JUNIORS’ LE BLANC LOST IN THE CROWD
QMJHL team reaching out to communities and has its sights set on winning Memorial Cup
The Canadiens’ first-round draft pick is just one of six fresh faces,
It would be very easy for the Montreal Juniors to build an entire marketing campaign around Louis Leblanc, the Canadien-to-be who landed on the team with a significant stir three weeks ago today.
And it would be very wrong, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League club believes, to do such a thing.
Leblanc, the Canadiens’ first-round choice at the 2009 National Hockey League entry draft, was just one of six faces in the Juniors’ season-trumpeting advertisement in The Gazette yesterday.
Also featured were the mugs of three NHL draft picks – Charles-Olivier Roussel ( Nashville, 2009), LouisMarc Aubry ( Detroit, 2010) and Jean-François Bérubé ( Los Angeles, 2009), joined by 2009 Canadiens free-agent signing Philippe Lefebvre and undrafted Red Wings prospect Trevor Parkes.
Leblanc was introduced at a downtown news conference on Aug. 10 as one of five newcomers to the Juniors for the 2010-11 season.
And no matter what this Canadiens-mad city would have you believe, at no point was it even hinted by Juniors president Martin Routhier or general manager and head coach Pascal Vincent that Leblanc, 19, was any more special than his head-table teammates.
The club begins its preseason at 7 p. m. tonight vs. the Gatineau Olympiques at the Cynthia Coull Arena in Greenfield Park. And where the puck will be dropped for that game, and for exhibitions Aug. 28 in LaPlaine and Varennes on Sept. 2, explains a great deal about how the Juniors are doing business.
The club opens its regular season at the Verdun Auditorium on Sept. 10 against the Shawinigan Cataractes.
“ We’re creating a bridge with different communities,” Routhier said. “ We’ve always believed that being in Montreal doesn’t mean working with one community, but with many.”
The Juniors arrived in Montreal two seasons ago, settling into Verdun in the fall of 2008 from St. John’s, Nfld., where they had played as the Fog Devils.
New owner Farrel Miller, a Montreal businessman, didn’t expect miracles – or even excellent things – overnight.
And he knew well that this city had shown a recent apathy toward major-junior hockey, the Montreal Rocket often playing just for friends and a small core of faithful at the Maurice Richard Arena from 1998-2003 before finally relocating to Prince Edward Island.
“ We were inheriting a team with a group of players, without much time to build or draft or make some trades,” Miller said, watching the lights and cameras trail Leblanc around at this month’s news conference.
“ We knew we’d have a respectable team in our first and second year, but certainly not one that would challenge for the Memorial Cup.”
The Juniors went 34-30-2-2 in their first season in Montreal, finishing second in the Q’s West Division and going two rounds into the postseason. Last year, they went 3130-2-5, again finishing second in the West before falling to Gatineau in a first-round playoff, a heartbreaking Game 7 going into double overtime.
After nine years as head of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Pascal Vincent returned to his hometown in 2008 when the Fog Devils moved west.
“ Two years ago, Pascal said: ‘ I need two or three years to really build a top, contending team,’ ” Miller recalled. “ Well, here we are at Year 3 with what we think is that kind of team. Pascal might be one year ahead of his own schedule, and we’re thrilled by that.”
It was a poorly kept secret that the Juniors coveted Leblanc, a native of Kirkland who became the Canadiens’ first francophone pick in the first round of the NHL draft since the Quebec Remparts’ Éric Chouinard was chosen 16th overall in 1997.
Leblanc had made it known in 2007 that he was headed to Harvard, despite being the top-ranked player eligible for that year’s draft. Val d’Or selected him anyway.
Leblanc held fast, so the Foreurs dealt his rights to Chicoutimi. When Chicoutimi also couldn’t convince him to join the Q, the Saguenéens swapped the centreman’s rights to the Juniors after he had played one season at Harvard and had just been drafted 18th overall by the Canadiens.
The hunch of Miller and Vincent paid off. Leblanc decided last month to leave Har- vard and join the Juniors, where he will play with a club that acquired plenty of impressive talent this summer.
For this organization to now utter the words “ Memorial Cup” is no longer unrealistic.
“ We’re thrilled to have Louis join our club,” Miller said. “ The timing of him joining us the year Pascal has assembled certainly among the most talented teams in the league obviously is good for him, too.”
Leblanc will be marketed with, not on a pedestal above, his new club. More important for the Juniors is their community involvement, something Routhier works on daily.
The president speaks of a team in evolution, of building a solid foundation both in its city and environs. This season, the Juniors will work with about 20 minor hockey organizations, practising at their rinks, having kids join them on the ice, conducting coaching clinics then inviting players from these associations to attend a Juniors game.
“ We’re thrilled to have built this relationship with minor hockey,” Routhier said. “ It’s been good until now, but with the team we think we’ll have this year, we’re thinking: ‘ Wow, this is really going to work.’ ”
“ It’s going to be an exciting year.”
Juniors president Martin Routhier
The Juniors stress the importance of education, schooling being mandatory for their players, and they preach fitness, a healthy diet and hitting the books in their Score With School! program.
In fact, four home games this season will begin at 10: 30 a. m., and surely the stands for those will be packed with students linked to the team.
Five of the club’s first 10 home games are sold out; all four in November will turn fans away from the arena that’s full at roughly 4,000.
Some 1,500 season tickets have been sold, and the Juniors are enjoying great success with single-game tickets and those sold in small packages, available online and at many stores on and off the island.
“ With all these excellent players – including a player like Louis – it’s going to be an exciting year,” Routhier said.