The Montreal Canadiens organization is set to officially unveil the colours and logo of the Laval Rocket, their new American Hockey League affiliate for the 2017-18 season. Rocket Countdown will be an historical journey looking at past Canadiens affiliates from the 1969 NHL expansion onward, and building up to the unveiling of the Laval Rocket on January 31.
Fredericton Canadiens 1990-1999
On June 22, 1990, after considering moving the farm team to Kansas City of the International Hockey League, the Canadiens announced that they signed a five-year deal with a group in Fredericton who had been without a team since the Quebec Nordiques moved their AHL team out of town. The team would play its games at the Aitken Centre.
Longtime Canadiens AHL assistant coach and head coach last season Jean Hamel decided to return to the QMJHL where he was offered a general manager position with Drummondville, so once again, a relocation would coincide with the selection of a new head coach. The man selected for the job was QMJHL Laval Titans head coach Paulin Bordeleau. He would go on to become the longest serving AHL head coach in Canadiens history, coaching 560 games over seven seasons. But it’s probably his replacement whose name is best known to Canadiens fans: Michel Therrien.
Therrien played for two seasons with the Canadiens farm system from 1983 to 1985, and not finding a path to the NHL, he retired in 1987. He turned to coaching in 1990, spending three seasons with the QMJHL Laval Titans and another two with the Granby Predators, with who he won a Memorial Cup in 1996.
It was in Laval that Therrien met Francis Bouillon, a player who’s career mirrored Therrien’s quite closely. He coached Bouillon for 11 seasons total across multiple teams, including Laval, Granby, Fredericton, and eventually Montreal. It was Therrien who recommended that the undrafted defender receive a tryout with the Canadiens in 1998, a recommendation that yielded 11 seasons of service to the Montreal Canadiens at the NHL level, on top of another four seasons with the Nashville Predators.
During their first season in 1990-91, the team was able to count on numerous players to drive the offence, including Patrick Lebeau (50 goals, 101 points), Jesse Bélanger (40 goals, 98 points), Gilbert Dionne (40 goals, 87 points), and Paul Dipietro (39 goals, 70 points). Despite this offensive output the team scraped through to the playoffs, and lost in seven games during the second round against the Springfield Indians, the eventual Calder Cup champions.
The following season, the Canadiens rose to the top of the standings with 96 points, good for first overall in the AHL. Among the top scorers that season was Stéphane Richer. No, not that Stéphane Richer. Another Stéphane Richer. While the well-known forward was scoring 50 goals for the Montreal Canadiens, a similarly named player was was tearing up the AHL scoring 17 goals and adding 47 assists, as a defenceman nonetheless. The defenceman had been a member of the Montreal farm team for several seasons already, but this season was his coming out party as he enjoyed a career year. This success at the AHL absolutely did not translate to the NHL, with underwhelming stints with Tampa Bay, Boston, and Florida over the course of several subsequent seasons.
Fredericton’s closest shot at Calder Cup glory came during the 1994-95 season, led by Craig Darby and Craig Ferguson, as well as the returning Gaston Gingras. Gingras returned to the Canadiens organization after eight seasons playing for the St. Louis Blues and various teams in Europe. In the first round they easily defeated the St. John’s Maple Leafs in five games, and then defeated the PEI Senators, outscoring them 29 to 18 en route to a six game series win in the second round.
Due to the uneven number of teams in the playoffs, the Canadiens were forced into a two game playoff series against the Cornwall Aces, who they swept, paving the Canadiens way into the finals. Unfortunately they were up against the powerful Albany River Rats who dominated the AHL that season, and who ended the season emphatically, sweeping the Canadiens in four games to win the Calder Cup. The Canadiens only managed seven goals during the four games, including a shutout in the fourth and final game.
The Fredericton Canadiens faced an uphill battle during their nine season existence, primarily caused by a lack of success at the draft table. Numerous first-round picks, the expected frontrunners in the prospect pool, failed to reach their promise in the AHL. Eric Charron (20th overall, 1988), Lindsay Vallis (13th overall, 1989), Brent Bilodeau (17th overall, 1991), Terry Ryan (8th overall, 1995), and Matt Higgins (18th overall, 1996) all failed to develop into impact players. Only Turner Stevenson (12th overall, 1990) made an impact at both the AHL and NHL levels for the Canadiens as a first-round pick during the Fredericton years. Saku Koivu (21st overall, 1993), arguably one of the best Canadiens draft pick of the 90’s, jumped directly to the NHL, and never played in the AHL.
Despite the draft struggles, the Canadiens’ farm team only missed the playoffs twice in their nine seasons in Fredericton. The franchise all-time leader in games played was Alexei Lojkin with 284 games, but he never managed to make it to the NHL. It was Pierre Sevigny, a third-round pick for the Canadiens in 1989, who held all franchise offensive records with 106 goals, 136 assists, and 242 points in 262 games. Although he was never able to carry these numbers over into the NHL, he did return with the Canadiens farm team as they moved to their next destination to become their franchise player.
On April 14th 1999, the American Hockey League approved the transfer of the franchise from Fredericton to Quebec City where the Canadiens were hoping to capitalize on the departure of the Nordiques, but didn’t count on one important factor, that Nordiques fans weren’t suddenly going to become Canadiens fans.
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