(Gatineau) In 2019, the Gatineau Olympiques were on the brink. Three years later, not only has the organization emerged from darkness, but it is shining in the sun. “We have once again become a destination where young people want to play,” attests one of the architects of the great resurrection, head coach Louis Robitaille.
Robitaille is in full preparation for his team’s semi-final duel against the Quebec Remparts when he receives us in his office at the Slush Puppie Center on Wednesday morning.
The amphitheater, still brand new, is inviting. Here, the Olympics logo is everywhere. In the locker room, above the lockers, it says in big letters: “Tradition of Excellence”. Because yes, the Olympics have a tradition of excellence. We are talking about the most successful franchise in QMJHL history, with seven championships and a Memorial Cup on the clock.
But in 2019, she had some tough times. In his column for December 14 of that year, our colleague Alexandre Pratt wrote: “Crowds of 350 spectators. Shareholders who are preparing a putsch. Players who despise their boss. Two series of 10 consecutive defeats. All this on the eve of a move to a brand new $80 million arena. »
In other words: the organization had taken a “disembarkation”. In April 2020, she carried out a major cleaning and made Louis Robitaille her trusted man to restore the franchise to its former glory. The team had just finished the season in 16th place with a meager harvest of 20 wins in 63 games.
That summer, the Olympiques held four of the first eight draft picks. They selected Tristan Luneau, Antonin Verreault, Samuel Savoie and Noah Warren. These players are, three years later, the headliners of a team that could get their hands on the Gilles-Courteau trophy in the coming weeks.
Over the past few years, various artisans have worked together to win back the hearts of the Outaouais. “Honestly, there was a lot of work to do. It starts with Louis, the shareholders, everyone who decided that we were changing the wind a little [on board] ”, explains Olivier Beauregard, director of communications and marketing.
The latter was working for the Habs when he received a call from Robitaille. A native of Gatineau, he was hesitant to come back, but he was convinced. “Louis really had a vision, a bit like the Canadiens. He wanted us to do more comprehensive marketing. »
The organization has worked to build a unique customer experience on game nights. She has shown herself to be more present in the community. “Guys, I take them to practice with young people in minor hockey, he explains. We go to schools to read books. »
The biggest mandate, according to Beauregard, was “to bring the world here”, to the Slush Puppie Centre. It is that the feeling of belonging of the supporters to the Robert-Guertin Center, where history was written, was powerful.
“Guertin was like the Montreal Forum,” notes Louis Robitaille. You knew there was atmosphere. […] [People] had to build that feeling, find their comfort, appropriate the amphitheater. The investments made by the owners, the indicator panel, the LED lights that were added later… We have two DJs who are here full time. We really want to create a happening. »
It works. This season, for its 50th anniversary, the franchise smashed its attendance record of 117,000 spectators set in 1976. A total of 128,000 people attended the games. Since the start of the playoffs, the team has been sold out. This week, fans lined up in the wee hours to get their hands on tickets for upcoming home games. The enthusiasm is so strong that the website has even failed…
“It’s completely crazy,” says Robitaille. I feel like I’m in a small town, but it’s a big city. […] We get arrested, people tell us how proud they are. »
“We can’t wait to play at home,” he adds. People wait for players for an hour after the game to get autographs. They are really proud and our players are proud to wear the jersey. »
According to Canadian prospect Riley Kidney, who joined the team last January, the Slush Puppie Center is “the loudest [he’s] played in, especially in the playoffs.” “It gives chills, it’s hard to describe,” he adds.
No doubt: between 2019 and 2023, it’s day and night for the Olympiques.
“Everyone got into the buzz,” says Olivier Beauregard. People broadcast the matches in their restaurant. Everyone wants to be associated with the Olympics. We couldn’t ask for better for the 50th. »
Only the cut is missing.