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Fifty years ago today, Montreal got its first AHL team

It’s the golden anniversary of the Voyageurs.

Guy Lapointe and Pierre Bouchard graduated from the Montreal Voyageurs
La Presse

In the summer of 2017, the Montreal Canadiens completed a long-rumoured relocation by moving their farm team closer to home: from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Laval, just north of the island.

The Laval Rocket provide the Canadiens with a readily accessible supply of players to pick from in case of injury, and also gives them the ability to keep a close eye on the development of prospects, something that was a bit more challenging when those players were at least a flight away.

The convenience of the new location and the co-promotion opportunities that it provides are a reminder of the last time the Canadiens were fortunate enough to have their American Hockey League affiliate so close to home. The Montreal Voyageurs were the primary affiliate of the Canadiens from 1969 to 1971, and it is now the 50th anniversary of the announcement that the Canadiens were bringing a minor pro team to the city.

On May 28, 1969, the Canadiens announced that they have been granted an AHL franchise to be based in Montreal to act as their primary farm team. The decision was made by the league at the annual AHL Board of Governors meeting held in Springfield, expanding the league from eight teams to nine. This followed approval by the National Hockey League to have two professional hockey teams in the city.

Prior to this, the Canadiens had their primary affiliate in the Central Professional Hockey League with the Houston Apollos, and a secondary affiliation agreement with the AHL’s Cleveland Barons. The Houston franchise was the first farm team that was actually owned by the NHL organization. A lack of on-ice success led to a dwindling attendance (down to an average of 1,861 people) by 1969 however, and the business group in Houston managing the Apollos approached the Canadiens to get out of their deal.

Faced with managing their own farm team in Houston or looking elsewhere, Sam Pollock decided to bring the farm team to Montreal, at least for the time being. Pollock announced that the Houston team would suspend operations, and that the Canadiens were ending their loan agreement with the Cleveland Barons of the AHL, concentrating all their prospects into this new AHL team.

Publicly, the message being delivered was that they were bringing the team closer to home in order to have a more hands-on approach with the development of the Canadiens’ future, coupled with an unprecedented interest in hockey in the city where the Canadiens were drawing record crowds and the Junior Canadiens were also pulling in over 10,000 fans for their games.

Fitting three team schedules into the Montreal Forum was going to be somewhat logistically challenging, so Canadiens president David Molson laid out the plan for the season ahead: The Canadiens would play 38 home games on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the Voyageurs would play 36 home games Fridays and some Sundays, and the Juniors would play 27 home games on most Sundays. A total of 101 regular-season games across all three teams at the Forum was a huge docket, and a lot to ask fans to support. Price points were set accordingly, as the Canadiens would charge $3.50-7.00 per ticket, the Voyageurs $2.00-4.00, and the Juniors from $1.00-2.50.

The Muskie mistake

The Canadiens unfortunately had a misstep with the team at the start. Molson held a press conference a few days after the franchise reveal to announce that the team would be dubbed the Muskies, a name he said was chosen to represent three characteristics they were looking for in their team identity: strength, speed, and endurance. Molson also said the name was bilingual, seeing as “Muskies” was a colloquial name for the fish used by many French-speaking Quebecers. But the francophone media received the news negatively, viewing it as an anglophone slight at a time when language sensitivities were quite high in the province after a decade of cultural revolt.

The Canadiens relented, and allowed the fans to send in their nominations for a new team name. The three finalists were “Metropolitains,” “Rocket,” and “Voyageurs.” The first was to represent the growing size and influence of the city, the middle one to honour a Canadiens legend, and the last was remaining fresh on the fans’ minds from the rumours of the baseball team’s name.

On June 27, 1969, the Canadiens announced that a select group of media— both anglophone and francophone — voted to select Voyageurs as the name of the new AHL farm team, officially giving the club a moniker they would carry for 15 seasons.

The first Voyageurs

Al MacNeil, player/coach in the Apollos’ final season, was named the first head coach for the Voyageurs, under Pollock’s condition that MacNeil step “behind the bench” permanently. MacNeil was an experienced defenceman of 14 years, bouncing around from the Toronto Maple Leafs, to the Canadiens, to the Chicago Blackhawks, to the New York Rangers, and to the Pittsburgh Penguins before finding his way to the Apollos. He also played on one of Montreal’s farm teams, the Hull-Ottawa Canadiens of the Eastern Professional Hockey League, the precursor to the CPHL. In the end, training camp would decide whether MacNeil would continue to play: “I’ll put on the jersey if I can help the team.”

Ron Caron, the Canadiens’ Director of Player Development, was named the Voyageurs’ General Manager.

Numerous players who played for the Apollos the previous year would be assigned to the Voyageurs in their inaugural season. Besides MacNeil, Alain Caron, Guy Lapointe, Jude Drouin, Lucien Grenier, Murray Flegel, Paul Curtis, Phil Myre, and Robin Burns came over from Houston to Montreal. Bob Berry, Murray Flegel, and Pierre Bouchard joined from the secondary affiliate in Cleveland.

Some additional moves were made to beef up the team with some veteran players, including claiming Jack Norris in the intraleague draft from Chicago, and Larry Mickey from Toronto.

The team would also count on a number of rookies, as is to be expected for a farm team. Marc Tardif, Guy Charron, and Rejean Houle came over from the Montreal Junior Canadiens and were the big-ticket, promising prospects on the team. A few other free agents were signed from the junior ranks, including Bobby Sheehan and Phil Roberto. Finally, junior-aged players Pete Mahovlich and Bart Crashley were traded to Montreal from Detroit to complete the roster.

The proximity was a huge benefit for the Canadiens. By January of the Voyageurs’ inaugural season, 12 players had been recalled, most notably Lapointe, Mahovlich, Myre, and Tardif.

Attendance was not high in the first season, unfortunately. Only 3,252 fans on average came to the games, well below the projected numbers. It was the second-lowest attendance in the league next to the Quebec Aces, who experienced their worst attendance in franchise history. The expected interest that the provincial rivalry, playing against each other 12 times, did not materialize to give the two teams the necessary boost to grow their brands. It turned out that minor-pro was a hard sell, even to a fervent Montreal audience.

By the end of the 1969-70 season, Pollock was already looking to move the Voyageurs to a more permanent home. In their second season in 1970-71, the Voyageurs split their home games between Montreal and Halifax, before moving operations to become the Nova Scotia Voyageurs for the 1971-72 season.

In its brief history, the Montreal Voyageurs dressed an impressive list of future stalwarts for the Canadiens. Besides the aforementioned Lapointe, Mahovlich, Tardif, Bouchard, and Houle, you can add the great Ken Dryden to the list of those who learned their craft with the team. Of the 57 players who dressed for the Voyageurs, all but nine made it to the NHL or World Hockey Association at some point in their careers, a remarkable testament of what the farm team was able to accomplish in a very short time when all eyes were on them.