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“We wouldn’t go into that market without the Canadiens”: Dean MacDonald on the plans for an ECHL team in Trois-Rivières

The second part of our interview with Dean MacDonald.

Newfoundland business executive Dean MacDonald was gracious enough with his time when interviewed by Eyes On The Prize that the amount of content was sufficient to be split over a series of articles. In Part I, he discussed the relationship with the city of Trois-Rivières as he prepares his proposal for a bid to own a second ECHL franchise.

“I think that the health of the [ECHL] is strong,” said MacDonald. “The quality of hockey is exceptional. The league has certainly gone through a metamorphosis over the last few years, where most teams have an affiliation with an NHL club now. We’ve really become a development league. And so we’re seeing a lot of prospects, which obviously makes for better hockey. It’s a very fast game. It’s a great product.”

When Habs Eyes on the Prize spoke with ECHL commissioner Ryan Crelin over the summer, we asked about league expansion. Commissioner Crelin said that the eventual goal was to have an equal amount of teams as the NHL and AHL, but that the growth had to be at a sustainable and reasonable pace. Mr. MacDonald met with the league governors over the ECHL All-Star weekend, so we asked whether there were any further talks about expansion.

“There was certainly discussion about the expansion of the league. In a perfect world we kind of mirror the NHL, but I think everyone agrees that you can’t force anything, markets have to want you. You want to build a good base, so there’s a lot of research and involvement with the city before you make the plan. So, you know, I think everyone fully expects that we’ll get to that time. There are lots of people interested in investing.”

ECHL brand identity and lessons learned with St. John’s

As talks continue for an expansion team in Trois-Rivières, we asked if he was concerned at all about the area’s lack of familiarity with the ECHL brand, and if there were any lessons learned from the Newfoudland Growlers expansion team in St. John’s that could be ported over to Trois-Rivières.

“In St. John’s no one knew what to expect. I think there was a little ‘show me’ required. Certainly things started to change significantly when Toronto brass began visiting and assessing players on a regular basis. Kyle Dubas came over a number of times. We worked closely with Laurence Gilman and Mike Dixon from the development team. So, you know, when they were in town and doing interviews and they were talking about all of the prospects there, suddenly everyone started to realize that, ‘wow, the Leafs are investing in this, it must be good hockey.’

“Then things really kicked off around the playoffs and then suddenly pandemonium ensued. So it took a little bit of time. Then we continued to build brand when the Leafs had their training camp in St. John’s.

“So look, it’s just like with anything: it takes time. People were worried that this was just another team that would raise anchors and move, but the model in the ECHL is different because we actually own the team so the team’s not going anywhere unless we so choose. So now we have signed a 10-year lease with the municipal arena and people know we’re here to stay.”

The interest of the Montreal Canadiens in an ECHL affiliate

“I know from our perspective as investors we wouldn’t go into that market without the Canadiens. If the Canadiens weren’t interested, we wouldn’t be interested.

“I think Montreal, if it comes to pass, will be very similar [to the Growlers model]. I think a lot of teams are going that route now. The joke going around is that Dubas is kind of like the Billy Beane of hockey because he’s fully in on this, and there is good economics for these guys.

“When you think about, if they can develop someone in the ECHL and bring them through, you know, the impact on the payroll in a cap environment is very helpful. So, you bring up a defenceman who you pay an entry-level contract versus picking up a veteran who you’d be probably be paying twice as much, and they fully expect to have players who are going to go through. They’ve highlighted a couple of players to us who they expect will make it to the NHL. One thing about the Leafs is their development staff are in St. John’s all the time, working with prospects like all the time. It’s a real commitment. From our discussions with the Canadiens, I think they’re all-in, recognizing kind of the precedent that’s been set by the Leafs/Growlers.

“They also recognize, from what I’ve read publicly, that there’s a desire to develop more Francophone talent, not only players, but also the front office, trainers, and coaches. So I think that there’s a whole bunch of logic that prevails for them now in that regard with the proximity of Trois-Rivières just down the street.”

On whether they would use existing IP, or try to develop a new identity

“Will we wear the blue, blanc, rouge? Absolutely. You also want to create some uniqueness in the community. Trois-Rivières has a rich hockey history. It is the birthplace of Jean Béliveau, and had many citizens go through to the NHL. We’ve been working closely with Marc-André Bergeron on the ground, and it will it have its challenges, like any startup, but one of the things that was essential from our perspective was the relationship with the Canadiens.”

On Marc-André Bergeron’s role in the process

“He’ll be the lead guy, for sure. And you know, he also has a wonderful relationship with the Montreal Canadiens. He’s got a good business head. He’s well-respected and liked in the community. He’s well-respected and liked by the Canadiens. Obviously, City Hall think of a lot of him because they hired him to scope the project, so a big part of making the team successful is not just what happens on the ice, it’s how you interact in the community, the charities, minor hockey, all those sorts of things. And Marc-André, certainly has all the requisite things you hope for.”

And if the Trois-Rivières plan doesn’t go through?

“We’ve begun discussions in the United States on another project, where we would deal with another NHL club on that.”