By Charlie Pinkerton
With the Dagenais era of the Ottawa Jr. Senators perhaps soon entering untrodden territory, six years in retrospect tell the story of a do-it-all executive and coach who broke the mould for what it takes to build a championship franchise in the Central Canada Hockey League.
The Jr. Sens had been regulars of the CCHL’s playoffs by 2014, but it had been 11 years from their last Bogart Cup when Martin Dagenais purchased the team.
“I knew that we had a decent team. Not great, but decent,” Dagenais recalled over the phone during an interview in February. “And with some changes here and there I thought that we could put a very good product on the ice and hopefully win a championship in three to four years down the road.”
Before buying the Jr. Sens, Dagenais had been an assistant coach with the team, and had been coaching hockey in some form since joining the staff of his brother’s Bantam ‘B’ team when he was 18 years old.
When the opportunity to purchase the Jr. Sens came up, and he personally didn’t have the funds, he turned to his father Jacques Dagenais, and brother, former Paralympian Patrice Dagenais, to chip in on the $225,000 price of the team.
From the onset of Dagenais’ ownership tenure, the centrally-located Jr. Sens faced a disadvantage in the CCHL of no fault of their own. They couldn’t rely on the same sort of default community-backing that some of their league’s perennial top contenders – like the Cornwall Colts, the Carleton Place Canadians, and Pembroke Lumber Kings, to name a few – could.
“It’s a big plus if you’re outside the city. There’s so much to do in the city – so much to compete against. The Ottawa Sens, you compete against the 67’s, you compete against the Gatineau Olympiques and you compete against all the junior A-B-C teams around you,” Dagenais said.
“There’s a lot to do, also, when it comes to whatever activity you want to do on the weekend, where if you’re in Pembroke on a Sunday night, well everyone will go watch a Lumber Kings game, so that’s the toughest because right away your budget is not as big as the teams that are outside of the city.”
The beginning of the Dagenais era is reminiscent of it as a whole: The Jr. Sens lost the first five games of the 2014-15 season (all one-goal games), before righting the ship to finish with an Yzerman division best 44-13-4 record. That year and the next they lost in game sevens of the CCHL semifinals.
Part of Dagenais’ strategy off the ice has been to ditch frugality to try and grow the reach of the team. Making facility upgrades like overhauling the team’s dressing room as well as arranging more team activities during road trips have fit into the larger plan of professionalizing the team’s experience.
“I think to build a winner, it’s a cultural thing that starts at the top… I think that’s what OJS has become. Most people around town will call it ‘OJS’ now, they don’t call it ‘Ottawa Jr. Sens’, but when you say OJS they know what it is and they know who we are and that’s kind of what we were striving for… You kind of build a reputation and kids want to play for you,” Dagenais said.
In each of the next two years the Jr. Sens eclipsed the CCHL semis, but lost the Bogart Cup in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons to Carleton Place, who was on the back half of winning four straight league championships.
In the two ensuing years, the Jr. Sens finished back of the Canadians in the regular season but were better when it counted. They bested the Canadians to win consecutive Bogart Cups, following each league championship with a Fred Page Cup and earning trips to compete for the Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL) title.
Dagenais’ coaching and team-building ability hasn’t been without notice outside of the CJHL. He was named by Hockey Canada as Team Canada East’s head coach in last year’s 2019 World Junior A Challenge, after serving as the assistant of the team in previous years. His Eastern Canada team went on to upset the heavily-favoured Americans before losing in double overtime 2-1 to Team Russia in the gold medal game. It was only the second time in eight years that Team Canada East medalled at the tournament. His efforts with the Jr. Sens and Team Canada East were recently recognized by the Ottawa Sports Awards, who named him their Coach of the Year for 2019.
Dagenais was also recently tapped by the Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) for an assistant coaching job.
He’s remained on the bench with the Sens while in an interim role with Gatineau, but says he would be pained to pass up a permanent QMJHL job if its presented to him.
“Whatever happens in the spring, I’m not sure yet, I’m sure I’m going to know soon enough but obviously I can’t do both for an entirely year, it just doesn’t make sense,” Dagenais said.
This season, the Jr. Sens have been nagged by injuries but still maintain a playoff spot with less than two weeks left in the CCHL regular season. Because of their standing, Dagenais expects his team may match up with Carleton Place once again, but this time ahead of the league’s championship – which is something he’s not shying away from.
“It’s been us and (Carleton Place) for the last four years, but you know what, to be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” Dagenais said.
“No matter what” ends up happening with Dagenais, the Jr. Sens season and a potential extension with the Olympiques, the coach says he does not plan on selling the team, only that he’s considering stepping back from manning the bench.
However it ends up, what a run it’s been.
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