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.
The stay in St. John’s was always going to be a temporary one. On March 31, 2015, the Canadiens confirmed the worst-kept secret of the previous two weeks: they were relocating their farm team to Laval, Quebec. But first they had to wait for the new arena to be built, and that project wouldn’t reach completion until 2017.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, the city of St. John’s was dealing with the news that the Winnipeg Jets would be moving their farm team away from Newfoundland to Manitoba, and therefore the IceCaps needed to fill the void to continue operation. The IceCaps’ president, former provincial premier Danny Williams, reached out to Geoff Molson in a “shot in the dark,” just to inform the Canadiens of the pending vacancy.
In Hamilton, the Canadiens were facing an expiration of their deal with the Bulldogs at the end of the season, and had to make a decision of whether or not to exercise a two-year option before resettling to Laval. Bulldogs majority owner Michael Andlauer, however, was looking to provide long-term stability for the city’s hockey product, and had the opportunity to purchase and relocate the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, and made it known to Montreal.
At this point the ball started to roll and a two-year deal, with an option year, was finalized between the Montreal Canadiens and the St. John’s IceCaps, returning the farm team to Atlantic Canada for the first time since leaving Fredericton in 1999.
The inaugural game was played on October 10, 2015, in front of 6,518 fans at Mile One Centre, and it only took the team 4:34 to score the first goal. Fittingly it was the leadership core that put up the marker, as assistant captain George “Bud“ Holloway scored with helpers from assistant Mark Barberio and captain Gabriel Dumont. Starting goaltender Dustin Tokarski made 30 saves, and the IceCaps won the game 3-1.
A new hopeful season was underway for a team filled with young promising prospects like Charles Hudon, Michael McCarron, Daniel Carr, Sven Andrighetto, Nikita Scherbak, and Tim Bozon.
One of the more unusual newsmaking items of the season was when the Canadiens made a three-way trade, sending Jarred Tinordi and Stefan Fournier to the Arizona Coyotes and receiving defenceman Victor Bartley and the controversial John Scott.
Scott, who made a career out of being an enforcer, was voted into the NHL All-Star Game by the fans; an appointment the league tried to block via various means, including asking the player to decline participation. Once it became clear that he would not, he was not-so-coincidentally traded to the Canadiens, and sent to the IceCaps, where he would be deemed ineligible to attend the All-Star Game because he was in the AHL.
The public outcry at the blatant move left the NHL facing potential further embarrassment, so they allowed Scott to take his spot in the All-Star game after all. Then came the question as to which jersey he would wear at the event.
"I think I'm going to wear the IceCaps jersey, since that's the team I'm on right now," Scott said. "It's not up to me, I guess, because I am technically Montreal's property but I came from Arizona.”
Despite the circus surrounding Scott and the All-Star game, he remained a professional, providing excellent national media exposure for the IceCaps as a result, and was used for 27 games by the team, scoring two goals and adding two assists, putting aside his pugilist past.
He received a one-game recall with the Canadiens toward the end of the season in recognition of his grace throughout the whole ordeal with the organization, and decided to call it a career after the game, not returning to the IceCaps afterward.
Unfortunately the life of a farm team is to feed the parent team, so when injuries happen at the NHL level, it is the AHL team who must suffer the consequences, and suffer the IceCaps did.
When Carey Price went down to injury in Montreal, IceCaps starter Dustin Tokarski was recalled, leaving rookie goaltender Zachary Fucale to fend for himself for the majority of the season. Then one after another, Montreal players started sustaining long-term injuries, most notably the defence corps.
As a result, by the end of the season, 47 different players had suited up for the IceCaps. The team tried valiantly to adapt to roster challenges while chasing the final playoff spot, but ultimately the obstacle was too great, and the IceCaps were eliminated from post-season contention.
That was the fifth season in a row that the farm team failed to qualify for the playoffs, and the fourth for head coach Sylvain Lefebvre, who was roundly criticized by fans for the lack of team success during his tenure. However, general manager Marc Bergevin maintained his support for the beleaguered head coach, citing youth and the rash of call-ups as the prime reasons for the club’s struggles.
During the summer of 2016, the Canadiens made a poorly-timed announcement reminding the fanbase that the farm team would be moving to Laval; just ahead of the season-ticket drive for the IceCaps. The impact of this announcement was deflating for the fans in St. John’s who felt betrayed once again, about to lose a third team in 10 years.
The impact on attendance was not negligible, drawing just 5,820 fans for the home opener for the start of the 2016-17 season — less than the previous season — and struggling certain nights to get more than 3,000 people in the seats.
The IceCaps currently sit in a playoff position at the time of this writing, and hopefully they can carry that through the season and give the St. John’s faithful an appropriate send-off.
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