Laval Rocket Countdown: Montreal Voyageurs 1969-1971

A look back at former Montreal Canadiens farm teams

The Montreal Canadiens organization are 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 a 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.

Montreal Voyageurs (AHL, 1969-1971)

The Montreal Voyageurs rose from the ashes of the Houston Apollos of the Central Hockey League, who were bought and then moved to Montreal by the Canadiens mainly to reduce the travel costs between the parent club, but also for profitability reasons, as the Canadiens believed that the Montreal market could support a three hockey teams, the other being the very successful Montreal Junior Canadiens.

The inaugural team was led by player-coach Al MacNeil, a 524 game NHL veteran, who spent time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, and Pittsburgh Penguins. In his second season as player-coach, he was transitioning from player to head coach after a 13-year professional career.

The Voyageurs played their home games at the Montreal Forum, and immediately proved a worthwhile investment for the parent Canadiens who could easily recall players at a moment’s notice. By January of their inaugural season 12 players were already recalled from the Voyageurs to the Canadiens at various points, most notably Guy Lapointe, Peter Mahovlich, Philippe Myre, and Marc Tardif.

Their very first game was played on October 10, 1969 against the Providence Reds in front of approximately 4,000 fans at the Forum, a game which ended up as a 2-2 tie. Phil Roberto made history by scoring the first-ever Voyageurs goal, with the other goalscorer being Robin Burns. The pressure on the team to succeed in a charged market was evident from the start as team Vice-President Sam Pollock railed into his players after the game, notably bringing to attention several players who were out of shape.

That first season the Voyageurs ended up in first place of their division, winning 43 out of 72 games. They were the only team in the nine-team AHL to achieve 100 points that season, headlined by Jude Drouin who led the League with 106 points, Guy Charron with 82 points, and Alain Caron with 65 points. None of these players was able to translate this success to the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL unfortunately, and pursued careers in other organizations.

In the playoffs the Voyageurs defeated the Baltimore Clippers in the best-of-seven first round in five games, sealing the series in a wild 10-6 win. However their playoff run came to an end as they lost the second round, which was a round-robin format series, against the Buffalo Bisons and Springfield Knights, losing all three games played.

By next season MacNeil officially retired and joined the Montreal Canadiens as assistant head coach for the 1970-71 season. Replacing him was Ronald Caron, the Director of Scouting for the Canadiens, who took over the reigns of the farm team while the organization looked for a permanent replacement, which came in the form of former Quebec Aces and Cleveland Barons head coach, and current Montreal Canadiens Assistant General Manager, Floyd Curry.

Unfortunately Curry was not able to extract the same performance out of the Voyageurs as MacNeil did, mainly due to being drained of many top prospects, and the team finished with 68 points which was good for only second in the weak East Division. Although their offence dried up, it was the goaltending of an un-drafted rookie from Cornell University by the name of Ken Dryden who helped the team by being one of the best goaltenders in the League with a 2.68 goals against average, just shy of the League leading GAA of 2.67. When the playoffs came, Dryden was recalled to the Montreal Canadiens and on his way to making history, and the Voyageurs were bounced quickly out of the playoffs in the first round, losing three straight to the Springfield Kings.

Although the team stayed in Montreal for only two seasons, numerous players who went on to achieve fame with the Montreal Canadiens honed their craft with the team, notably Tardif, Dryden, Mahovlich, Lapointe, Rejean Houle, and Pierre Bouchard. Future Montreal Canadiens head coach Bob Berry also played for the Montreal Voyageurs achieving further success with the Los Angeles Kings organization.

The undoing of the Montreal Voyageurs came with the economic downturn in Canada and various emerging sporting alternatives in Montreal such as the Expos and the Alouettes.  By the second season, despite regular season success on the ice, box office struggles forced the team to play some home games in Halifax before making the decision to permanently move there the following season.

1969-71 | Montreal Voyageurs 1971-84 | Nova Scotia Voyageurs

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