Local hockey player relishes crack at Memorial Cup

Ottawa Sentators prospect Philippe Daoust and his Saint John Sea Dogs open the much-vaunted tournament on Monday against the OHL champions

Philippe Daoust is many things, but it is perhaps above all an example that young hockey players do not need to follow a straight line to become pro.

The winding journey the 20-year-old Barrie native has been on in recent seasons has a final leg as an amateur the Memorial Cup, which begins Monday when his Saint John Sea Dogs face the Hamilton Bulldogs, champions of the Ontario Hockey League, to open the national tournament.

Daoust recently signed with the Ottawa Senators two years after the NHL club selected him in the 2020 draft (sixth round, 158th overall). Steady improvement under difficult circumstances and continued physical and mental maturity have paid off. The Senators must also be satisfied that a player who was late in the draft got a contract.

“It’s been a stressful year, with a lot of ups and downs,” said Daoust, who played in the American Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) this season after competing for the first time at Senators training camp.

The winding road also saw Daoust bypass pandemic restrictions while still with the Moncton Wildcats in 2020-21. He was a hot target last season at the QMJHL trade deadline – a source said he was set to be traded from Moncton to a contender, but the bizarre nature of the playoffs last year helped scuttle him – but he eventually moved this year to the Sea Dogs, who held the automatic Memorial Cup berth.

Unfortunately for Daoust and the Sea Dogs, they were ousted in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs by the Rimouski Oceanic and had about six weeks to wait, during which time they fired their head coach, Gordie Dwyer.

Until arriving in Saint John, Daoust had played with the Belleville Senators, the organization’s AHL affiliate. He had five points in 15 games before being sent to the Sea Dogs, where he had 24 goals and 23 assists in 38 games. He scored twice and added an assist in the five-game loss to the Océanic.

In the fall of 2020 — that year’s draft was delayed five months due to the pandemic — Daoust was little known, even in many parts of the local and broader hockey community. This anonymity is lifted.

Why growth in the eyes of the Senses and others? Well, it started with physical growth a few years earlier.

“When I was 16, I was five-foot-three and weighed 120 pounds,” Daoust explains, the words hanging in the air as if to explain it wasn’t a capacity issue he barely noticed. during his draft year in the OHL.

Instead, it was hard to notice him at all, he was so small.

Passed above OHL priority selection, he was even buried in “A” level hockey at one point. This eventually led to a season with the Barrie Colts “AAA” (U18) before moving to the junior level in French River, the hometown of his parents Carole and Marcel in northern Ontario.

Daoust estimates he gained about seven inches and added at least 40 pounds in those intervening years.

The supremely gifted little boy had become a man.

Now six-foot-one and 175 pounds, he plays a man’s game.

“We’re pleased with his progress,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said when the club signed him. “He’s a highly skilled striker with good attacking instincts and creativity. With Saint John hosting the Memorial Cup…we expect him to play an important role.

The delayed Memorial Cup is one of the last remnants of the sporting world’s catch-up. Daoust acknowledged the awkwardness of having to use a backdoor and the decision to let Dwyer go exudes.

“It’s not like we (shouldn’t) use this mulligan,” Daoust says. “The host is the only team in the CHL that gets it.”

During a recent conversation, Daoust was working out the final details: chatting with a curious reporter, having dinner with this host family, and trying to figure out how many family members and friends are coming east. to see the national championship.

There were time constraints, which Daoust said made the organization “a bit more difficult”. But he hopes his family, which also includes his older brother Nikolas, can take at least part of the week off.

After the Memorial Cup, Daoust will have some time off before Senators development camp later in July. From there, he plans to return home for a short summer of intensive prep training with other local professionals before the Senators’ main training camp in September.

It was his strong showing last fall that convinced team bosses he was a keeper, sending him to Belleville and signing him on a three-year contract starting next season.

“I can’t thank them enough,” he said, making special mention of the Senators’ AHL coaches, especially the big club’s development staff, Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester, who are both former AHL players. the NHL.

Daoust played in an exhibition game, at home against the Montreal Canadiens, last time out. He hopes his stay in Ottawa will be much longer in the fall.

“It’s the dream,” he says.

And, given how far we’ve come to get here, that’s no exaggeration.

Catherine J. Martinez