Mooseheads co-captain Trey Lewis (Ghyslain Bergeron, The Canadian Press)SASKATOON, Sask. — There are two ways Trey Lewis and his Halifax Mooseheads mates can take the groundswell of support spawned by their run to the Memorial Cup final.
It could causes the walls around a tight-knit group to collapse inwardly. Or it could be one of the spoils of having gone up an incline as steep as Halifax's landmark Citadel Hill across the past four seasons, from 13 wins in 2009-10 to only 12 losses across 88 regular- and post-season games this season.
Even though the Mooseheads team had the longest distance to travel to the tournament among the three league champs, red-and-green clad fans have steadily popped up in Saskatoon. Back in the Nova Scotia capital, fans have gathered in the city's Grand Parade to watch telecasts on a projection screen. Playoff games at the 10,595-seat Metro Centre have sold out in fewer than 30 minutes, which is unheard of even in precincts where major junior hockey is big business.
"It's all about maturity," Lewis says. "Being confident and embracing that and making it work to our advantage, that’s worked for us all year. Playing in front of that many fans has helped us. Even when we’re on the road and we’re seeing them watching it on the big screen in Halifax, it’s pretty incredible, really.
The Moose mania is a reminder that Halifax is a scale-model Canadian answer to another sports-mad East Coast city.
"I didn’t realize how much support we had until we started doing well," says star centre Nathan MacKinnon, who as every hockey liker knows by now, is from the Halifax suburb of Cole Harbour. "You could compare it to a Boston, that’s for sure."
Maybe you need to spend time there to appreciate that depth of support. It's not well-known outside the Maritimes since the region does not have major pro teams. Major junior hockey is it. There is also a more Americanish passion for supporting university sport, but that tends to break according to school ties.
With the Mooseheads, the period before GM Cam Russell secured the draft rights to MacKinnon, left wing Jonathan Drouin and goalie Zachary Fucale in the summer of 2011 is often called the "dark days." Russell had a rebuilding plan in place. At same time, an outgunned young team still has to play a 68-game sked against teams which aren't inclined to be merciful. Fans also react to the won-loss record. Being teenagers, players on a team which is targeting being competitive in a year or two might also tend to slack off. Yet the Mooseheads' holdovers persevered.
'Coming from my first year, when we had 4½ thousand people there to averaging 8½ thousand this year and selling our last two games in 20 minutes, it’s been incredible," Lewis said. "The fact the fans stuck with us through the hard times and are supporting us means the world to us."
Checking-line centre Brent Andrews and defenceman Konrad Abeltshauser are the only holdovers from the 13-win 2009-10 team. Lewis and second-line centre Matthew Boudreau were also called up that season.
"It was night and day, comparing then until now," Andrews recalls. "Back then it was a struggle. Your season's done in the middle of March."
"You can try to be optimistic, but at the end of the day, you knew what kind of team we had," Lewis admits. "We knew where we were going to finish."
It's one thing to happy-to-be-here, hard-workin' team that knows it's going to be outgunned by teams with an older, stronger lineup. It's another when a season feels like a failure to launch. That was Halifax's 2010-11 season, where wings Darcy Ashley, Luca Ciampini, Martin Frk and Andrew Ryan came aboard.
Majority owner Bobby Smith took the coaching hat from Russell so the GM could concentrate on the rebuild. Halifax's rewarded for a 20-win season was being spanked in the opening round by the Montreal Juniors. (In a harbinger of the turnaround, Montreal soon became the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, moving into an arena not far from Fucale's family home.)
"I remember getting food poisoning in that series and missing a couple games," Ashley says. "We've always had the hard work on this team, but we just couldn’t outskill anyone."
"That was a frustrating year," adds Ashley. "We thought we were going to be better than we were. We just had to trust the ownership and the management. Cam did a fantastic job getting Nate and Jo and Fucs, the three best players in the draft."
Of course, Russell working to get Drouin and MacKinnon on his team launched the Mooseheads' fortunes to a level which has not been seen since the QMJHL came to the Nova Scotia capital in 1994. The rest of the story might be that the Mooseheads, with the QMJHL now past the new-product stage in the Maritimes, knew they couldn't just offer something perceived as a mid-level product. That can lead to a corrosive cynicism toward a major junior team.
For the first decade and a half of their history, the Mooseheads had the same label as the NHL's San Jose Sharks — fine regular-season team, but unable to win in the playoffs.
Win or lose Sunday, they have a championship mantle. The supporting cast always grows in importance when a show is successful. The Mooseheads relish knowing how the likes of Abeltshauser, Andrews, Boudreau and Lewis were on hand before the organization's 180.
"They have tremendous character, through the thick and through the thin," Ashley says of the vets. "You need them around so you can learn from it. That’s a quality that you want to have with every team."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.