MONTREAL - For the first time in their 43-year history, the Shawinigan Cataractes will start the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season by hoisting a Memorial Cup banner to their arena's rafters.
The pre-game ceremony at Centre Bionest on Friday night will mark their victory on home ice in the junior hockey championship in May, when they edged the London Knights 2-1 in overtime in the final.
''The people of Shawinigan have been waiting a long time for that,'' general manager Martin Mondou said this week. ''Now our rink will have a piece of history.''
The season kicks off on Thursday night with a single game as the former powerhouse Saint John Sea Dogs begin their rebuilding campaign by playing host to the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
All 18 teams are in action Friday night, including the expansion Sherbrooke Phoenix, who make their debut against the Rimouski Oceanic.
Halifax Mooseheads centre Nathan MacKinnon, a candidate to go first overall in the next NHL draft, begins his second QMJHL season against the Screaming Eagles in Cape Breton. However, the Mooseheads are just hoping just to have enough healthy players to make it a game.
They had to cancel a pair of pre-season games last weekend when 12 players came down with a particularly nasty flu virus.
Only seven players remain from Shawinigan's championship team, but they and another five who have graduated out of junior hockey will be on hand for the pre-game ceremony when the Cataractes play host to the rival Drummondville Voltigeurs.
Fans will be handed glow-sticks and lights will be dimmed as team executives dating back to their first season in 1969 carry a torch onto the ice to mark the occasion.
What will not be there is the Memorial Cup itself. It was damaged when defenceman Dillon Donnolly dropped it during his day of celebration with the trophy. Mondou was advised this week that repairs won't be finished on time for the season opening. But at least Donnolly, who was suspended for the mishap, has been reinstated with the team.
The Cataractes are not expected to be a threat in a season that will likely be dominated by the Mooseheads, Quebec Remparts and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
Gone from the Shawinigan lineup are Memorial Cup MVP Michael Chaput, star forward Michael Bournival and power play point men Brandon Gormley and Morgan Ellis. Anton Zlobin, who scored the Cup-winning goal, was traded to the Val d'Or Foreurs.
Also gone is coach Eric Veilleux, who was reported to be a candidate for an assistant coaching job with the Calgary Flames before it went to Martin Gelinas. Veilleux now coaches the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, who open at home against the Gatineau Olympiques. The new coach is former QMJHL scoring star Denis Chalifoux.
''Veilleux needed a change and wanted to do something different,'' said Mondou, adding that he hopes it takes only a season or two before the Cats are challenging for the Cup again. ''It's a rebuilding year, but we hope it will be a surprising year for us.''
League commissioner Gilles Courteau will be in Sherbrooke for the debut of the Phoenix, who were put together by a group of current and former NHL players led by Jocelyn Thibault, the team's vice-president and goalie coach.
The Phoenix group bought the defunct Lewiston Mainiacs, who themselves were the Sherbrooke Castors until 2003.
Sherbrooke made five-foot-seven Daniel Audette, the Buffalo-born son of former NHL sniper Donald Audette, the top pick in the league draft.
It will also be a rebuilding year in Saint John, where the Sea Dogs have dominated the league with a star-studded lineup the last three years. They won a Memorial Cup in 2011 and took the league championship last season, although they failed to defend the Cup in Shawinigan.
They got a lift from the NHL lockout as 19-year-old star centre Jonathan Huberdeau returned instead of joining the Florida Panthers.
He has few of his old teammates left to play with. And Huberdeau will likely leave as soon as the lockout ends.
''Our approach is that we have him week to week,'' said coach and general manager Mike Kelly. ''We've got some tremendous kids and the exciting thing about Jonathan is he's an even better person than he is a player. He's humble and hand-working, so it's easy for our young kids to get to know him.''
The Sea Dogs had a 50-15-3 record in 2011-12 to finish first overall with 103 points. They don't expect to do nearly that well this season.
Kelly took over as coach when Gerard Gallant took an assistant's job with new Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien. Kelly preferred to do the job himself rather than hunt for a new coach in order to preserve the ''culture'' the team built up in the last three seasons.
Other games Friday night see Saint John pay a return visit to Bathurst, the Moncton Wildcats visit the P.E.I Rocket, the Remparts host the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, the Victoriaville Tigres visit Val d'Or and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies host Blainville-Boisbriand.