JU­NIORS’ LE BLANC LOST IN THE CROWD

QMJHL team reach­ing out to com­mu­ni­ties and has its sights set on win­ning Me­mo­rial Cup

Montreal Gazette - - Front Page - dave stubbs

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.

The Ga zete Cana­di­ens prospect Louis Le­blanc ( cen­tre) is one of six new mem­bers of the Ju­niors.

Marie-France Coallier

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