Trois-Rivières, QC — On the heels of the announcement that an agreement has been reached to bring an ECHL team to Trois-Rivières, the prospect of a partnership with the Montréal Canadiens has ignited excitement among fans eager to fill a lingering gap within the organization.
The anticipation building around a new ECHL team in Québec is warranted. If the application to join is approved, Trois-Rivières would become just the fourth club in league history to call a Canadian city home. Although league approval is still pending, Trois-Rivières is set to become the 27th ECHL team, with play beginning in the 2021-22 season.
Admittedly, there is a discrepancy in the number of ECHL teams (26) to National Hockey League “parent” organizations and their American Hockey League counterparts (currently at 31). However, a permanent partnership between the three teams in la belle province could be the final piece of a puzzle that’s been a work in progress over the past few seasons.
When the Laval Rocket entered the AHL as the primary minor league affiliate of the Montréal Canadiens in 2017, they inherited the organization’s partnership with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL. Brampton first became part of the Canadiens’ extended family in 2015, the same year Montréal relocated their AHL arm from Hamilton, Ontario to St. John’s, Newfoundland. The Canadiens chose not to renew their contract with the Beast after the 2018-19 season concluded, and spent the entire 2019-20 campaign without an affiliated team in the ECHL. Enter Trois-Rivières and the hopes of bringing a Québec based team into the development system.
In hockey, like real estate, location is everything. Teams continuously strive to keep operational costs low to maximize profits. The most accessible cost to minimize? Travel.
Trois-Rivières is located roughly 87 miles northeast of Laval, approximately a 90-minute drive via Autoroute 40E. Compared to Brampton, Ontario (358.9 mi.) and Wheeling, West Virginia before that (661.1 mi), an hour-and-a-half drive up the road is practically right next door. When you have guys who need a home, being able to stand on the roof of Place Bell with a good pair of binoculars to watch them run drills is always enticing.
Even more enticing is more closely monitoring player development and building deeper working relationships between players and management. Every time a team interacts with or observes a prospect is supposed to complete an evaluation of the progress being made. Keeping the entire farm so close together makes the most sense, no matter which way you slice it.
When it comes to player development, there is no one error-free way to shoe a horse. Nobody really agrees on the best approach because every player develops differently. The one thing that almost everyone with an opinion about player development can agree upon is that consistency is the key to successfully graduating well-rounded and impactful players. The Rocket took the first crucial step toward consistently successful player growth by hiring Head Coach Joël Bouchard after an abysmal end to the 2017-18 season.
Jake Evans était content d’enfin marquer cette saison… et le reste de l’équipe ne l’a pas laissé célébrer seul!
— Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) June 29, 2020
Bouchard plays a vital role in polishing raw prospects into NHL regulars. Still, he is not superhuman, and there are certain circumstances over which he has no control. Not everyone is ready for the NHL’s pace right away, so anyone who needs some extra time is cut from training camp and sent down to the AHL. Sometimes, a player just isn’t quite ready for the AHL, either.
A player recovering from a severe injury might need to get his legs back underneath him before returning to play at a higher level. When someone ages out of junior hockey, they might need just a little more time to adapt before making it onto a roster at the higher levels. Most European imports need at least a few games to adjust to the faster, more physical style of play and smaller ice surface with less room to move around. One more team in the Canadiens family bridges those transitional gaps while employing similar development or progression strategies across all three clubs.
Throughout 2019-20, injuries took their toll on both the Canadiens and the Rocket. Thirty-eight players donned the iconic “CH” before the NHL paused the regular season. A dozen of them were staples on Laval’s roster who had earned a few games with the big club or young prospects eager to impress management with how much they had matured under Bouchard’s watchful eye.
But while those Rocket players are busy plugging holes left by their NHL counterparts, who draws in for them? Since the organization cut the ties that bound them to the Brampton Beast, players recalled from the ECHL have come from a handful of different teams.
In Laval, seven players on the active roster at the time of the AHL’s cancellation (prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic) spent time with an ECHL team:
- Ryan Culkin: 45 games played with the Maine Mariners
- William Pelletier: Two games played with the Maine Mariners
- Hayden Verbeek: 21 games played with the Adirondack Thunder
- Antoine Waked: Six games played with the Adirondack Thunder
- Yannick Veilleux: 22 games played with the Kalamazoo Wings
- Aaron Luchuk: One game played with the Brampton Beast, 45 games played with the Newfoundland Growlers
- Michael McNiven: One game played with the Adirondack Thunder, 10 games played with the Jacksonville Icemen, eight games played with the Norfolk Admirals
A partnership with the new club in Trois-Rivières brings everyone together under one roof. They can play alongside one another and develop chemistry while awaiting the call that brings them back down the river.
The other side of that coin is roster management. Montréal General Manager Marc Bergevin has shifted to a philosophy of reinforcing the roster through calculated trades, but has focused on building a contender by addressing critical needs through the drafting and development of high-end prospects. This can easily lead to log jams at certain positions within the organization — most recently, between the pipes.
— Rocket de Laval (@RocketLaval) July 24, 2020
It all started when Cayden Primeau signed his entry-level contract and was assigned to Laval at the end of the 2018-19 season. The final nail in the proverbial coffin came when Keith Kinkaid signed with Montréal as a free agent in the following offseason. Although Charlie Lindgren closed out the previous year on the Canadiens’ roster, Kinkaid was always supposed to win the coveted second goalie position behind Habs giant Carey Price. Add in McNiven, and that makes five goalies vying to fill only four roster spots; one of them had to be the odd man out.
Unsurprisingly, Kinkaid remained with Montréal to start the year. Laval chose to open play with a Primeau and Lindgren tandem, so McNiven was assigned to the Thunder directly out of training camp on October 1, 2019. On November 15, he was loaned to the Icemen and reassigned to the Admirals on January 11, 2020. On February 3, he was permanently recalled to Laval. Once recalled, McNiven shared the net three ways with Primeau and Kinkaid. After following more disappointing performances like those he showed at the NHL level, Kinkaid was loaned to the Charlotte Checkers.
An ECHL team in the chain streamlines the managing of a four-goalie rotation across two leagues and keeps superabundant assets at any position close to the rest of the organization.
Perhaps more important to the entire Canadiens organization than the development of their prospects’ skills, however, is the development of the teams’ relationships with the communities they serve. Both the Canadiens and the Rocket are very invested in community outreach. From holiday hospital visits to ball hockey matches at local community centers, members of both the Canadiens and Rocket regularly donate their time off the ice. Between promoting literacy in local schools and events such as the teddy bear toss at Christmas time, both clubs are active in bettering the communities where they play and live. But more than just making the world around them a better place, the teams tied to the Habs have impacted the province they call home more tangibly and visibly.
Bringing the entire development process into Québec creates jobs with both the arena and the team. Beyond stimulating the economy, bringing a new team into Québec inspires local talent. It rejuvenates the personal and emotional investment young players have in an organization representing their cultural heritage. In fact, the ECHL has open tryouts and lacks an entry draft. This makes it possible for Québec-born talent to be nurtured within the Canadiens organization and produce the next generation of Québécois superstars. It affords young Francophones the chance to become the players that they idolize and aspire to be.
Trois-Rivières is looking to become the new home of an ECHL team with essential connections to the NHL’s oldest and most successful organization. The prospect of such a partnership has massive benefits for the development of NHL hopefuls in the system and the relationship the organization maintains with the communities it effects. The impact is far more significant than just the cost-saving potential offered and streamlining player management. It goes deeper than the automatic connection to the heart of the city they would inhabit, and straight to the heart of the people. There is no province more passionate about and in love with hockey than Québec. It’s in that hockey-crazed and fiercely dedicated market that something beautifully symbiotic could emerge for both an expanding league and a team teetering on the edge of greatness.
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