A new era in Gatineau: Red-hot Olympiques on impressive run heading into QMJHL semis
It was two games into a winning streak in January when Gatineau Olympiques coach and general manager Louis Robitaille leaned in to kiss his daughter, only to have her grumble about his prickly stubble.
But Robitaille, feeling a little superstitious, wasn’t about to shave after a win.
Little did he know then, the winning streak would span two months and last 21 games — and he isn’t exactly fond of the facial hair he produces.
“Trust me, it was not pretty,” said Robitaille.
“It gets a little patchy in some places,” added top Olympiques forward Zachary Dean. “I don't know how he'll like me saying that.”
That winning streak, and Robitaille’s attempt at a beard, came to an end after a loss to the Sherbrooke Phoenix on March 22. But what hasn’t stopped is Gatineau’s scorching hot run through the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Olympiques, searching for their first league title since 2008, are through to the third round of the playoffs after beating the reigning Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs 4-1 in Round 1 and sweeping the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in Round 2. They are outscoring opponents 53-9 — 26-1 at home — in the playoffs and have won 31 of their past 33 games overall.
The Olympiques open a best-of-seven league semifinal in Quebec City on Friday against the regular-season champion Remparts. The Halifax Mooseheads face the Sherbrooke Phoenix in the other semifinal with the winners squaring off for the QMJHL title and a spot in the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, B.C.
Dean, a St. Louis Blues prospect who won gold for Canada at the world junior championship this year, is having himself a playoffs to remember. He leads all scorers with 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in nine games.
The 20-year-old Dean, who grew up in Mount Pearl, N.L., is hardly the only Gatineau player tearing up the stat sheet. Centre Riley Kidney has four goals and 14 assists, winger Alexis Gendron leads the playoffs with 12 goals and Tristan Luneau, named the league's defenceman of the year on Thursday, has two goals and 11 assists. But Dean, who will turn pro next season, is setting the tone for the rest of the team.
“He has nothing else to win except the trophy and that’s really his mindset. He doesn't care about his individual performances, he wants to win. So that gets contagious,” said Robitaille.
The Olympiques had a shaky start to the season, including a 6-5 November that fell well below their expectations of being a top team in the league this season, as they dealt with injuries to key players.
Captain Manix Landry, who was later traded to the Drummondville Voltigeurs, injured his clavicle in the second game of the season. Forwards Olivier Nadeau and Antonin Verreault also missed the first half of the season, among several other injuries.
But as the team slowly returned to full health, Gatineau began finding its groove in December. By the time the trade deadline rolled round over the holiday season, it was time to go all in.
The Olympiques added four key players at the deadline: Gendron, the pure scorer; Kidney, the playmaking centreman; Cameron McDonald, a gritty Memorial Cup winner with the Sea Dogs; and Francesco Lapenna, the veteran netminder hungry for his first championship.
“With them, it really helped kind of round our team into the team that we are now,” said Dean, a Gatineau player since 2019.
From there, they haven’t really looked back. Gatineau finished fourth in the league with a 49-12-5 record, and has lost only four games since the calendar turned to 2023.
“It was kind of like a new season (started) right at the deadline,” said the 41-year-old Robitaille, who’s been at the helm of the organization since the 2020-21 season.
It’s something of a new era for the Olympiques, who made a big move from their longtime Robert Guertin Arena to the Slush Puppie Centre, a new facility in a different part of town, in 2021.
A classic old hockey barn, Robert Guertin Arena (affectionately known as “The Bob”) traditionally gave a big boost to the home team come playoff time with fans all crammed in and close to the action. It’s where goalie Martin Biron lifted the Memorial Cup on home ice in 1997, and where Luc Robitaille and Claude Giroux developed into offensive superstars before plying their trade in the NHL.
With the run they’re on this year, the Olympiques are starting to build a new culture of rabid fandom at the new arena, where they’re unbeaten in front of dependable sellout crowds through the playoffs.
“I really felt through the year this year the fans took charge and made it their house,” said Louis Robitaille. “Those new arenas … nothing can compare to the old vibes. The Montreal Canadiens moved from the Forum to the Bell Centre, it's not the same. But now it has become the norm, right? This is the loudest building.
“So it’s a different kind of atmosphere, but I really feel like we have the best atmosphere in the league. And then you look at our record at home, those fans are amazing for us.”
When Dean arrived to practice on Monday, the morning tickets went on sale for Games 3 and 4 of the third round in Gatineau, he was surprised to see a long lineup out the door.
Turns out, the online ticketing system malfunctioned due to an overload of users trying to get seats at the same time. Once everything was back up and running 30 minutes later, tickets had mostly sold out due to the over 500 people who lined up.
“All the guys, we love that,” said Dean of the fans lining up for tickets. “It’s good for us when you go out for warm-up and the rink is almost full. It’s something we look forward to.
“They’re loud and they’re crazy.”
But before they can get back home to the partisan crowd, they’re off to Quebec City to play Patrick Roy’s perennial contender Remparts in an NHL-sized arena.
“That's what (playoffs) are all about,” said Robitaille. “You're living to play those games.
“It's gonna be intense, gonna be emotional, but it's gonna be fun.”
ELSEWHERE IN THE CHL
The Ontario Hockey League’s third round also gets underway Friday with the Sarnia Sting visiting the London Knights and the North Bay Battalion hosting the Peterborough Petes. Peterborough took down the regular-season champion Ottawa 67’s in the second round, London has lost just one game these playoffs. Neither Sarnia nor North Bay has ever won the OHL title.
The Western Hockey League’s third round opens Friday with a game between the Saskatoon Blades and the Winnipeg Ice, while the Kamloops Blazers and Seattle Thunderbirds begin play Saturday. Saskatoon beat Connor Bedard’s Regina Pats and mounted a comeback from down 3-0 over the Red Deer Rebels to reach the semifinal. Winnipeg had the best record in the WHL this season. Seattle and Kamloops finished first and second in the West, respectively. Seattle lost in the final last year, while Kamloops hasn’t made it to the final round since 1999.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press