian major junior hockey’s ultimate prize.
The Titan beat the host Regina Pats 3-0 on Sunday to earn the first Memorial Cup title in the franchise’s 49-year history.
The 2018 tournament marked the second Memorial Cup appearance for the Titan since moving to Bathurst, N.B., from Laval, Que., in 1998. They went 0-3 in 1999.
This time, the CHL’s smallest-market team reached the pinnacle.
“They had 20 hard years there waiting for a chance to win this,” said NHL draft-eligible defenceman Noah Dobson, whose parents, Andrew and Jenny, were born and raised in Bathurst.
“We won the President Cup at home. To go home with a Memorial Cup, I can’t wait to see that.”
Holwell and forwards Samuel Asselin and Ethan Crossman scored for the Titan, while St. Louis Blues prospect Evan Fitzpatrick recorded a 28-save shutout.
It was the culmination of a tremendous few months for Acadie-Bathurst.
The Titan followed up a 23-4-2 regular season record after the QMJHL trade deadline with a 16-4 mark in the post-season.
They were the best team in Regina.
The Titan – who beat the Pats 8-6 earlier in the tournament – lost only once in four games. Their only blemish was a round-robin loss that featured a conservative late-game approach.
Titan GM Sylvain Couturier made several key trades throughout the year, picking up key pieces like Asselin, Fitzpatrick, Philadelphia first-rounder German Rubtsov, scorer Mitchell Balmas and offensive defenceman Olivier Galipeau.
The moves changed the complexion of the group and sparked the unstoppable run.
“We all clicked together as soon as everyone got traded to Bathurst,” captain Jeffrey Truchon-Viel said. “That was a perfect scenario for us.”
Sunday’s final was the ideal way to cap off a tremendous second half.
The only place the game was close for much of the night was on the scoreboard as the Titan outshot the Pats 44-28.
They carried the play for the first two periods.
Goaltender Max Paddock was the only reason the Pats had a chance going into the second intermission.
Holwell’s second goal of the tournament was sandwiched in between hit posts from German Rubtsov and Samuel Asselin in the first.
The Titan’s dominance was even more prevalent in the middle 20 minutes. They recorded the first 17 shots of the frame and owned possession and zone time.
Paddock had to be both sharp and spectacular. His best saves came off Crossman on the same shift – first on a partial breakaway and then with a glove stop.
It took until almost the 11-minute mark for the Pats to get their first shot. The crowd roared in appreciation.
“We needed a second puck on the ice,” Pats coach-GM John Paddock said, “because for two periods they didn’t let us have it.”
While the Pats made a third-period push, the Titan got the only goals.
The insurance marker came courtesy of Asselin, who knocked in a beautiful feed from Truchon-Viel at 13:02.
Crossman added an empty-netter with 30.3 seconds remaining as Fitzpatrick skated to the Titan bench, arms raised. All that was left was to watch the clock tick down.
“We were really excited over the last few days to play this game,” Galipeau said. “We really had a good start. That’s what made the difference. We just kept pushing all game.
“This was our best game of the year.”
With the loss, the Pats failed to win their fifth Memorial Cup and first since 1974.
They had a 45-day layoff after losing in the first round of the WHL post-season to the eventual champions, the Swift Current Broncos.
“It was pretty gut-wrenching when we lost out in the playoffs,” veteran blueliner Josh Mahura said. “It almost feels like double that. Everyone’s so disappointed.”
Including Mahura, the Pats roster featured six full-time players who were part of last year’s team that lost in the WHL final.
The most prominent of that group was captain Sam Steel, the CHL’s leading scorer from a year ago and the franchise’s 10th all-time leading scorer.
Steel, a 2016 Anaheim Ducks first-rounder, was given a loud ovation when he accepted the tournament MVP trophy after leading all players with 13 points in five games.
“It’s good, but I’d trade it 10 times out of 10 to win the Memorial Cup,” he said.
The only contest he was held off the scoresheet was Sunday’s final as he was shut down mostly by Galipeau, Dobson, Asselin and Truchon-Viel. The latter three players joined Paddock, Mahura and Steel on the tournament all-star team.
After Steel was given his trophy, it was time for the Titan to come get theirs.
Truchon-Viel called upon Holwell and Galipeau to join him so the team’s three over-age players could hoist the Memorial Cup together.
It was a gesture Truchon-Viel thought of moments before.
“It was our last game, so I wanted to do something special so we could remember it,” he said.
It’s safe to say Holwell always will.
He did eventually hand off the Memorial Cup to Asselin, the last two players soaking in their championship together on the ice.
But to have that trophy in his arms in his last junior game arms couldn’t have felt any better.
“It means so much,” Holwell said.