Sunday 19 June 2011

Mourning the loss of Junior Hockey in Montreal

The highly successful return of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) to the Montreal Island is over for now. Farrel Miller (right) sold his Montreal Juniors franchise last week to a group headed by former NHLer Joel Bouchard. It also includes Daniel Briere of the Philadelphia Flyers, JF Giguere of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ian Laperriere, who just retired from Philadelphia. They will play out of a new 3,100 seat arena in Boisbriand, which is near Mirabel Airport. That means the borough of Verdun loses yet another junior team, in this case one that was repeatedly selling out and attracting a loyal following.

Miller bought the St. John’s, Newfoundland QMJHL team four years ago and moved it to Montreal. The Verdun Auditorium was the only logical venue. While the building is old and no doubt in need of repair it served the team’s purpose very well. Miller made some cosmetic improvements and added a real press box. Montreal put a first class team on the ice and the fans ate it up.

I was always a junior hockey fan, dating back to the days when Pat LaFontaine and Claude Lemieux played in Verdun. When Miller bought the team, I embraced the game’s return. Annually I would see the Juniors play more than the Canadiens. The QMJHL offers a great product, with end to end action and good body checking. Miller and I hooked up to make promotional deals involving the English Montreal School Board, He provided free season tickets to schools in inner city neighbourhoods and created a program whereby players visited schools to talk about the importance of staying in class. Last season he introduced actual regular season day games and a few boards, including the EMSB, bought into the concept. Kids would travel by bus for a 10:30 a.m. start, bring their own lunches and be back at school by 1:30 p.m. It was a gigantic hit. The Lester B. Pearson School Board actually sold out an entire day game by themselves. We already scheduled ours for next year – February 29, 2012 to be exact. I do not think that will occur now that Boisbriand is the new destination. A call is in to Joel Bouchard(left), for our schools in St. LĂ©onard indicate that Boisbriand is 20 minutes away whereas Verdun was a 60 minute trip by bus.

I really connected with this Juniors and the league and I must say I am absolutely crushed by their departure. At the same time I understand that Miller had an offer he could not refuse. Reports indicate that he will only agree to the sale once the league guarantees him territorial rights to put a franchise on the South Shore, where a brand new arena is expected to be constructed in the not too distant future. He would also have a right of refusal for anyone wanting to put another franchise in Montreal.

While QMJHL Commissioner Gilles Courteau may be pleased with this move, he has to look at the big picture and tell himself that Boisbriand is “not” Montreal. This might be a convenient venue for those residing in the Laurentians and Laval, but Montrealers will not make the trek there. Now a core group of junior fans who fell hard for this new team will become orphans.

I can only hope that Bouchard and his group will reach out to Montreal fans – and organizations like school boards as well. They should call themselves “Montreal” and make the point that Boisbriand is not really that far; in fact it is within minutes of many of the popular golf clubs Montrealers frequent regularly. If you have ever driven to Carrefour Laval, then just travel a little further on the Laurentian Autoroute and you will hit Boisbriand.

Boisbriand and the new arena will also be the home of a new professional lacrosse team, run by Martin Routhier. He was president of the Montreal Juniors up until a few months ago. Routhier chose this venue before news of junior hockey setting up shop there broke. Perhaps he should switch gears and come to Verdun. Heck, count me in if he does so.

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