LAVAL, QC – The American Hockey League announced earlier this month that the city of Laval and the Rocket are still set to host the AHL All-Star Classic (ASC). The annual showcase event highlights both the host city and the best performing players across the league with festivities and fan events, as well as an all-star skills competition and round-robin tournament.
On January 31, the AHL and the Rocket revealed Laval had been selected as the home of the 2021 ASC. The announcement was made at Place Bell ahead of the Rocket’s 100th ever regular-season home game. RDS, the French-language, Québec-based sports broadcasting network, was also named as the official broadcaster for the event.
In the official release from the AHL, Laval Mayor Marc Demers called the opportunity “a tremendous source of pride.” Mark Weightman, the Vice-President of Development and Operations at Place Bell and the Laval Rocket, emphasized the chance to “give back to [the] community and put Laval on the map.”
The stage was set: Laval was on track to host Québec’s very first All-Star Classic. The ASC was returning to Canada for the first time since 2014 when St. John’s, Newfoundland was the gathering place for the AHL’s best and brightest.
Then, as the best-laid plans so often do, it went a bit awry.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken up a lot of space in our sports discussions. Of course, how could it not? It reshaped our lives and altered the way we consume the things we love. It also brought the 2019-20 AHL season to a grinding halt. As a precautionary measure, the league suspended play on March 12, 2020. On May 11, roughly two months later, the regular season and Calder Cup Playoffs were canceled.
HOCKEY ALWAYS COMES BACK
The revelation that the anticipated start of the 2020-21 campaign would be delayed to December 4 did very little to answer any lingering questions about what a return to play would look like. So far, any scheduling information has yet to be determined. The National Hockey League still has some significant events stuck in limbo, too. The Montréal Canadiens were setting up to host the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and with the return to play and the pandemic still in full-swing, there have been very few updates on the status of that event. And what of Seattle’s expansion draft? It’s supposed to be held in June of 2021 and, like a regular old draft, be a spectator event in addition to the prospects and team staff one would expect to attend.
Where the AHL is concerned, there were still questions after the start date was pushed back. The most notable for me was, “Hey, what’s going on with the AHL All-Star Classic, and is Laval still going to host it?” I was concerned enough about what effect the delayed season would have on the particulars of the next ASC that I posed that exact question to my editor. He also had no inkling of an idea about what might happen, so I decided to wait for more information. That was July 31.
I didn’t have to wait very long. You know what they say: ask, and you shall receive. On August 4, the AHL announced that, although it would be postponed to 2022, Laval will still be the host city for the next All-Star Classic.
“Place Bell remains the perfect place to host an event of this magnitude.”
– France Margaret Belanger, Groupe CH Executive Vice-President, and Chief Commercial Officer
And while the exact dates and the scope of what will actually be feasible still are not fully understood, the possibilities are exciting. If given the opportunity to host as large an event as initially planned, the Rocket and the city of Laval can draw on past hosts for inspiration. To get a better sense of what to expect, I took a look back at the festivities that surrounded the previous two All-Star Classics.
FOR THE FANS
When the Springfield Thunderbirds hosted in 2019, they kicked things off on January 27 with a public skate featuring the AHL mascots. That evening was also the skills competition and a post-skills party with the all-stars. The West took the contest with 17 points to the East’s 14. The next day began with a visit to a children’s hospital for the players before the AHL Hall of Fame induction ceremony, then another mascot skate, and finally, the All-Star Challenge at MassMutual Center. The North Division came out on top in the round-robin tournament.
This year, the Ontario Reign took the celebration to southern California. They got the ball rolling with an NHL All-Star Game watch party, followed by the Reign’s game the same night. The next day, January 26, Toyota Arena hosted an All-Star Fan Fest that featured a beer garden, carnival games, live music, and more. The players were welcomed with a red carpet prior to the skills competition. The West (18 points) once again bested the East (15 points), and afterward, players signed autographs on the ice. On January 27 was the Hall of Fame ceremony and the All-Star Challenge, where the Atlantic Division proved to be top dog.
So, what does that look like for Laval and the Rocket? Well, way back when the original announcement was made, it was said that Laval plans to host a major festival to coincide with the showcase event. Laval holding a festival makes sense; the Greater Montréal Area hosts several major festivals throughout the year. What that festival is supposed to look like is anyone’s guess at this point. Still, what better way to celebrate and introduce the rest of North America to the cultural heritage of the province of Québec than to use an event that hockey fans will flock to? There is a richness to the cultural depth in and around Laval. The area is home to a thriving culinary scene and diverse musical talent, both of which are staples of most festivals I have ever attended.
FROZEN BISCUITS ON FROZEN PONDS
The All-Star Classic takes place over the last weekend of January. When I think of Québec in January, I imagine hockey. The laughter of neighborhood kids shuffling the net back into place after they clear the street for a passing car. The shouting from players and lookers-on as a game unfolds on a frozen lake or pond.
When I think of hockey in Québec, I think of the Rocket and the Canadiens defending home ice inside their respective arenas and young dreamers across the province envisioning themselves scoring the goal that wins the Stanley Cup. I think of children aspiring to become the greats who hang in those arenas’ rafters or lend their name to a brand-new generation of Habs hopefuls. Hockey is so deeply ingrained in the province that hosting an entire league’s all-stars more than certainly calls for even more hockey. Outdoor rinks and pick-up games or planned tournaments for teams in every age group and skill level aren’t unfathomable events to consider. They are actually well within the realm of possibility.
A BIG OPPORTUNITY FOR THE BABY HABS
Hosting an event that is sure to draw fans from across North America is an important opportunity for Laval to position itself as a legitimate tourist stop when travelers find themselves in the area. It also presents the Rocket with a unique chance to cement themselves within the league. You see, Laval is a young team, and I mean that in more ways than just “this team carries 19 players younger than 25.”
The Rocket opened play at the beginning of October to start only their third season in existence. The original plan was to hold the All-Star Classic in what would be their fourth. The Rocket also have a head coach with only one full year of AHL experience. The 2019-20 season, had it been completed, was supposed to be his second. It’s a young team all around. The spotlight firmly cast on center stage with the Rocket at their marks presents the chance to establish the club within the league as a proud and earnest competitor.
That spotlight can cast long shadows, however.
THE GATHERING STORM
At the end of the Third Age of Middle Earth in J.R.R Tolkien’s classic fantasy series The Lord of the Rings, the forces of Gondor and Rohan unite in combat to finally end the reign of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor. That conflict came to a head at the Battle of the Black Gate.
The battle plan was that the armies of Men would gather their troops in front of the Black Gate of Mordor. The aim was to distract Sauron and force him to focus his eye away from his quest to find Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, the two hobbits who carried his ring of power. In Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of The Return of the King, this brewing battle is dramatically illuminated by the Lidless Eye abandoning its search for the two Shire-folk and training it directly on the army of the newly realized King of Gondor, Aragorn. This intense, unending scrutiny only ceases as the One Ring falls back into the fires of Mount Doom and destroys Sauron and his sinister tower, Barad-dûr, forever.
I only mention this because it draws a parallel in my mind with the scrutiny and pressure this type of exposure will create for the Rocket.
They will be pressured to perform well in the regular season and make it to the playoffs for the first time in their fledgling existence. It is undoubtedly an unfair burden to place on a team that is likely to lose some of its best players as they graduate from The Joël Bouchard Boys School for Ice Hockey Excellence, Laval Campus.
THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
It is also incredibly naïve to expect that the narrative surrounding the entire event wouldn’t include the perceived notion that a solid playoff run is required as a follow-up. Or follow-through. There is a tendency from a few very prominent, albeit misguided voices that contribute to the discussion of the Rocket (as an extension of the Canadiens) to lay out painstakingly specific – and often idealistic – expectations for any given season to be considered a successful one.
Those voices become the sight line of Sauron’s All-Seeing Eye; the weight of the expectations they carry, the unblinking stare as his gaze bores through the assembling horde at his gate. If the One Ring doesn’t find its way back into the fires from which it was forged, Sauron and Barad-dûr, the last bastion of his might, never topple. If the Rocket fail to live up to those expectations, well… you get the point.
The Rocket will likely not amplify that pressure internally. The team’s goal is to ice a successful squad and develop prospects into the best possible final products. The Rocket know, fundamentally, that this is a chance to solidify themselves within the league. The team is fully aware of how young they are.. how new they are.
They know. Better than all of us on the outside looking in, they know how big the opportunity they have been handed is, for both the team and the city of Laval. This is their chance to solidify their foothold in the league, to announce that they are here to compete and that they have the full support of their fan base.
ONLY TIME WILL TELL
The only people who actually know what the All-Star Classic will bring to Laval are actively involved in planning the shindig. The general public will only learn about the surprises “le belle province” has in store for the AHL’s faithful when it becomes time to sell tickets. This is a moment that must be fully embraced.
They may very well never see this, but I want to impart this word of encouragement: To the city of Laval and the Rocket, Kurt Russell said it best in Miracle when he uttered the iconic line:
“This is your time. Now go out there and take it.”