By Aaron Bell
When the 2011-12 Canadian Hockey League season kicked off eight months ago, 59 teams had dreams of winning the Memorial Cup. For four teams, that dream is still alive.
The Shawinigan Cataractes are hosting the 2012 MasterCard Memorial starting on Friday and will welcome the QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs, OHL champion London Knights and WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings for the 10-day national championship tournament.
For the first time since 1979, the regular season champion from each of the three leagues went on to win their playoff titles and will participate in the tournament.
The Cataractes and Oil Kings kick things off on Friday (7:00 p.m. Eastern on Sportsnet and TVA Sports) while the Sea Dogs and Knights face-off on Saturday.
Here is a look at the four participating teams and how they got here.
Regular Season Record: 50-15-0-3
Playoff Record: 16-1
How they got here: After winning their third straight QMJHL regular season title, the Sea Dogs followed up with their second straight QMJHL championship. They lost just one game during their impressive playoff run, which included a first round sweep of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, a second round sweep of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, a five-game win over the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and a sweep over the Rimouski Oceanic in the QMJHL championship series.
MVP: Charles Coyle claimed the QMJHL playoff MVP award after scoring 15 goals and 34 points in 17 games during the QMJHL playoffs. The Minnesota Wild prospect joined the Sea Dogs in December after a season and a half at Boston University.
Coaching: Former NHL'er Gerard Gallant has enjoyed nothing but success since taking over the Sea Dogs' coaching reigns in 2009. He played an honest game and brings that same mentality to the bench.
How they will win: The Sea Dogs have been on a huge roll for the past three seasons and come into the Memorial Cup as the defending champions and favourites to win it all once again. They have lots of depth - especially up front - and the experience to give them a head start in the quick tournament.
Regular Season Record: 49-18-0-1
Playoff Record: 16-3
How they got here: The Knights held off a late season charge by the Plymouth Whalers and Niagara IceDogs to claim their fifth OHL regular season title in the past nine years. They opened the playoffs with a four game sweep over the Windsor Spitfires but needed six games to eliminate the Saginaw Spirit in the second round. They swept the Kitchener Rangers in the semi-finals and after losing the first game of the OHL Championship Series to the Niagara IceDogs, they won four in a row to claim the OHL championship.
MVP: Big forward Austin Watson won the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the playoff MVP after scoring 10 goals and 17 points in 19 post-season games. The Nashville Predators' prospect helped the Windsor Spitfires win the Memorial Cup as a rookie in 2009.
Coaching: After his brother Dale Hunter left the Knights to coach the Washington Capitals, GM Mark Hunter moved back behind the bench and the Knights didn't skip a beat, winning the OHL regular season and league championships.
How they will win: Goalie Michael Houser has been a rock for the Knights all season and will be the key to their success again in Shawinigan.
Regular Season Record: 50-15-3-4
Playoff Record: 16-4
How they got here: After claiming their first WHL regular season title since rejoining the league five years ago, the Oil Kings lost just one game on their way to the WHL championship series. They swept the Kootenay Ice and then the Brandon Wheat Kings before a five game series win over the Moose Jaw Warriors in the semi-finals. They won the WHL championship in seven games over the Portland Winterhawks.
MVP: Oil Kings' netminder Laurent Brossoit posted a 2.82 goals against average in the seven game final and was named the MVP of the WHL championship series. He held the opposition to just 41 goals during the Oil Kings' 20-game playoff run.
Coaching: Derek Laxdal has been on the ice and behind the bench in virtually every pro hockey league during the past two decades and in his second season with the Oil Kings, guided them to some impressive accomplishments.
How they will win: The Oil Kings are very stingy in their own end and like to keep their opponents offensive chances to a minimum - they held Portland to just 19 shots in the deciding game of the WHL playoffs.
Regular Season Record: 45-16-3-4
Playoff Record: 7-4
How they got here: The Cataractes have known for more than a year that they would be playing in the Memorial Cup this spring but that didn't stop them from putting together the second best record in the QMJHL during the regular season. Unfortunately, that success didn't carry over into the playoffs as much as they would have liked. Shawinigan swept the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in seven games in the second round.
MVP: Morgan Ellis scored four times and added seven assists from the blueline in 11 playoff games for the Cataractes. He also had a team-best plus-14 rating and will log huge minutes in the Memorial Cup.
Coaching: Eric Veilleux is in his seventh season behind the Cataractes bench but the pressure has never been higher than it is this season. He guided them to the QMJHL finals in 2009 and hopes that experience will help him find success in the tournament.
How they will win: The Cataractes are the only team in the league that have a second chance and they are looking to make the best of it on home ice. They allowed the fewest goals against in the QMJHL in the regular season and hope to be just as stingy during the next two weeks.