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Area hockey player relishes crack at Memorial Cup

Ottawa Sentators prospect Philippe Daoust and his Saint John Sea Dogs open vaunted tournament Monday versus OHL champs

Philippe Daoust is a lot of things, but perhaps most of all he’s an example that young hockey players don’t need to follow a straight line to become a pro.

The circuitous journey the 20-year-old Barrie native has made over the past few seasons has one final stop as an amateur  the Memorial Cup, which starts Monday when his Saint John Sea Dogs take on the Ontario Hockey League champion Hamilton Bulldogs 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 through difficult circumstances and a continued physical and mental maturity have paid dividends. The Sens also must be gratified that a player taken late in the draft has earned a contract.

“It has been a stressful year, a lot of ups and downs,” says Daoust, who has played in both the American Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) this season after first attending the Senators training camp.

The twisty road also saw Daoust navigate pandemic restrictions while he was still with the Moncton Wildcats in 2020-21. He was a much-sought-after target last season at the QMJHL trade deadline — a source indicated he was about to be traded from Moncton to a contender, but the oddball nature of last year’s playoffs helped scuttle it — but he finally 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, in which time they fired their head coach, Gordie Dwyer.

Up to arriving in Saint John, Daoust had been playing 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 Oceanic.

In the fall of 2020 — the draft that year was delayed five months due to the pandemic — Daoust was little known even in many parts of the local and wider hockey community. That anonymity has lifted.

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

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

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

Passed over in the OHL Priority Selection, he was even buried in 'A'-level hockey at one point. It eventually led to a season with the 'AAA' Barrie Colts (U18s) before moving to playing junior in French River, the hometown of his parents Carole and Marcel in northern Ontario.

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

The supremely skilled little boy had become a man.

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

“We’ve been pleased with his progress,” Sens general manager Pierre Dorion said when the club signed him. “He’s a highly skilled forward with good offensive instincts and creativity. With Saint John serving as Memorial Cup host… we expect him to play an important role.”

The delayed Memorial Cup is one of the last vestiges of the sporting world catching up to normal. Daoust acknowledged the awkwardness having to use a back-door entry and the decision to let Dwyer go gives off.

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

During a recent conversation, Daoust was tying up loose ends: chatting with a nosy reporter, dinner with this billet family, and trying to sort out how many family and friends are coming east to see the national championship.

There were some time constraints, which Daoust says made it a "bit harder" to organize. But he's hopeful his family, which also includes older brother Nikolas, will be able to take in at least some of the week.

After the Memorial Cup, Daoust will have a sliver of time off before Sens development camp a bit later in July. From there, he plans to return home for a short summer of intense preparation training with other locally based pros before the main Senators training camp in September.

It was his solid performance last fall that convinced the team’s brass he was a keeper, sending him to Belleville and earmarking him for a three-year deal that kicks in next season. 

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

Daoust played one exhibition game, at home against the Montreal Canadiens, last time around. He hopes his stay in Ottawa is much longer in the fall.

“That’s the dream,” he says.

And, given how far he’s come to get here, not a far-fetched one.