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 an 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.
Québec Citadelles 1999-2002
The Canadiens were losing money in their Fredericton operation. It was just another problem that the financially challenged organization was facing in the late 90’s. mostly due to the weak Canadian dollar and rising player salaries that were paid out in American dollars. When a group of Quebec City investors presented a plan to bring professional hockey back to the city after the Nordiques left town, it was an opportunity the Canadiens seized. The Canadiens signed a six-year lease with the investors, and then moved the team from Fredericton to the provincial capital, renaming them Les Citadelles de Québec in the process. The new ownership signed a ten-year lease with the old Colisée de Québec arena to act as home base for the team. It would be the first time that the Montreal Canadiens did not directly operate their own farm team.
As part of the agreement the Canadiens would supply 12 players to the team, and the rest of the roster would be made up of players contracted directly by the Citadelles. The first such player was Francois Groleau, a former Montreal Canadiens prospect who played in Fredericton for three seasons, with stints in Montreal during each of those seasons. He was returning to the AHL after having spent a season in Germany. Unfortunately his return was delayed, as he suffered a knee injury in the team’s very first intra-squad scrimmage and would miss two months of action as a result. When he did return he openly complained multiple times to the media about his ice time, which resulted in a one game suspension imposed by the team.
Another player signed by the Citadelles was Pierre Sévigny, a third-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 1989, who spent seven seasons bouncing between Montreal and Fredericton before trying his luck with the New York Rangers organization. Sevigny would go on to captain the Citadelles for the majority of three seasons, taking over from Jason McBain who was the first captain of the team, but who was loaned halfway through the season to Grand Rapids of the IHL.
Sevigny would lead the team in points for the next two season, and holds all the offensive franchise records (most goals, 66, most assists, 97, and most points, 163) as well as most games played, 218. He was, by far, the face of the franchise during the Citadelles brief stay in Quebec City.
In order to give the team as much legitimacy as possible, Jean Béliveau, the Quebec Aces legend, was named honourary president of the new club, and it was he who dropped the puck for the ceremonial face-off during the inaugural game at the Colisée on October 1st, 1999, which drew 9,880 fans. Although not a sellout (which would be about 15,000), it was a considerable success for an AHL team nonetheless.
The game did not go well. Despite the strong play of Mathieu Garon in goal, the Citadelles would lose their inaugural game to the Hartford Wolf Pack, 4-1. PJ Stock was the standout player for the Pack, scoring two goals and being a physical presence all over the ice. The Citadelles looked bewildered and disorganized at times, leading to audible discontent from the stands. Jesse Belanger managed to score the first goal in Citadelles history on a pass by Sergei Zholtok in the third period to give the fans a momentary reason to celebrate.
By the third home game the number of fans drops down to less than 4,000. By November the attendance was averaging barely 3,500. By the end of month it was 3,103. Both the players and the management were discouraged by lack of support from the fans. Defenceman Alain Nesreddine said in a press interview that it wasn’t fun playing in Quebec due to the lack of fan support.
The Citadelles made the playoffs, based on the strength of their performance in the second half of the season. In the first round they faced the defending Calder Cup champion Providence Bruins in a best-of-five series. Attendance woes became worse for the organization: 2,200 fans attended the first game. 1,850 at the second.
Meanwhile the QMJHL Quebec Ramparts, who also played at the Colisée, had 13,400 fans at their playoff game the next night. The Citadelles were swept by the Bruins in three games. The fact of the matter was the organization was in serious trouble, only one year into its existence.
Only 19 games into the 2000-01 season, head coach Michel Therrien was promoted to the Montreal Canadiens when Alain Vigneault was fired, and assistant coach Eric Lavigne took over head coaching duties for the Citadelles.
As a development territory the Citadelles did serve as a proving ground for numerous prospects for the Montreal Canadiens: Stephane Robidas, Mike Ribeiro, Michael Ryder, Oleg Petrov, Andrei Markov, Francois Beauchemin, and Ron Hainsey all cut their teeth with the Quebec franchise.
In February 2001 the Molson family sold the majority of controlling share of the Montreal Canadiens to American investor George Gillett Jr., in what was a concerning move for a lot of fans, weary of a potential relocation of the Canadiens. Montreal Canadiens President Pierre Boivin didn’t think that the sale would affect the partnership with the Citadelles. “During the sale process we discussed the Citadelles,” said Mr. Boivin, “Mr. Gillett will soon have an opportunity to talk to our partners in Quebec. The situation in Quebec is ideal as it’s practical and efficient, not just for the movement of players, but also to allow our hockey operations people follow our prospects closely.”
Despite this praise, the Canadiens would keep their farm team in Quebec City for just one more season, which would be the shortest stint of a farm team since the original Montreal Voyageurs packed up and moved to Halifax after two seasons.
The reasons were twofold.
The main challenge was around the Citadelles administration having different priorities from the Canadiens. The Citadelles needed to win in order to attract fans, so they would play their best, most experienced players, typically veterans signed to AHL deals. The Canadiens meanwhile wanted the Citadelles to play their top prospects who lacked experience and needed to develop at the cost of team success. Veterans like Craig Darby would gets preferential ice time over prospects like Marc-Andre Thinel, creating a problem in terms of developing players for the Montreal Canadiens. These two forces were clearly in constant opposition, and something had to give.
The problem at the end of the day with the Citadelles failing to attract fans to their games all came down to the fact that the fan base, still heartbroken by the departure of the Nordiques, were not ready to emotionally invest in another professional hockey team, especially one tied to their hated rival Montreal Canadiens. With the growing popularity of university football and the ongoing success of the Quebec Ramparts, there was simply no interest in the Citadelles.
On May 11th, 2002, the owners of the Citadelles announced that they were not exercising their option to retain the Montreal Canadiens farm team in Quebec City. The Canadiens found themselves without a farm team for the first time.
Listen to Andrew weekly on TSN 690 Radio Sundays at 8:05am on Habs Breakfast, part of Weekend Game Plan.