The Montreal Canadiens have announced the renewal of their ECHL affiliation with the Brampton Beast for the 2017-18 season.
Brampton’s President and General Manager, Cary Kaplan, recently recounted the start of the partnership, and the cultural fit with the Canadiens in a lengthy conversation with Eyes on the Prize.
“The first year we were in the CHL, and we were affiliated with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but we only had one guy here. The next season we didn’t have any affiliate to start the season.
“Then there was an opportunity for [Canadiens draft pick] Dalton Thrower to play here, as the Habs thought it would be good for his development. Right away when he got here, he was happy to play here, and did great. Our team struggled that year, but Dalton was a key part of the team. Montreal was pretty transparent that this was a test.”
At that time Montreal had an ECHL affiliation with the Wheeling Nailers, but it was not an exclusive arrangement. Neither was the previous affiliation with the Cincinnati Cyclones, who won the Kelly Cup on two occasions under another joint partnership.
“Montreal was a joint affiliate historically with Pittsburgh. They liked that situation to a certain degree, but you couldn’t control whether it’s your goalie playing tonight or it’s Pittsburgh’s. Are your guys getting the ice time or are we competing with the other players? It’s hard enough that you are competing with the local guys, but now you’re competing with Pittsburgh. So there was an appetite for Montreal to consider this affiliation.
“That increased when [Director of Hockey Operations and Head Coach] Colin Chaulk came on board a year later. He got to know Sylvain Lefebvre and Vincent Riendeau better, as well as Larry Carriere. I give Colin a lot of credit for giving Montreal the comfort level for going all-in.
“It was a long time since Montreal had a full affiliation — if ever — in the ECHL. It was a bit precedent-setting. Then the ECHL evolved to what the rule is now: that you cannot have dual affiliations. This was a working model. We did it one year with Montreal.
“The league is now at 27 teams, so you still have four NHL teams (Ottawa, Florida, Columbus, and Tampa) without an ECHL affiliate, which is tricky for them. You have two players here, one player here, and one player somewhere else. A team like Montreal, who has the resources, doesn’t want to be one of those teams.
“We had good dialogue with a number of teams, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Montreal — grew up a blue-and-white Leafs fan, but I worked with Montreal in Hamilton with the Bullodgs. One of the last things I did there was sign the affiliation with the Canadiens, and, coincidentally, Claude Julien was the head coach there at the time.
“I always felt really good about it back then and I feel good about it now. We’re very happy with the relationship. We’ve had six to eight NHL teams approach us over the past year for affiliations, but we’re really happy with Montreal. I can’t think of anybody — I know the natural thought is Toronto, but we like the level of independence we have in this market — we can’t think of anybody who could be better.”
Kaplan expanded on the cultural fit for both the Montreal Canadiens and the Brampton Beast.
“Montreal does something unique. Some NHL teams look at the ECHL and see it as a developmental league. That can mean a couple of things. That could mean ‘develop by losing’: some organizations think that ‘if we develop three players out of our ECHL team, then great, but we don’t care if they win.’
“Montreal’s position is different. Montreal doesn’t tank. There is no history of that. Montreal develops by winning. So when we say we want to ‘win first’ in Brampton, 15 NHL teams are not comfortable with that sentence. ‘You mean you want to develop for us?’ Well, no, our goal is to win a championship in Brampton — first priority all the time.
“Montreal loves that. Montreal wants their players to develop in a winning environment. That uniqueness has always made me feel really good with the Montreal relationship. That allows us to put the best guys on the ice every night. Other teams don’t necessarily believe in that. ‘Hey, that guy is struggling, but we want you to keep playing him because we need him to get better.’”
When asked about the continued struggles to win at the AHL level for the Canadiens, Kaplan offered some insight.
“The AHL is tricky. It’s not what it used to be when I was involved there 15 years ago. The AHL is in large part owned by NHL teams now.”
The suggestion is that winning might have become a secondary priority to developing individual players, to the detriment of growing the team in its market through team success.
Due to the NHL’s territorial rules, the Beast cannot use the Canadiens logo in their promotional materials. Was the ECHL affiliate in the heart of the GTA an effort by the Canadiens to plant a flag in Leafs land?
“I don’t know if it was conscious. I think we like that from a Brampton perspective that the most storied hockey franchise ever is 10 minutes from Pearson airport. That was exciting for us. It was a good branding exercise for us. I’m not sure if that was on Montreal’s radar. I think that they like partnering with a Canadian team. From a geographic perspective it’s easier to get a player from Brampton to St. John’s than Wheeling.”
With the geographic proximity between Brampton and the new home of the AHL team in Laval, there is definitely an appetite to pursue a longer agreement now, with the timing not being right previously.
“There was a lot of change over the last few years. The first year was a feeling out process, then a new coach in Colin last year, but now that the team has moved to Laval I feel that we’re at a point for the first time where we would be interested in talking about a longer term affiliation with the Canadiens; I think for both sides. [This] deal is a one-year deal for this current season. The next agreement, at least from Brampton’s perspective ... we’d be interested in looking at a longer-term deal.”