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Building an ECHL affiliate in Trois-Rivières

What could a Canadiens AA team look like?

Enough has been said in recent months about a potential ECHL affiliate for the Montreal Canadiens in Trois-Rivières for the 2020-21 season to at least start to believe it to be true. Where there is smoke there is fire, as some would say.

So, if that is the plan going forward, what would that team look like? What would be the factors? Who would be the people and players involved? What would be the considerations necessary for building a new ECHL franchise?

The arena

We know that a new multi-purpose arena is being built in Trois-Rivières that will have a capacity of 4,390, including 18 corporate boxes. It would be the smallest arena in the league, overtaking the Cool Insuring Arena that’s home of the Adirondack Thunder, and has a capacity of 4,794.

The average attendance for the ECHL this past season was about 4,500, which would mean at capacity, the Colisée would be below league average, but that is ok. Call the size of the arena “rightsized” for the region. The North Division has the lowest attendance in the league, averaging only 3,400, and Adirondack has the highest average percent capacity with 71% attendance. Therefore, a strong 65% capacity would in fact be aligned with attendance figures for the Brampton Beast and the Maine Mariners.

Initially scheduled to be completed in December 2019, the arena will now be ready in March 2020 instead. It will not affect the 2020-21 hockey season, but has already impacted the first planned event at the arena which was the Quebec provincial police hockey tournament scheduled for April.

The division

More than likely this new team would find it’s way into the North Division. It’s currently a division of six teams after Manchester folded, while the other division in the Eastern Conference, the South Division, is already at seven teams and not geographically convenient.

In the North Division you currently have both Canadian ECHL teams — the Kelly Cup champions the Newfoundland Growlers, and the Brampton Beast. There’s also the Maine Mariners, Adirondack Thunder, Reading Royals, and Worcester Railers.

This is the youngest division in the league, with two teams entering their second year of operation (Newfoundland and Maine), and Worcester their third. Reading is the elder statesman of the division having joined the league in 2001 when it was still called the East Coast Hockey League.

This season, the Canadiens are using both Maine and Adironack for their players, and had a previous affiliation with Brampton.

Because the ECHL remains a bus league for now, the majority of games would be played against these teams, with occasional cross-division and a few cross-conference contests. With no wildcard format for playoff rankings, the top four teams of each division make the playoffs. Therefore, each regular-season game holds a certain importance, and two-night stands are common place and very competitive.

The affiliation

Let’s not kid ourselves here. A partnership with the Canadiens would be mandatory for an ECHL team to survive in Trois-Rivières. The Quebec senior ‘A’ league, Ligue Nord-Americaine de Hockey (LNAH), tried to establish themselves there since 2004. In 2018, after four team iterations, it finally folded. Since 2011, they only had an average attendance over 1,000 once. The partnership with the Canadiens and the new arena would draw people in the region by sheer name association and the promise of an exciting brand of pro hockey.

Without the Canadiens association, a relatively unknown pro league in Quebec would have a hard time building up a sufficient fan base to be profitable, and at best, would likely settle into LNAH territory for attendance.

The ownership

This is a big one. Whoever ends up owning the team, whether a single investor or a conglomerate with a majority owner, they will need to have deep pockets and an appetite to weather possibly some tough early years in the red.

The Growlers may have won the Kelly Cup last season, but they still lost a million dollars. The Beast, in their fifth year in the league, still only manage to fill their rink to about 56% capacity and are were shaky ownership grounds until a new owner stepped in this past summer. AA hockey is a hard sell when there exists higher-quality alternatives on television. For instance, it would be very risky to host home games on nights when the Canadiens are playing because of fan loyalty to the Habs and interest with the NHL will certainly trump a new ECHL team.

There currently isn’t much knowledge about the ECHL in Quebec nor its caliber of play. Therefore, the new owners will be looking at building up a whole new market that differentiates itself from the senior circuits found in the province like the LNAH, and are more accurately perceived as a development territory.

The general manager

This is a bit like cheating on a test by knowing the answer. Marc-André Bergeron has been leading the group that has been tasked with finding a tenant for the new building, so it would sort of make sense for him to transition into being President/General Manager once the search is complete and the city is awarded an expansion franchise (or purchases the franchise license from Manchester).

Bergeron was previously the president of the Aigles de Trois-Rivières of the baseball Can-Am League, so he has pro sports management experience and was clearly entrusted by the city for the critical job due to his existing ties to the Canadiens.

The head coach

Hockey is a relationship business, and nowhere is it more visible than with the affiliation between NHL and ECHL teams. NHL teams can often show more loyalty to an ECHL coach than to an ECHL team, so the head coach in Trois-Rivières will have to have earned the trust of Joël Bouchard and Marc Bergevin prior to even getting the job.

At the same time this coaching position would be part of a succession plan for a coaching position with the Laval Rocket, through experience at the third-tier level.

One name that stands out is Jean-Francois Fortin, who was Bouchard’s assistant in Blainville-Boisbriand and who remains there in that position. He is certainly someone from the school of Bouchard, who would be able to gain the experience of coaching at the pro level to one day stand behind the bench in the AHL, but who could also be entrusted in the present with teaching the ideaology that the organization is striving for in its affiliates.

The prospects

Someone like Antoine Waked could have really benefited from starting his pro career in the ECHL. As a result of two stuttering years of development in the AHL, whatever potential the scouts saw in him may never be realized. Sometimes the step change from Junior to the AHL proved too large for some.

So who would be the players assigned to the team in 2020-21?

The Canadiens have five draft picks who could be signing entry-level contracts and starting their pro careers in 2020-21: Allan McShane, Cole Fonstad, Rafaël Harvey-Pinard, Samuel Houde, and Cam Hillis. That is a lot rookies who will need to battle for ice time. Houde and Hillis could benefit from starting at the lower level where they don’t risk being lost in the mix among second-year players and veterans. As the Newfoundland Growlers model has shown, players who start their professional career in the ECHL can earn a promotion to the AHL rather quickly, and player movement can be such that players are given finite assignments to the ECHL to hone some aspects of their game before returning to the AHL.

There is also plenty of undrafted players who complete their Junior or collegiate careers and are looking for an opportunity. The ECHL could be a proving ground for these players, as it was for David Desharnais who worked his way up to the NHL. In fact, he was the last skater to graduate to the NHL from the ECHL for the Canadiens, so there is room for improvement in the development cycle.

Beyond Junior, the Canadiens could also mine U Sports and the LNAH for potential undiscovered older talent right in their own backyard. The Canadiens would be able to present more opportunities to these players without disrupting the traditional draft-and-develop path via the AHL to the NHL.

The name

The most recognizable name for the area would be Les Draveurs, which has a long history in the city, with a team by that name playing in the QMJHL from 1973 to 1992, winning the President’s Cup in 1978 and 1979 with Michel Bergeron behind the bench. The Draveurs were reborn in 2017 as part of the LNAH, but folded after only one season.

The other option would be to blaze their own trail by eschewing previous identities and creating a new one. The Laval Rocket could have chosen to use Les Voisins or Le Titan, but instead opted for a clean slate over established brand value and local history.

Naming rights might still dictate the road ahead, but a recognizable brand name, along with a direct association with the Canadiens, would certainly help to build a sustained model for a successful AA development franchise.