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Canadiens’ participation in search for Lions head coach was a “positive process”

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Marc-André Bergeron gives an update on how the new ECHL team is coming together.

In early June, the Lions de Trois-Rivières unveiled their team name and logo, and this was generally very well received on social media for the new ECHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. Here’s the announcement in case you missed it:

After the branding, the next step was to start putting together the personnel, including the announcement of their choice for head coach, which landed on former NHL player Éric Bélanger. Bélanger does not have an extensive resume, but fans need to understand that an ECHL head-coaching job is an entry-level position, and hence the team had to cast a wide net and set a reasonable bar to uncover the best candidate.

“I do admit that the list of potential coaches was rather long,” said Lions President Marc-André Bergeron to Eyes On The Prize. “I wanted to meet as many people as I could. Being tasked with finding a head coach, I absolutely wanted to talk to more people than less. What’s important these days, the way that hockey is going, is that we find a head coach who is an excellent communicator and has experience in strategic hockey.

“Eric most certainly checked all these boxes. He’s worked in media for many years, so he’s a great communicator. He’s passionate about hockey and has shown by his words and actions that he’s motivated to win. He interviewed very well, he has lots of charisma, and a presence that is important in being a head coach.”

Typically when an ECHL team is looking for a coach, the NHL affiliate has a bit of influence on the process. In the Lions’ case, the Canadiens were involved, helping to gather references on some candidates.

“I kept them up to date on how things were going and which way I was leaning,” said Bergeron. “They provided me with great support, but I think that they didn’t want to impose themselves on the process since they knew the final decision was up to us, but at the same time they were excellent advisors. It was a positive process”.

ECHL coaching staffs are usually pretty small across the league. It’s not like the AHL or the NHL where a head coach has two or three assistants on the bench, plus a video coach and a goalie coach. Bergeron confirms that the Lions will hire one assistant coach to start, and then they will see how it goes.

With the logo announced and the head coach selected, the next natural step is the jersey unveil, which Bergeron assures will be soon. One important detail to note is that he specified that “the uniform” will have the Canadiens logo on it, which could be a hint that there won’t be a logo on the jersey. The Brampton Beast wore the Canadiens logo on their shoulders, but not all ECHL teams have such a prominent display of their NHL affiliation. It’s a strong bet that the uniform design will follow that of the Laval Rocket, that the team will wear the same hockey pants as the Canadiens and the Rocket, and that the jersey itself will not.

Former Montreal Canadiens player David Ling wearing a Brampton Beast jersey with the Canadiens logo
John Warren/Brampton Beast

Every year the ECHL has special themed jersey games as part of co-branding deals with Marvel Comics, Nickelodeon, and DC Comics. Bergeron heard that negotiations between the league and these partners were ongoing, but he wasn’t sure if the Lions would take part in those themed jersey nights in their inaugural season. He did admit that many other markets have seen a lot of success with these themed nights so he’s not excluding the idea for now as conversations with the league are ongoing. It’s worth noting that the ECHL’s themed jerseys are usually quite significant departures from the team’s standard jerseys.

When the Newfoundland Growlers entered the ECHL as an affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, they popularized the three-tier development approach, which included then head coach Ryan Clowe joining the Marlies’ training camp to work alongside the other coaches in the organization before the Growlers camp started. When asked if we can expect this same sort of collaboration, it sounded like these details have not quite been finalized yet, but it would be “natural” for the Lions to have a presence at the Laval Rocket training camp, according to Bergeron. “The more we can participate the better for us it will be. It will give us good experience.”

However, you don’t have to look far to find a cautionary tale. During the Canadiens’ preceding ECHL affiliation, with the Brampton Beast, there was certainly no co-operation at the coaching level between the organizations. If the Canadiens really wish to emulate the ‘Growlers model,’ establishing a coaching continuity is certainly a step in the right direction.

The three principal goals of the Lions according to Bergeron are to have the best possible team, to win as many games as possible, and to develop players in a winning environment. The hope is that those stretegies will help to fill the arena with fans. They’ll just need to get them in the arena first, which is one of the big off-season challenges for the team.

“There is certainly an education that needs to happen to teach the fans what the ECHL is about. For years the league was cast in a bad light as a goon league, and not taken very seriously. There are certainly many people who still have that impression. Over the years the credibility of the league has vastly improved. There was a time when the NHL didn’t have any affiliations, but now the majority of the 28 ECHL teams have NHL affiliates.

“Educating the fans on which NHL prospects are on the team, which ones are coming to play against the Lions, it will all add to the fan experience. We are already seeing an increase in fan interest. They are active, they are asking questions, ticket sales are going very well. We have good momentum and we appreciate that the fans are behind us.”

It’s unclear how many players will be assigned from the Rocket to the Lions. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Marlies loaned 15 players to the Growlers, a previously unseen level of involvement. Can we expect the same from the Canadiens?

“We will take as many as possible, but I will take what they give us,” says Bergeron.

There are a lot of Quebecers who want to return to Quebec to play, according to Bergeron. But these good players get paid well currently where they are, so the more players that the Habs/Rocket send to Trois-Rivières, the better, because these players cost a low, flat amount on the salary cap, leaving the team more money and cap space to be able to recruit better players on ECHL contracts, most importantly veterans who will be the locker-room leaders.

The first day to sign players to ECHL contracts for the 2021-22 season is July 9, and Bergeron says that he does want to announce at least one signing on this date.