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ECHL team in Trois-Rivières is coming together

An interview with Dean MacDonald, the potential owner of a Canadiens ECHL affiliate.

Things have been pretty quiet on the Trois-Rivières front in terms of finalizing the arena deal with Deacon Sports and Entertainment (DSE) so that the latter can formally submit its request for an ECHL expansion franchise. Both sides made a big fanfare of the fact that their signed a memorandum of understanding back in July, and were on track toward dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s. Since then there has been silence.

That hasn’t stopped DSE from continuing to make waves in the ECHL, first by announcing a similar partnership with the city of Coralville, Iowa for the mutual desire for an ECHL expansion franchise there. DSE has also pledged to put in $25M of their own money to renovate the dated Mile One Arena in downtown St. John’s where the ECHL’s Newfoundland Growlers play, provided that the city signs over control of the facility to the group. The City and the owners of the Growlers (of which DSE is a part owner; it’s complicated) signed a 10-year lease back in September.

Any way you put it, DSE is determined to leave a big footprint in the AA professional hockey league. Eyes On The Prize spoke with Dean MacDonald, the director of DSE, about the effort to bring a team to Trois-Rivières.

Is the league worried about one ownership group having three teams?

“No, it’s been done before,” answered MacDonald, who cites precedent for his expansion plan. Steven Brother Sports Management currently owns both the Wichita Thunder and the Tulsa Oilers. For several seasons, Jack Gulati owned both the Reading Royals and the Allen Americans.

How Trois-Rivières came about

The City reached out to us. Marc-Andre Bergeron (who was hired by the City to find a tenant for the new arena) reached out to ECHL Commissioner Ryan Crelin, who felt that our group might be a good match. So we went up to Trois-Rivières and visited with city officials, and toured the new facility. There was a whole bunch of things that made sense of why it could make sense, so we said that we’re interested. That’s kind of the genesis of it.

The new Colisée in Trois-Rivières would be the smallest Arena in the league. Is that a concern at all for attracting events such as the All-Star Game?

There’s a ton of work that goes into to hosting an All-Star Game. We already had presentations on the 2022 All-Star Game. So it’s at least a couple years of work, and from our perspective, in the early stage, we’re going to be more focused on the success of the team, rather than whether or not we can attract an All-Star Game. We need to build fan support, we have to build the name and the logo that needs to resonate with the community. We will start working with charities and foundations, etc. So there are a whole bunch of grassroots things we have to do to be successful. The arena, in that regard, is a perfect size for AA pro hockey.

If you look at the league average, it’s somewhere around 4,000 or something like that. There’s a lot of big arenas that look half-empty because they have up to 10,000 seats. What do you want? Do you want that coziness? If we put 4,000 people in every game, we’d be very, very happy. That makes the most sense. And I think with suites and everything, it’s more like 5,500.

On Marc-Andre Bergeron switching from consultant for the city to representative of DSE.

Marc-André’s job was to try to attract an anchor tenant. Once we expressed interest his work was done. I know that he talked to the QMJHL and other leagues. So, at the end of the day, I think we were kind of the only guys at the altar. And, you know, we actually approached the city to say that we’re at a point here that if we’re going to do something we need to get someone on the ground to work with. Are you comfortable with us approaching Marc-Andre? Because we certainly wouldn’t do it without the express consent they gave us.

Would Bergeron be heavily favourite to be general manager involved in the management side should the team be granted?

Absolutely. Oh, yeah, absolutely. He’ll be the lead guy. He has a wonderful relationship with the Montreal Canadiens and he also has 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-Andre certainly has all the requisite things you hope for.

Are you looking at using some existing IP or creating a new identity?

I’m not sure. You know, my guess is we’ll try everything, will test everything. It’s a laborious process. I would be sure to have the CH somewhere on the uniform. Will it be the main crest or logo, probably not. As much as you want that deep affiliation, you also want to create some uniqueness in the community.

The affiliation with the Brampton Beast didn’t go harmoniously with the Canadians. Brampton said that they felt abandoned by the Canadiens. Are you at all concerned about their track record with ECHL dealings? Do you believe this is a watershed moment that should this team happen that the Canadiens are going to be all-in?

I think from our discussions with them, they’re all-in. With the kind of precedent that’s been set by the [Toronto Maple] Leafs/[Growlers, the Canadiens recognize that there’s a desire to develop more Francophone talent, not only on the ice, but for 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.

I think the proximity to Trois-Rivières just down the street is also helpful because you cannot have out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I think having it all under one roof close by, there’s a whole bunch of practical benefits to that. They’ve been wonderful to deal with. And, you know, hopefully we can get something done.

This past week a big question was answered when the Patriotes of the Université de Québec à Trois-Rivières refused the City’s plan for co-habitation of the new Colisée, opting instead to remain where they are currently. The Patriotes were gunning initially to be the sole tenant of the new arena, but the city chose the ECHL project with a co-habitation proposal despite the additional costs it would incur.

So now we wait as DSE finalizes their arena deal, and completes the request for an expansion franchise that the ECHL will then review and pass their judgment. All things considered, the promise of a strong engagement by one of the NHL’s premier franchises, along with the financial backing that comes with it, will be too strong of a lure for the league, and we could see the ECHL team come to life in time for the 2021-22 season, with a strongly Canadiens’-influenced roster.