The Montreal Canadiens organization is set to officially unveil the colours and logo of the Laval Rocket, their new American Hockey League affiliate for the 2017-18 season. Rocket Countdown will be a historical journey looking at past Canadiens affiliates from the 1969 NHL expansion onward, and building up to the unveiling of the Laval Rocket on January 31.
Nova Scotia Voyageurs (AHL, 1971-1984)
After playing several games in Halifax the previous season as the Montreal Voyageurs, the team made the move permanent at the start of the 1971-72 season, kicking off a 13 season stay on the Atlantic coast for the Montreal Canadiens farm team, now called the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, or “Vees” for short. This would become the longest and the most successful farm team in the organization’s history. Playing in the Halifax Forum from 1971 to 1978, and moving to the new and much larger Halifax Metro Centre afterwards, the Voyageurs went from the least attended team in the AHL (1971-72- 2,793 fans on average in the 11-team league) to third highest in the expanded 13-team league by their last season (1983-84- 4,256).
The most notable initial addition to the team was that of head coach Al MacNeil, who finished the previous season as the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, replacing Claude Ruel during the season, and capturing the Stanley Cup. However a very public feud with Henri Richard, along with the controversy of being an anglophone head coach in the midst of language turmoil in the Province, forced the organization to demote MacNeil back to the AHL and promote the bilingual Scotty Bowman to NHL head coach. MacNeil wasted no time, winning the Calder Cup with the Voyageurs in his first season back, and again two more times in 1975-76 and 1976-77, totalling three Championship conquests and no missed playoffs in his six seasons behind the bench of the team.
In their inaugural season in 1971-72 the team was lead by journeyman forward Germain Gagnon who put up 81 points and Ray Comeau with 64 points, but it was the professional rookie seasons of two future key cogs of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the 1970’s Yvon Lambert and Larry Robinson that marked this championship season for the Voyageurs. The Voyageurs defeated the Baltimore Clippers 4-1 in the sixth game of the Calder Cup final, with team captain Mike Laughton scoring the winning goal, his second of the game. The other goals came from Murray Wilson and Randy Rota. Goaltender Michel Plasse, having only allowed 19 goals in 15 playoff games, was voted playoff MVP.
The end of season awards in 1972 recognized former Montreal Canadien and current Voyageur Noel Price, who was voted best defenceman in the AHL that season and played a big role mentoring Larry Robinson in Larry’s rookie season. Price returned for a second stint with the Voyageurs in 1976 after playing with the Atlanta Flames of the NHL, and was again elected best defenceman in the League, and it was another young defensive protege of his, Brian Engblom who took top honours the following season. Price’s unsung role in mentoring the bluechip defensive prospects of the organization during their first professional steps represent one of the many benefits of a strong developmental system that should be filled with exemplary veterans to support the propsects.
As the seasons rolled on other notable Habs got their professional hockey start in Halifax: Steve Shutt (1972), Michel Larocque (1972), Bob Gainey (1973), Doug Risebrough (1974), Mario Tremblay (1974), Pierre Mondou (1975), Brian Engblom (1975), Rod Langway (1978), Chris Nilan (1979), and Guy Carbonneau (1980) among plenty of others. But of course, as is with all the best prospects, their stays with the Voyageurs were brief before getting the permanent call up to the NHL Montreal Canadiens. The Voyageurs is also where future Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien played his rookie pro season in 1983-84. He joined the team as an undrafted prospect on the recommendation of Montreal Canadiens head coach Jacques Lemaire.
The 1975-76 and 1976-77 seasons remains ones of distinction for the Canadiens organization, as it marked the only time in history where an NHL team and their AHL affiliate won their respective League’s championship simultaneously. The Voyageurs defeated the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup finals in 1976 and turned the trick the following season, this time against the Rochester Americans, in 1977.
Lambert holds the Voyageurs record for most goals in a single season with 52, and points with 104 in 1972-73, his final season in the AHL. Looking at all-time franchise records, the player who holds the record for most games played as a Voyageur is Jim Cahoon with 371 games played, for most total goals went to Dan Metivier with 103, and for most total points went to Don Howse with 251. These franchise record holders never played a game for the NHL Montreal Canadiens and are therefore an oft-forgotten group of players despite their immense contribution to the farm team.
On April 13th 1983 the Montreal Canadiens organization saw a massive purge of their head office by team President Ronald Corey, with the release of General Manager Irving Grundman, undoing the massive blunder of not promoting Scotty Bowman in his stead. The ship had sailed on Bowman by this point, so the organization turned to Serge Savard to right the ship that began listing badly under Grundman’s watch. One of Savard’s primary goals was to strengthen the organizational depth, and decided the best way to accomplish this would be to bring the farm team closer to the parent club in order to be able to regularly observe their progress. With that new development strategy the farm team moved from Halifax back to the Province of Québec, relocating to the city of Sherbrooke in time for the 1984-85 season where history would repeat itself with a Calder Cup win in its inaugural season.
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