A championship team reunion worth the 17 year wait
by Randy Pascal
The induction of the 1999-2000 Rayside-Balfour Sabrecats team into the Sudbury Sports Hall of Fame recently provided a huge honour for all
of those involved with their historic undefeated NOJHL campaign and eventual silver medal performance at the Royal Bank Cup in Fort McMurray,
But the chance to gather roughly half of the roster from that team together for the first time in seventeen years, relieving the memories from a once in
a lifetime campaign, now that was was priceless.
"We've spent the last seven hours together tonight and it's just been reminiscing," said team captain Serge Dubé, a resident of Laredo (Texas)
for the past fifteen years. "When you go 40-0 with someone, and go through what we went through to get there, it's pretty remarkable."
Some of the details might be blurred, but the season will always evoke some very strong emotions for all those who were at the very core of the best
showing ever by an NOJHL team on the national stage.
"It was just one of those years where everything worked," said Dubé. "We had an all-around team, with plenty of firepower, good defence, great
goaltending. You don't ever imagine not losing a single game in a season, especially being from a small northern Ontario town."
"We weren't a bunch of big names, but everyone gelled together, believed in the system and we followed Kenny (head coach Ken MacKenzie)." Dubé
was one of only a very small handful of players on the team who leveraged that season into a prolonged hockey career, suiting up for at least parts of
nine seasons with the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League.
Goaltender Sebastien Laplante was another. Selected in the 9th round of the NHL Entry Draft in 2001, Laplante would play one season in the WHL
with the Calgary Hitmen, journeying through the minors with stops in Norfolk, Roanoke, Florence, Wichita, Denver, Fort Wayne and Quad City.
Laplante now calls Ottawa home, acknowledging that there were certainly some unique hurdles to overcome when providing the final line of defence on a
team that was so incredibly dominant in league play.
"You learn to handle minimal adversity and still stay focused throughout the entire sixty minutes, even if you only faced twenty shots a game," Laplante
noted. "We had some of the best players in the country that year, and I believe we had the best coaching staff that year."
"Kenny never gave us an inch. We went 40-0 and Kenny still managed to work in a couple of bag skates in that time. That's a coach that keeps you
accountable for how you played."
Despite all of the success they enjoyed, and the temptation to focus from time to time on the individual statistics that could be downright gaudy, the
room remained as tight as any that Laplante had ever seen.
"We created bonds that never leave, we were that tight," he said. "Our leadership, from the coaches to Serge, our captain - it's hard to explain, but
when you win a championship like that, it's special."
"It was a weird dynamic," agreed forward Jeff Tait, making the drive from Wawa to Sudbury earlier this month. "There was no conflict, we had
good leaders, it was a special year. Everyone had their role, and we all embraced it."
Such was the nature of the chemistry of the 1999-2000 Canadians that it would take local physical education teacher Joey Belanger just two weeks
of advance notice to bring together eight players from the squad, and virtually the entire coaching staff to sit and share memories at the Caruso Club.
Beyond Dubé, Laplante, Tait and Belanger, the group on hand included Justin Carré, Marc Long, Luc Messier, Eric Simons, coaches Ken MacKenzie and Jason
Stos, and equipment manager Jinx Desormeaux.
Rounding out the roster of that team were Michael Corneau, Trevor Swain, Troy Turyk, Alex Tomaras, Matt Barnhardt, Sebastien Castonguay,
Yves Niquet, Nevin Patterson, Ryan Thorpe, Ryan Phillips, Rob Vizza, Mark Frampton, Justin Dumont, Dan Lavoie, Andrew Villeneuve and the late Kevin