Rimouski runs and guns

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Two years ago, the Rimouski Oceanic lost 38 consecutive games and sank to the bottom of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with an 11-58-3 record -- 13 points back of second-last-place Drummondville.

Memorial Cup aside, it was the best thing that ever happened to the franchise.

That forgettable season produced a winning lottery ticket with the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, which they used to select Sidney Crosby, a high-scoring, Cole Harbour, N.S., native who quickly became the most exciting prospect in major junior hockey.

Two league scoring titles, a world junior championship gold medal and big-money endorsement deal with Reebok later, Crosby is the most hyped young player since Eric Lindros joined the Oshawa Generals 15 years ago.

The 17-year-old has restored Rimouski to prominence and is largely responsible for the Quebec league setting its attendance record this season. Playing to mostly packed houses wherever they go, the Oceanic and the Crosby show racked up a league-best 45-17-5-3 record and rolled to a 12-1 mark in the playoffs.

The lone, postseason 5-0 loss to Chicoutimi April 27 marked the end of a stunning 35-game unbeaten streak that didn't draw nearly the attention of London Knights' 31-gamer to start the 2004-05 Canadian Hockey League season.

Rimouski's string won't knock London out of the record books because it included both regular season and playoff action.

Heading into London and a Memorial Cup-opening game against the Knights Saturday, Rimouski has lost just that one time in its past 41 games.

Crosby led his team -- and the entire country -- in scoring this year with 66 goals and 168 points, well ahead of his Oceanic linemates Dany Roussin (54-62-116) and Marc Antoine Pouliot (45-69-114) who were second and third in the league ledger.

Explosive Rimouski scored the most goals in the Quebec league this year (333) and had six games where it topped nine or more goals.

"We're an offensive team. We like to run and gun, that's more of our style," Crosby told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

Eleven of Crosby's 66 goals this season were game-winners. He also led the playoff race in scoring to become the 11th player in Quebec league history to lead during the regular season and postseason in the same year.

Despite being a two-year veteran and the team's biggest star, Crosby is still the second-youngest player on the Rimouski roster. He doesn't turn 18 until Aug. 7 and only 17-year-old rookie defenceman Graham Bona is younger. The Oceanic have nine players born in 1985 and three in 1984, so there's a desire, especially with Crosby's future in the air, to win it all now.

This isn't uncharted waters for Rimouski, which achieved major junior hockey's greatest goal by winning the Memorial Cup with a 6-2 victory over the Barrie Colts in Halifax in 2000.

Led by top scorer Brad Richards (now a star of the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning), the Oceanic went undefeated in four games in its lone trip to the Cup tournament. Rimouski is the last Quebec league team to win a Memorial Cup title.

The franchise has never been short on drafting great talent. Richards and Tampa teammate Vincent Lecavalier also played together for the Oceanic in 1997-98. The team advanced to the Quebec league championship in 1998 but lost to the Val d'Or Foreurs in four games.

Lecavalier, Rimouski's No. 1 pick in the 1996 Quebec league draft, posted 102 points in his rookie season and 115 points in his second season before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft in 1998.

Despite Rimouski being a relatively new junior centre, the Oceanic franchise can trace its roots back to the beginnings of the Quebec league.

The Sherbrooke Castors (Beavers) were one of the QMJHL's original 11 franchises and played in the six-team East division in the first season of 1969-70. Sherbrooke moved to Saint-Jean in 1982 after winning the league regular season and playoff titles. It kept the Castors name until 1989 when the team became the Lynx. The Lynx lasted six more seasons in Saint-Jean before shipping out in 1995 to Rimouski, a city with a population of about 45,000.

The Oceanic name was the winning entry in a renaming contest that attracted more than 1,500 suggestions, according to a story on the QMJHL website by Neil Hodge, a sports writer for the Times & Transcript in Moncton and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

"I was involved in the discussions with Maurice Tanguay to bring the team here," said Eric Forest, a Rimouski city councillor who was the team's marketing director at the time. "When we signed the agreement, we asked for a name that would reflect the fact that Rimouski is the oceanography capital of Quebec. We chose Oceanic because it represents something for the region.

"Our logo is the bow of a boat that's riding on the ocean between two big waves and there's a triangle in the background," Forest says. "A lot of people think it's a shark, but it's not. The teeth are drawn on the front of the boat."

Fitting since one of Rimouski's main tourist attractions is the "Musee de mer" (museum of the sea).

For the past two years, you could include Crosby and his Oceanic as a major tourist attraction, too.

RIMOUSKI OCEANIC

Home rink: Rimouski Coliseum (5,062 capacity)

Colours: Royal blue, navy blue and white

Director, hockey operations: Maurice Tanguay

Head coach: Doris Labonte; Assistants: Donald Dufresne, Guy Boucher, Nicolas Chabot

NHL draft picks: The Oceanic have eight players currently property of NHL teams: Forward Danny Stewart (Montreal), forward Dany Roussin (Florida), forward Mark Tobin (Tampa Bay), forward Zbynek Hrdel (Tampa Bay), forward Eric Neilson (Los Angeles), forward Marc Antoine Pouliot (Edmonton), defenceman Michal Sersen (Pittsburgh), defenceman Jean-Michel Bolduc (Minnesota). Crosby, of course, was slated to become the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft this summer before the season was cancelled because of the labour lockout.

Memorial Cup experience: Rimouski defenceman Mario Scalzo Jr. is the only player on the team who has competed in the tournament. He played in the 2002 Cup with the Victoriaville (Que.) Tigers in Guelph, who lost in the final 6-3 to the Western Hockey League's Kootenay Ice after eliminating the Guelph Storm in a tiebreaker and the Erie Otters in the semifinal in overtime. The Oceanic coaching staff is largely intact from the 2000 Cup win. Donald Dufresne also played in the 1987 tournament with the Longueuil (Que.) Chevaliers.


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