The brand new American Hockey League affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens, the Laval Rocket, play their inaugural game today against the Belleville Senators at the new Place Bell. The team announced on Thursday that the game was sold out (the arena has a capacity of 10,000) which is a great sign for the interest in the team within the community.
Are the Rocket going to be able to sustain that level of attendance throughout the season? It would be great for both the city and the prospects who get a great atmosphere for their games.
This type of success hadn’t often been seen by the Habs’ previous AHL affiliates. Looking at the attendance numbers on the night of a team’s inaugural game and their annual average, we get a better idea of the instant success of the Rocket.
October 10, 1969: Montreal Voyageurs vs. Providence Reds, 2-2 Tie
Approximately 4,000 fans at the Montreal Forum witnessed the launch of a second professional hockey team in Montreal for the 1969-70 season. The Voyageurs played against the Providence Reds in a game that ended up as a 2-2 tie.
Phil Roberto made history by scoring the first ever Voyageurs goal, with the other goal-scorer being Robin Burns. The pressure on the team to succeed in a charged market was made evident from the start as fans began booing the local team by the second period due to some sloppy play.
Team Vice President Sam Pollock railed into his players after the game, notably bringing to attention several players who were out of shape.
“The Voyageurs will have to display much more energy. We have the intention of following very closely the work of each of our players. Currently, several of them are carrying some extra pounds. I’m forced to admit that some of them suffered some injuries that forced them to miss some ice time. These players will have to find a way to get into top shape as soon as possible.”
Under player-coach Al MacNeil, the team would go on several long winning streaks and win their division.
The team averaged about 3,200 in their first season, but that dropped to 1,900 fans the following season as the team struggled to win, and began splitting home games between Montreal and Halifax.
October 6, 1971: Nova Scotia Voyageurs vs. Cleveland Barons, 5-2 Win
The team made a permanent move to Nova Scotia in 1971, playing their home games at the Halifax Forum. In front of 3,500 fans, the Voyageurs defeated the Barons in their first game, on goals by Kerry Kettler, Rose Buter, Murray Wilson, and Chuck Arnason. The capacity of the arena was around 5,600.
It turned out to be a tremendous season for the Voyageurs in fact. Powered by the return behind the bench of MacNeil, the team would win the Calder Cup at the end of the season. The team averaged about 2,800 fans that season, though attendance fluctuated for the next six years. The team then moved to the Halifax Metro Centre for six more years, setting their attendance record in 1981-82 with an average of 4,800 fans in a 10,000-capacity arena.
October 12, 1984: Sherbrooke Canadiens vs. Nova Scotia Oilers, 9-0 Win
It was a return to the Province of Québec for the Habs’ farm team for the 1984-85 season, and they kicked the party off in fine fashion in front of 3,012 fans, destroying their former adoptive city’s newest tenants.
Serge Boisvert was the big hero, scoring three goals, with the others scored by Larry Landon, Ric Nattress, Jocelyn Gauvreau, Brian Skrudland, Mike Lalor, and Randy Bucyk. Goaltender Greg Moffett had the shutout for the AHL Habs, stopping all 19 shots he faced, while his team supported him with 38 shots the other way. The game ended with a bench-clearing brawl, to the delight of the fans.
The team averaged 2,661 fans that season, which was a lot less than the Voyageurs were getting in their new arena, but slowly built up their audience up to a high of 4,095 in 1989-90; the final year of the team in the city.
October 6, 1990: Fredericton Canadiens vs. Utica Devils, 5-2 Win
Playing in the Aitken Centre at the University of New Brunswick, with a 3,685-seat capacity, the Fredericton Canadiens were capable of coming close to filling their arena on a regular basis. Unfortunately being an old arena that was built in 1976, there was limited appetite for renovating the arena, and even less for building a new one to grow the attendance.
Meanwhile, with the departure of the Nordiques to Denver, the Canadiens organization thought it may be time to capitalize on a famished market in Quebec City, with a larger arena left vacant, and the organization moved the affiliate to the capital city.
October 1, 1999: Quebec Citadelles vs. Hartford Wolf Pack, 4-1 Loss
It was a crowd of 9,880 fans that filled the Colisée to watch the return of the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate to the province of Québec, and the return of professional hockey for the first time since the Nordiques were moved to Denver. Even though it was short of a sellout in an arena that could hold 19,000, at the time this was the largest AHL game for the Montreal Canadiens.
The festivities that preceded the game included Jean Béliveau dropping the ceremonial first puck. Once the game began, however, it became slowly evident that the Citadelles were not a very good team. Goaltender Mathieu Garon did the best he could to keep the game close, but an inability by the defence corps to move the puck out quickly was the team’s undoing.
The initial crowds that filled the Colisée dwindled as the team hovered around a .500 record. They managed an average of 3,918 fans in their inaugural season, and grew year-over-year, but never enough to be financially viable, and the team folded after three seasons.
October 14, 2002: Hamilton Bulldogs vs. Rochester Americans, 3-1 Win
The Hamilton Bulldogs were the first AHL affiliate for the Canadiens outside of Quebec and Eastern Canada. They were also the first to start the season on the road out of all the Canadiens AHL affiliates, but they did it in fine form, winning 3-1 against the Rochester Americans.
On January 21, 2012 the Bulldogs hosted the Toronto Marlies at Ivor Wynne Stadium in an outdoor game that drew 20,565 fans. Although the game did not set an AHL attendance record (that was set by 45,653 fans in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier), this game remains the largest attended AHL game since. Too bad that the Bulldogs lost badly, 7-2.
In general, the Bulldogs remained a successful franchise, but their attendance suffered as a result of the steel industry crash in Hamilton. Despite a successful Calder Cup run in 2007, they were never able to fill the 17,000-seat Copps Coliseum arena regularly.
October 10, 2015: St. John’s IceCaps vs. Hartford Wolf Pack, 3-1 Win
The IceCaps started their inaugural season on the road, against the Hartford Wolf Pack. Backstopped by Dustin Tokarski, who made 30 saves, the IceCaps skated to their first win on the back of goals by Bud Holloway and the short-handed game-winner by Jeremy Grégoire in the second period. Charles Hudon added the empty-net marker.
When they returned from the road trip to Mile One Centre, a sellout of 6,296 fans greeted the IceCaps for their first home game a week later, with Yvan Cournoyer doing the ceremonial puck drop. Attendance remained strong throughout the first season, and was in fact the second best of any season by a Habs farm team since 1969.
Unfortunately the arrangement in Laval was always known to be temporary, and when the reality of the situation sunk in with the fans during the second and final season on the island, interest and attendance plummeted to levels not seen since the Quebec Citadelles days.