Inside the Sea Dogs’ plans to host the Memorial Cup — and build a team to win it – The Athletic

Trevor Georgie and Mark-Anthony Ashfield were gathered around a computer screen, their eyes frantically racing between the slow creep of the upload bar and the time on the clock.
It was Friday, Aug. 6, and even after pulling three all-nighters at their TD Station offices to get it done, it had come down to the wire.
Five weeks earlier, on June 30, Georgie, the president and general manager of the Saint John Sea Dogs, and Ashfield, a partner at Deloitte who’d been brought on as the chair of the team’s bid committee, had informed the CHL of their intention to submit a proposal to host the 102nd Memorial Cup.
In a normal year, they would have had months to put together their submission. Not this year, though.
Theirs was due now.
Only in place of the usual 80-or-so-page documents submitted by other CHL teams, theirs, which the two of them had written almost entirely themselves over an all-consuming summer, ran nearly 400 pages long. It was also accompanied by a video the team had put together — Georgie had earlier cut a trip to Vancouver short to fly to Saint John, drive to Halifax, and edit the video with Ashfield when they didn’t like where it was going.
And they were taking forever to upload.
When the documents finally reached 100 percent and they hit send, they rushed to take a screenshot because the computer showed just one minute to spare and they wanted to remember the moment.
The lead-up to that moment had been more than five years in the making.
This year, the Sea Dogs pulled back the curtain on it all for The Athletic, revealing a behind-the-scenes look at how a team builds for the Memorial Cup and then prepares to host it.
On the ice, it took a painstaking rebuild and then both a draft and trade deadline for the ages to come out of it ready to not just contend for junior hockey’s crown but take it.
Off of it, it required finding a way to position their “small but mighty” organization and its 6,000-seat arena, in its Atlantic Canada city of less than 70,000, against the QMJHL giant Quebec Remparts, with their glitzy new NHL-sized arena and their legendary Hockey Hall of Fame bench boss.
On the eve of Christmas Eve in 2015, Georgie was sitting in a different office in Toronto, just a few days before his 29th birthday, signing the contract that would give him the reins of the Sea Dogs.
Across the table from him was Scott McCain, the Sea Dogs’ owner and chairman of the world’s biggest manufacturer of frozen potato products: McCain Foods.
After three decades in business and a failed bid to host the Memorial Cup in 2012 (when Shawinigan won it), McCain had emerged from that disappointment to meet Georgie, finding him to be an “exceptional young man.”
When McCain outlined Georgie’s mandate to him, at the top of the list was his desire to host the Memorial Cup in his home province of New Brunswick. (McCain was born in a small town he says “nobody’s ever heard of” called Florenceville, also the birthplace of his family’s business.)
“It was always a dream in the back of my mind of ‘we’ll get another chance,’” McCain said. “And when we hired Trevor, I said, ‘Trevor, someday wouldn’t it be great if we could have another kick at the can and host a Memorial Cup in Saint John?’”
From that point on, everything Georgie and the Sea Dogs did became about making that happen.
That began the following season when the Sea Dogs, led by names like Thomas Chabot, Mathieu Joseph, Jakub Zboril and Joe Veleno (the QMJHL’s first exceptional status player), pushed to try to win the 2017 Memorial Cup.
Coincidentally, that year’s tournament was held by the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, whose owners Georgie had done a corporate project for while in university. Using the relationships he’d forged with them, the first step in fulfilling McCain’s mandate was a fall 2016 visit to watch a Spitfires game in a box with their owners.
The point of the trip was twofold. The first was to get a sense for their vision of a Memorial Cup roster. The second was to prod Spitfires staff for as much as they’d be willing to offer about how they won their bid.
At the end of the night, feeling successful on both fronts, he told them he’d see them back in Windsor in June.
They laughed.
After winning the team’s third President’s Cup in 2017, the QMJHL-champion Sea Dogs went to Windsor like Georgie had predicted, only to lose in the semifinal to the OHL-champion Erie Otters (who’d lose in the final to the host Spitfires).
The following season, having lost their entire core except for Veleno, their focus shifted solely to aligning their next contending window with a bid.
“Our team was a mess,” McCain said, “and I said, ‘Well, Trev, I guess we’ve got our work cut out for us and we’ve got five years to rebuild and build a winner to stage a Mem Cup in Saint John.’”
That started with the difficult decision to work out a blockbuster trade with the Drummondville Voltigeurs that would move the 17-year-old Veleno, by then the team’s captain, for a package that would bring back four first-round picks.
McCain describes what followed as “excruciating.”
“Anybody that has been involved in junior hockey knows that you have a decision to make: Do you want to run your franchise to be middle of the pack the whole time or do you want to experience the highs and the lows? Nobody likes the lows but the highs are so exciting,” McCain said. “If you’re in it for the Memorial Cup, you’re in it for the pain a few years after. Our organization has had the good fortune of having won three President’s Cups and one Memorial Cup in 17 years. So having done it once, you just have the buzz to do it again.”
After winning 48 of 68 games in 2017, that meant winning just 14 and then 13 times the following two seasons.
At the team’s lowest, Georgie held out hope that it would all be worth it when they got the Memorial Cup, talking to staff around the office as if it was inevitable and promising players and their families that they’d host as he recruited.
“Our language was never, ‘We hope to host.’ I believe in speaking things into existence and our language was always, ‘When we host the Memorial Cup,’” Georgie said.
Between the Veleno trade in Dec. of 2017 and the 2018 draft, he also wrote “The Sea Dogs Blueprint,” his roadmap for how they’d host and build a team that was good enough to win it when they did.
In that period, Georgie and his lieutenant Anthony Stella (who’d just been promoted from scout to assistant general manager) set out to gather as much info about building a championship team as they could, interviewing executives in hockey who’d hosted and led Memorial Cup runs, or won Stanley Cups.
They also hired data scientist Justin Landry. Stella had asked for a budget to build an analytics department when he was promoted and found Landry while mining through Twitter. Their first phone call lasted three hours and Landry spent much of it challenging the Sea Dogs’ draft choices of a year earlier.
“For me, going into a draft without some sort of analytical backing is like going into a gun fight with knife,” Stella said. “If I’m talking to the analytics department and they’re telling me, ‘Well hey, this player’s production is only this and they project to be this, why do you like them?’ then I need to then defend my opinion. No one knows the future. We don’t know shit. At the end of the day I push the button but the process of getting to that point, the more debate and information the better.”
Stella became Georgie’s boots on the ground — his point guy for the import, midget and entry drafts as well as players to target in trades or as free agents.
“I’m Trevor’s eyes and ears,” Stella said. “We attack from two different ways. I say, ‘Trevor, here are the one or two guys I like,’ and then Trevor says ‘OK’ and he’ll take the agent to lunch.”
When the 2018 draft rolled around, their plan for it became obsessively about what the players they drafted would look like when they hosted the Memorial Cup.
That year, the blueprint outlined a specific focus on drafting defencemen and smaller forwards because they knew that those were the types of players who were most likely to be both coming into their own at 19 and 20 years old and stand the highest chance of not having graduated to the NHL.
“It was all about hedging risk,” Georgie said. “We’re here to win a Memorial Cup not a Stanley Cup, so that doesn’t help us if they depart early.”
They also set out on an aggressive recruitment of college-committed players, knowing that if they could pull kids away from the NCAA that they’d get better value than other teams.
With their first two picks, they drafted defencemen William Villeneuve No. 2 and defenceman Jeremie Poirier No. 8. With a third first-rounder, they drafted forward Josh Lawrence, who checked two of the blueprint’s boxes: he was small and he was committed to the college route. In the second round, they doubled down on that philosophy, drafting then-college-bound players Charlie Desroches (a defenceman) and Brady Burns (a small forward). A couple of years later, they did the same again, pulling forwards Peter Reynolds and Cameron MacDonald away from their college paths. As part of that process, alum Charlie Coyle, who left Boston University in 2012 to join the Sea Dogs for their second President’s Cup, would commonly call the players to help with the pitch.
Though they never got the chance to draft would-be No. 1 pick Hendrix Lapierre, they even had discussions about whether they’d want to, knowing he may not be around come their Memorial Cup (Lapierre started this season with the Capitals and nearly wasn’t sent back, so they were right).
With every pick, Stella, who was managing his first draft and just 27 years old, felt like he was sticking his neck out.
“That whole first year could be its own novel. There was a lot of self-doubt and a lot of people who didn’t believe in what we were doing as these two young guys,” Stella said. “Even some of our own scouts, I remember one of them telling Trevor ‘Brady Burns needs to grow if he wants to be offensive in this league.’ We didn’t have that bias. A small forward that puts up points oftentimes gets overlooked. And we needed them for that one year.”
Once they were drafted, the Sea Dogs Blueprint mapped out how they’d develop them toward the Memorial Cup, which started with rolling out the youngest roster in the CHL in back-to-back years.
In their first season together, the 2018 draft class of Villeneuve, Poirier, Lawrence, Burns and Desroches were a combined minus-224. Convincing them that it was all part of the plan was no small task.
“It’s exhausting. These are guys who are used to winning. So it’s really hard. It’s hard on the fan base, it’s hard on the players, it’s hard on the bottom line, it’s hard on everything,” Georgie said. “Eventually you become the oldest in the league and things get better but it’s hard for some people to understand and appreciate that when you’re living day-to-day.”
Even as they began to round the corner, some players didn’t make it to the finish line. That included Joshua Roy, the Sea Dogs’ No. 1 pick in 2019 (whom they’d penciled in as their No. 1 centre), asking for a trade in the middle of the 2020-21 season. Forwards Dawson Stairs (another one of those successful 2018 picks) and Alex Drover, as well as defenceman Kale McCallum, all of whom were penciled into the blueprint, were all also moved for one reason or another.
Eventually, though, they came out of it, led by their 2018 draft class.
“That draft will go down in history as one of the best drafts ever in the league just [in] sheer players, and games played, and points,” Stella said.
But their job was only just beginning.
So when the 2019 Memorial Cup came around, and the tournament was held in Halifax, the Sea Dogs hosted a dinner, invited people from the hockey and business communities, and continued making promises.
“We just talked about how we were going to host the Memorial Cup next,” Georgie said of the dinner, repeating himself for the umpteenth time, laughing and then pausing to consider the ramifications if he was wrong.
“It would have been soul-crushing if we didn’t get it…”
When Sept. of 2021 rolled around and the day came for the Sea Dogs and Remparts to learn who would host, Georgie, Stella, McCain and Ashfield gathered in the Sea Dogs’ offices to wait for the news.
Ashfield uses the same word to describe those tense moments as McCain did to describe the rebuild: excruciating.
Excruciating because he knew how badly Georgie and McCain wanted it.
“We missed important milestones over those final weeks. It felt like we were in a marathon. None of us wanted to take our hand off the wheel because we’d spent so many years focussed on this,” Georgie said. “We wanted to demonstrate that we weren’t just submitting a bid that we could start working on once we got awarded it, we wanted to demonstrate that we were already working on it. ‘Don’t worry, pick Saint John, we’re well on our way and it’s taken care of.’”
Excruciating because they knew when they got the bid guidelines in the summer that they were going to be the underdog.
“When Quebec City is bidding it’s pretty much theirs to lose,” Ashfield said. “If you were stacking up the assets to bid for a Memorial Cup, Quebec City would have everything you want. So we wanted to be very strategic with how we thought about what this event could be. We didn’t want this to be about just hosting a hockey tournament. This is a major event and major events don’t come this way very often.”
They also knew that because of the pandemic they weren’t going to be able to host anyone in their city to show them the venues or their plans. So everything rested on that 400-page document making the right impression.
“Trevor and I probably slept seven hours the week leading up to the bid because there was so much that we were doing for content and making sure the story was right and lining up the pieces,” Ashfield said. “We really wanted the committee, when they read our bid, to experience what the Memorial Cup was going to look like in Saint John. We really wanted someone to pick up that document and know. This was our shot. We wanted to say that ‘If this is really an event for everyone, we want to be the city that really represents almost 70 percent of the cities in the CHL that really look and feel like us. We weren’t Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, or Quebec City, but we believe these events can be really meaningful for a city like ours and we didn’t want to miss the chance. It would have been devastating to not have the opportunity.”
In the final moments before they learned the news, doubt finally creeped in.
“There’s always that feeling of ‘What if we invested all of this time, and all of this effort and emotion, and passion into it, and then it doesn’t go our way?’” Ashfield said. “(Georgie and I) had the feeling that we left everything on the line as part of it and that we pitched a vision for the Memorial Cup — and a different vision — but your mind still goes there.”
Then the news came, air re-entered the room to replace worry with relief, and they all turned to hug one another.
“The fact that Saint John has never hosted. The fact that it’s the first one since it had been cancelled (two years running). The fact that we’ve invested years planning an event that we’re not even sure we were going to get. It means so much,” Georgie said.
“And I’m happy that I don’t have 20 families that are pissed off at me because we didn’t get to host it after all,” Georgie added, chuckling.
After they learned they were hosting, talk of “for the Memorial Cup year, for the Memorial Cup year,” became the here and now of their last trade period.
And even after watching Poirier, Villeneuve, Desroches, Burns, Lawrence, Reynolds and MacDonald develop into what they’d hoped for, and even after trading to acquire Flames prospect Ryan Francis and Islanders prospect William Dufour in the lead-up to the season, they weren’t nearly good enough.
Georgie came to that conclusion after meeting with Stella and their coaching staff. Then he sat down with McCain one day in Halifax to ask him how far he was willing to go, outline where in the Sea Dogs Blueprint they were, and detail to his owner that to win a Memorial Cup you need three forward lines that can play against first lines, six top-four D, and two starting goalies.
McCain, having prevented his former head coach Gerard Gallant from trading two first-round picks for defenceman Brandon Gormley in 2012, knew that there was only one answer this time around.
“If you want to get to the Memorial Cup, you’re going to have to make moves to get there or you’re going to be embarrassed. There’s no way around it,” McCain said.
He’s also now 65 and says he has a different perspective (he now believes the Sea Dogs would have won the Memorial Cup with Gormley and argues Gormley put the Cataractes, who made the trade when Saint John wouldn’t, over the edge). So he answered unequivocally.
“Green light on whatever you’ve got to do,” he told Georgie. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s not have any regrets.”
With McCain’s blessing, Georgie and Stella worked in close council from morning to night, day after day, to pull off what McCain calls “the most dramatic trade period in the history of our franchise.”
“Trevor did a job I’ve never seen in my lifetime in hockey,” McCain said.
The result was the orchestration of six trades involving 44 pieces ahead of the January 6 deadline, all of which were dumped in a string of last-minute announcements in order to prevent other teams from knowing the scale they were working toward.
“It was hectic, it was a lot of changes,” Stella said. “It was important for us to keep our cards close to our chest. We didn’t want to announce something and then have a contender have a few days to answer to it.”
Added Georgie: “And in those last 24 hours, we really heard it from some fans about, ‘Come on, you guys are hosting’ and I kind of chuckled to myself and thought, ‘Boy, the trade deadline is on a workday, I hope you’re not too busy for a couple of hours.’”
They’d set out to go get three things:
To accomplish the first goal, they traded for veteran defenceman Vincent Sevigny and goaltender Nikolas Hurtubise, who’d won the QMJHL title with the Victoriaville Tigres the season prior, naming Sevigny captain. To accomplish the second, they traded for Penguins prospect Raivis Ansons, hard-nosed forward Nick Blagden, and Jack-of-all-trades Marshall Lessard and Connor Trenholm.
They also put an emphasis on trading for players who already had connections to their current roster, in theory so that they would fit in faster down the stretch (Lessard, for example, played minor hockey with Villeneuve and Sea Dogs forward Olivier Picard).
“We could have got other players for less of a price but in speaking to our guys, these were all guys that they know. Nobody walked into our room not knowing anybody. Someone endorsed them on the team,” Georgie said.
They also worked a non-trade angle to bring in talent by having conversations with Flames general manager Brad Treliving and director of player development Ray Edwards about defenceman Yan Kuznetsov, who’d begun the year playing in the AHL with the Stockton Heat. The Sea Dogs, who already had a pair of the Flames’ prospects (Poirier and Francis), had selected Kuznetsov in the CHL Import Draft knowing there was a high chance he’d never play for them but hoping they could use their relationship with the Flames to get him and were willing to take the gamble over a lesser player.
Once they knew they could guarantee a Memorial Cup run for Kuznetsov, they eventually convinced the Flames to loan him, even working with their academic director to let him know that if he came and he wanted to finish his degree at UConn (where he’d played the two prior seasons) that they could facilitate that.
They then set their sights on the one final move that had to happen but was going to be the hardest to make — the No. 1 centre — only to work for weeks to finalize a deal for the perfect player and have the other team’s owner pull the plug on it at the last minute (after the paperwork had been sent to the league and Georgie had already told the players going the other way they’d been traded).
When it fell through, Geogrie rushed to inquire with the Moncton Wildcats about a player they’d been fond of for years: Philippe Daoust. Only there was a hitch: Daoust was playing in the AHL with the Belleville Senators.
At 10 p.m. on the eve of the deadline, Wildcats general manager Ritchie Thibeau called Georgie back to let him know that Daoust was returning to the QMJHL. Together, Georgie and Thibeau agreed they wouldn’t hang up until they had a deal.
After emailing paperwork back and forth into the early morning, they finally locked in the framework of a giant 10-piece trade, confirmed that the Senators would be comfortable with Daoust going to Saint John (the Sea Dogs also had a relationship with the Senators after having Chabot), and pulled the trigger.
Once they hung up with Thibeau, Georgie and Stella hung around on their Zoom until 6 a.m. finalizing everything, brushed their teeth, went to bed for an hour, and then got back on Zoom at 8 a.m.
“The trade period was just jam-packed,” Stella said, sighing.
Before announcing it all, Georgie laid it all out for McCain.
“He called me that night and he said ‘Here’s what I’ve done,’” McCain said, laughing. “That’s how it happened.”
When it was over, nearly half the team looked different.
“Part of our blueprint that we held strong to was that most Memorial Cup teams have been homegrown where most of their players have been drafted or signed before they were 18 to grow with the team. So a trade period like that doesn’t seem consistent with the blueprint,” Georgie said, “but really we added what Memorial Cup teams would add over the course of three years in one trade deadline because we didn’t have the previous deadlines due to the pandemic.”
The results were instantaneous.
Armed with eight drafted NHL prospects, the most in the QMJHL, the Sea Dogs played to a 32-5-1 record after the deadline, winning their last 15 games of the season and finishing as the league’s highest-scoring team. Dufour led the QMJHL in goals with 56, breaking Jonathan Huberdeau’s Sea Dogs points record with 116. Lawrence tied for the league lead in assists and broke Huberdeau’s record there, too, with 70. Villeneuve, four seasons after he was minus-52, led the league in plus-minus at plus-60.
They were ready.
The only thing left to do was to pull off hosting it, and that was its own monster.
At the centre of the Sea Dogs’ initial bid was a concept-turned-slogan: “One for All.”
On the hockey side, “One for All” became about building a progressive organization from the top down. That meant creating a mental performance department which included bringing in sports psychologist Dr. Dana Sinclair and performance coach Dr. Ashwin Patel. As they prepared for their season, it meant inviting LGBTQ advocate and former professional hockey player Brock McGillis, leaders in women’s hockey, and Bryant McBride, who has documented Willie O’Ree’s life on film, to speak with their players.
“We look for every opportunity to have conversations with our players about social issues, about what’s going on in the world, about what’s going on around them and their role in that,” Georgie said. “We don’t look at it passively. We look to build a rapport with them. I think that today’s player is much more open-minded, progressive and accepting than any of us adults give them credit for. And just because I’m the GM doesn’t mean I’m building this team by myself. We’re building it together.”
On the event side, “One for All” became about the city and its people.
“When I think about the timing, there’s just a lot of stuff going on in the world that I would say is really dividing people. So it’s an opportunity to bring the community together, bring people from different backgrounds, and make this an event that’s really inclusive and accessible for everybody,” Ashfield said.
Added McCain: “If we win it would be icing on the cake but just to get there and have this event in Saint John, that’s what it’s all about from my perspective. It really is nice to do something special in my home province and hopefully create a legacy that will leave a lasting impression for many years to come.”
First they had to get there, though.
That became Ashfield’s job as he transitioned from chairing the bid committee to chairing the event.
It was up to him to organize an eight-night concert series that will run throughout the tournament and feature some of Canada’s biggest acts. It was up to him to organize a “One for All” speaker series (which they’d promised themselves they’d do whether or not they won their bid). It was up to him to work with the city to leave as part of that legacy the “Memorial Cup Plaza” — an outdoor event space and ball hockey facility to be constructed adjacent TD Station.
“Ball hockey is really popular here and it’s part of our vision for introducing hockey to folks where ice skating hasn’t been introduced to them yet,” Georgie said. “My father is from Iraq and ice skating was not part of his upbringing. And there are a lot of folks like him that arrive to Canada and skating isn’t natural for them and it’s also very expensive for gear.”
And they had to figure it all out while navigating changing provincial pandemic restrictions. When they started out in the bid process, everything was open. But almost immediately after they were selected as the winner, New Brunswick went into lockdown. Then they opened up briefly only to plunge back into an even bigger lockdown before opening again.
Originally, Ashfield and the Sea Dogs had also worked to get everything in place for announced dates in early June. Then, after the pandemic slowed each of the CHL’s leagues’ schedules, the Sea Dogs were told they’d have to move the event to June 20-29.
“We understand that they wanted to complete full regular seasons and a normal playoff schedule. I totally get it from a financial perspective and a player development perspective. But it’s not ideal for us,” Georgie said, laughing.
The move required they review their budgets, check in with government officials and rebook all of their hotels and venues, which meant negotiating with the arena to move a scheduled monster truck show, a country concert and a midway.
“Oh my gosh, it has been a roller coaster,” Ashfield said of it all. “It has been a lot of navigating things that are out of our control. But I will say through all of it, our team is amazing. I would take this team to any event. This event is going to be amazing, I have no doubt about that.”
As the tournament nears, win or lose, each of Georgie, Stella, McCain and Ashfield have promised to be proud of what they’ve done come June 29.
There will be no slowing down, though.
“We’re hosting the Memorial Cup and all I’m thinking about is the draft after it. The Memorial Cup is nice but we have to have a team next year and we’re rebuilding this team next year,” Stella said. “It’s like ‘OK, how do we get two first-round picks for the guys I like (when we have none)?’ It’s very contrast to ‘The Mem Cup’s going to be great, and we’re going to enjoy this and this.’ Because to me this isn’t a finishing line.”
If they win it, the parade will be June 30. On July 1, they’ll have the European draft. On July 3, Georgie will be getting married. On July 4, the midget draft will bring him back to work.
“I have a few GMs and agents coming to the wedding so I might have to get them to sign contracts and make trades after the ceremony,” Georgie finished, only half-jokingly.
(Illustration: Wes McCabe / The Athletic; photo: Mike Hastings)

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