When Gilles Courteau became commissioner of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 1986, there were three clubs in and around Montreal, five if you want to stretch the concept of a large metropolitan area to Granby or Saint Jean.
Today ? This number has gone to zero.
With all due respect to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, whose arena is located 30 or 90 minutes from downtown Montreal, depending on the vagaries of traffic, there is no trace of junior hockey left in our great city. , if only memories, only vestiges of a distant past.
“Maybe Quebec junior hockey has become a regional affair,” wonders former journalist Marc Lachapelle, who covered QMJHL activities at the Journal de Montréal for 36 seasons. I remember a final between the Chevaliers de Longueuil and the Junior de Verdun, a club that had Pat LaFontaine in its ranks. There must have been 17,000 people per game for that at the Forum… but it’s been a long time! »
Checked, it’s been a long time. The final in question, in the spring of 1983, drew crowds of more than 17,000 fans to the former home of the Canadiens. In fact, on April 22, 1983, the first game of the final between Longueuil and Verdun drew a crowd of 17,860 spectators to the Forum, then a record for a playoff game in the QMJHL.
But things have changed a lot. The Knights are no more, neither is the Junior. Other clubs have tried to plant their logo on the island, often with little success. The last adventure of junior hockey in Montreal is that of the Montreal Junior, which existed from 2008 to 2011, before taking the road of Highway 15 in a northerly direction and becoming the Armada.
What exactly happened?
In a telephone interview, the former commissioner takes the opportunity to recall that in the world of Quebec junior hockey, fashion has never been for new arenas.
“We had three new arenas in 53 years on the circuit… even if we wanted to continue in Montreal, it became impossible at a certain point, because we couldn’t play anywhere,” he adds. . We tried pretty much everything: the Verdun Auditorium, the Maurice-Richard Arena, the Paul-Sauvé Center before it was demolished…”
Yet there once was an audience for it. The heyday of final matches at the Forum is a bit far away, it is true, but Dominique Ducharme remembers a more recent time, when the fans were there while the Montreal Junior played in Verdun.
“There was a craze from the start, I remember that, explains the one who was then assistant to coach Pascal Vincent. Our matches were presented in French on the radio, sometimes also on English radio. The assists went down a bit at a certain point, but it was comparable to what we could see elsewhere in the league. But the owner [Farrel Miller] had an opportunity to sell the club and he chose to do so. »
The Montreal market is also the market for a certain professional hockey club, which plays at the Bell Centre, and for the little ones, such competition is almost unfair.
“When we had several junior hockey clubs in Montreal, the Canadiens brand was probably not what it is today,” adds Gilles Courteau.
Yes, the city is hockey, as the Canadian said not so long ago, but the city is CH first. Moreover, if ever one day junior hockey shows up again here, it will not be on the island as such, according to Gilles Courteau.
“There have been a lot of people who have come to meet me about a club in the Montreal area, mayors, businessmen… but it always comes down to an arena problem. We will see, but if it happens one day, it would have to be a club that evolves a little outside, on the South Shore, for example. »
Until then, there will be memories and for Marc Lachapelle, good stories to tell, even after so many years.
“Montreal was once a good junior hockey city,” he concludes. We had a choice because there were a lot of teams around here… In the old days, scouts used to joke that they could see three games in the same evening while traveling with a scooter! »