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Laval Rocket Countdown: Hamilton Bulldogs 2002-2015

We continue our look back at former Montreal Canadiens farm teams with the last to claim the AHL championship.

P.K. Subban played one season in Hamilton
Uncredited photo

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.

Part 1: Montreal Voyageurs 1969-1971

Part 2: Nova Scotia Voyageurs 1971-1984

Part 3: Sherbrooke Canadiens 1984- 1990

Part 4: Fredericton Canadiens 1990-1999

Part 5: Quebec Citadelles 1999-2002

Hamilton Bulldogs 2002-2015

On July 3, 2002, Montreal Canadiens General Manager André Savard announced two very important decisions that set the course for the franchise as we know it today.

Firstly, he confirmed that the farm team — for the first time ever — would be outside of Quebec and the Maritimes, as the fate of the Edmonton Oilers and the Canadiens would once again intertwine. With a planned move of their AHL farm team to Toronto for 2003-04, but stuck in a lease in Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum, the Oilers offered to share their farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, with the Canadiens for the 2002-03 season, after which the Canadiens’ affiliate would become the sole tenant while Edmonton moved to their new location. Montreal accepted, and sold their farm team to a group of Hamilton investors, retaining a minority share.

The second announcement on that day that also greatly impacted the farm team was the hiring of Trevor Timmins as Director of Player Personnel; a man responsible for shaping the Bulldogs team that won the Calder Cup in 2006-07.

That season over half the team was composed of players drafted by Timmins and his team of amateur scouts. Eleven players in total fit that description, including Andrei Kostitsyn, Sergei Kostitsyn, Mikhail Grabovski, Corey Locke, Kyle Chipchura, Ryan O’Byrne, Maxim Lapierre, Jaroslav Halak, Matt D’Agostini, and a young goalie who had joined the Bulldogs late in the season once his Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League were eliminated, a goalie by the name of Carey Price.

In a pivotal moment for the Bulldogs franchise, Price signed his NHL entry-level contract on April 11, 2007, and was assigned to Hamilton to backup Yann Danis, while Halak joined the Slovakian national team to play in the IIHF World Championship.

Price made his first start on April 13; the third-last game of the regular season. The Bulldogs won the match 3-1 in front of the entire Canadiens management group who came to watch Price’s first outing. Head coach Don Lever was immediately impressed with the 19-year-old.

“He was really solid in nets. He played really big. He didn’t look nervous at all. If he was, he really didn’t show it.”

Price ended up starting all 22 playoff games on the road to the Calder Cup, putting up a .936 save percentage and a 2.06 goals-against average, allowing only nine goals in the final series against the Hershey Bears that went five games. Price was selected as the AHL playoff MVP, and his performance was compared to that of Patrick Roy back in 1985.

Besides Price, the Bulldogs produced many of the top talents that played, or still play, for the Canadiens: Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais, Nathan Beaulieu, P.K. Subban, Mike Komisarek, and Chris Higgins are among the marquee named who spent time in Hamilton before heading for Montreal.

Even with all those future NHLers on the roster, all offensive records belong to Locke, who scored 85 goals and added 144 assists in 313 games with the franchise.

The Hamilton Bulldogs’ road jersey

Claude Julien remained as head coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs when the Canadiens merged, serving the two previous seasons under the Oilers’ watch. The challenge he faced was to balance the development of the prospects for both organizations, which provided an equal amount of players to form the team.

As a result of the limited amount of players that could be sent to Hamilton for the 2002-03 season, Canadiens first-round draft pick Eric Chouinard was loaned to the Utah Grizzlies of the AHL at the start of the season in order to maximize his playing time. He was traded a few months later to Philadelphia.

After Julien was hired by the Canadiens midway through the 2002-03 season, the Bulldogs went through some major coaching instability, which surely hurt the development of prospects due to the lack of consistency. Assistant coach Geoff Ward was named interim coach for the rest of the season, but his stay was brief as he was repatriated by the Oilers at the end of the season after he took the Bulldogs to the Calder Cup Final.

His successor was Doug Jarvis, who coached for two seasons before he was also called up to the Canadiens, at which point Don Lever was promoted to the job.

Lever actually stayed with the Bulldogs for three-and-a-half seasons, but he too was promoted to the Canadiens to serve as an assistant to general manager Bob Gainey after Guy Carbonneau was fired as head coach in 2009.

Long-time assistant head coach Ron Wilson was promoted to head coach for the Bulldogs for the rest of the season, as the coaching carousel began once again with Wilson leaving at the end of the season, and the Bulldogs being coached by three different coaches in three seasons: Guy Boucher, Randy Cunneyworth, and Clement Jodoin.

Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens
Alex Henry at Montreal Canadiens training camp, 2010.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Stability came in the form of team captain Alex Henry, whose fearsome 6’5” frame provided a steady link for those three seasons between the players and whichever coach was behind the bench at the time. Henry holds the franchise record for most games played with the Bulldogs at 486 games, being drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and developing in their system, and then returning to the team as part of the Montreal Canadiens organization.

In 2012, the organization went through a major purge, and new General Manager Marc Bergevin chose former Habs defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre as the new head coach for the farm team. Lefebvre has since become the third-longest serving farm team head coach behind Paulin Bordeleau and Al McNeil.

The farm system under Bergevin became strictly a place for players to develop, at the detriment of team results. As a result of this approach, the Bulldogs struggled under Lefebvre as a team, and failed to make the playoffs for the final three seasons in Hamilton.

In March of 2015, the farm team would once again be on the move. The chosen destination was Laval, but first there was the matter of completing the construction of a new arena, and with that, rather than exercising a two-year extension option with the city of Hamilton, the Canadiens signed a two-year agreement that would bring the farm back out to Atlantic Canada for a quick stint.

Listen to Andrew weekly on TSN 690 Radio Sundays at 8:05am on Habs Breakfast, part of Weekend Game Plan.