Saint John Sea Dogs forward Matthew Highmore can't wait for the Memorial Cup tournament to open Friday night.
Highmore has been grinding his way through five long seasons in Saint John, but this season — his last as a junior hockey player — his team became Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions.
"It was an incredible and kind of surreal moment for us because it was a lot of hard work and a lot of ups and downs to get us to this point," said Highmore, a native of Dartmouth, N.S.
"I'm very excited with the outcome and winning the President's Cup."
The 21-year-old grew up playing minor hockey in Dartmouth and was drafted by Saint John in 2012, just weeks after the Sea Dogs won their last QMJHL title.
Drafted by Chicago
The Sea Dogs lost a lot of hockey games in his first couple of seasons and in 2014, Highmore was overlooked in the NHL draft.
But this season he finally signed an NHL contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It's been quite the ride and by no means are we done." - Matthew Highmore, Saint John Sea Dogs forward
"It kind of came together pretty quickly," said Highmore.
"I'm just extremely honoured to be part of their organization."
Highmore's signing with Chicago was no surprise to his coach Danny Flynn, also a Dartmouth native and a longtime junior hockey coach who won the Memorial Cup in 1993 while coaching the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
"[Highmore] had a number of teams by mid-season that had him on their radar as a really good free-agent signing," said Flynn.
"He just kept the dream alive and kept working and getting better."
Highmore was one of the top players in the Quebec league this season with 89 points in 64 games. In the playoffs, he continued to impress with 24 points in 18 games as the Sea Dogs rolled through the postseason with a 16-2 record.
"It's been quite the ride and by no means are we done," said Highmore.
"We're just looking forward to Friday and getting things going in Windsor."
Highmore and the Sea Dogs will be competing against the Seattle Thunderbirds, the Western Hockey League winners; the Erie Otters, winners of the Ontario Hockey League; and the host team from Windsor, Ont.
Saint John will open against the Spitfires on Friday night.