Maîtres Chez Nous: The Quebec Years of the QMJHL
The early years of the Q were filled with both turmoil and success. Teams from Quebec only won three Memorial Cup titles from 1919 to 1969, but all of a sudden the new Quebec Major Junior league won two more in its first three years of existence, with the Quebec Remparts taking the title in 1970-71 and the Cornwall Royals following up in 1971-72. However, many of the newly-promoted franchises couldn't meet the financial demands of the new league. Laval folded after only one year in operation, and the Rosemont National moved to Laval to take up residence in the same Colisée de Laval home the next year, 1971. 1972 witnessed the folding of the Verdun Maple Leafs and the St-Jérôme Alouettes. Also in 1972, the nascent league welcomed back a team in the heart of Montreal, as the old Junior Canadiens were welcomed back in from the Ontario league, although the terms of their move were such that the team had to change its name. (The team was officially "suspended" from the OHL and recreated as an expansion team, even though the ownership, arena, and players remained the same.) They became the Montreal Bleu, Blanc et Rouge (Blue, White and Red) and played out of the legendary Montreal Forum.
In 1973, the league expanded outside the narrow Montreal-Quebec City corridor for the first time, adding two franchises that would become cornerstones of the league. To the north, the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, playing out of the Colisée de Chicoutimi, were promoted from the Saguenay junior A league, while to the west, the Hull Festivals (later Olympiques) began playing out of the Hull Arena. That same year, the Shawinigan Bruins renamed themselves to the Shawinigan Dynamos. A year later, the Drummondville Rangers folded, while the Trois-Rivieres Ducs became the Draveurs (lumberjacks or raftmen). The name changes continued in 1975 and 1976, first with the Montreal Bleu Blanc et Rouge becoming the shorter Montreal Juniors, and then with the Hull Festivals becoming the Olympiques. In 1978 the Shawinigan Dynamos renamed again, becoming the Cataractes, after the famous Shawinigan Falls.
Franchise moves continued through the later 1970's. The Sorel Éperviers moved to the Montreal suburb of Verdun in 1977, but moved back to Sorel around Christmas-time in 1979. One would assume that mid-season moves are done purely on an emergency basis, but I don't know why they did it in this way. In 1979 the Laval National became the Laval Voisins (neighbours). The Montreal Juniors, meanwhile, were struggling to draw fans in the Montreal Forum, and moved for 1978-79 to the Maurice Richard Arena, and then the next year, to Rosemont's Paul Sauvé Arena.
The new decade dawned with the Cornwall Royals abandoning their ancient home on Water Street and moving across the road for the start of the 1979-80 season, to the new Cornwall Civic Complex. This coincided with the Royals winning back-to-back Memorial Cup championships before ultimately attaining what had been their goal all along: moving into the OHL. 1981 would mark the beginning of a drought for the QMJHL: it would be another fifteen years before another Q team took home junior hockey's top prize. The reasons for this are complicated, but in a nutshell, the 1980's in the O and the W were the beginning of an aggressive expansion, marketing, and recruitment strategy which shot those two leagues from regionally popular brands of hockey to multi-million dollar investments. The commissioners of those two leagues at the time, David Branch of the O and Ed Chynoweth of the W, deserve full credit for pumping new life (not to mention money) into junior hockey. The Q, however, stagnated, both on and off the ice. The 1980's would be the nadir of the league, with franchise instability and heavy losses on the ice in Memorial Cup competition plaguing the Q and relegating it to "second-tier" status in the minds of many hockey fans.
The sad saga of the wandering Éperviers ended in 1981, with the team ultimately deciding on Granby as their new home. The new Bisons played out of the new Arena Leonard Grondin there. 1982 would be the league's most unstable year yet. Sherbrooke moved to St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, becoming the Saint-Jean Castors and playing out of the Colisée de Saint-Jean. The Montreal Juniors gave up after over half a century in downtown Montreal, moving to suburban Verdun and once again making the Verdun Auditorium a QMJHL building. Two new expansion teams were added in one new and one old market as well - the Drummondville Voltigeurs (Infantrymen/Riflemen) began playing out of the Centre Civique, while the Longueuil Chevaliers (Cavaliers) began playing out of the Colisée Jean Beliveau.
One of the strangest stories in junior hockey history is that of the first American team in the CHL east of Montana: the Plattsburgh Pioneers. The Pioneers were founded in 1984 as an all-American member of the league, in Plattsburgh, New York; only a short drive from Montreal. The Pioneers were originally conceived as a way of luring top American talent away from the NCAA colleges and the other two junior leagues in Canada - this was before the territorial agreements with the O and W were signed. Future Hall of Famer Pat Lafontaine, then a highly-regarded young player from St. Louis, Missouri, had recently played his junior career for the Verdun Juniors, and the Q wanted more. However, the Q was not exactly burgeoning with talent at the time, and so they never held an expansion draft, and Quebec-born players were declared off-limits to the new team. THEN, the league started worrying about an "American Superteam" mopping the floor with the rest of the Q, and Verdun was concerned about the possibility of losing their pipeline of prospects from the Detroit area, so the Pioneers were roped into recruiting in New England and New York only. The team's owner was a kinesiology professor who had inherited money - not exactly the kind of person you wanted to have running a hockey team.
They opened their one and only season at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena on the campus of Plattsburgh State University - their would-be main home, the Crete Civic Center, was undergoing renovations at the time. And so it went. The Pioneers played a total of seventeen games that year, going 0-16-1, before finally collapsing into bankruptcy. The league was worried about a team going tits up in the middle of the season, but over $15,000 was owed and fan support was well under 1,000 per game, so it was essentially a mercy killing. Today, all mentions of the Pioneers are stricken from the Q record books, and all games played by the team that year did not count in the final league standings. The saga of the Pioneers was emblematic of the problems facing the Q at the time - the league arrogantly believed itself to be so high and mighty that top Americans would gladly spurn the NCAA to sign with a new, untested team in Plattsburgh, simply because it was the Q - but they also didn't want ALL the American talent going to Plattsburgh, so they roped them into a tiny corner and left them for dead.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the hockey world, the Q's reputation as a defenceless goalfest was becoming cemented as a young superstar named Mario Lemieux racked up 282 points in his final year with Laval. In spite of the higher profile leant to the league by having a star of Lemieux's calibre on board, Q teams were regularly blown out by the O and W in the Memorial Cup, and the league's presence in Quebec's two largest cities was gone by mid-decade as the original Quebec Remparts folded, unable to compete with the lure of the NHL at the Colisée. The Remparts had tried playing assorted games at the adjacent Pavillon de la Jeunesse to minimize their losses, but this failed to stem the bleeding and the team folded in 1985.
In 1987, the Longueuil Chevaliers moved to Victoriaville and became the Tigres, playing out of the Colisée des Bois-Francs. Longueuil was only without a team for one season though, as the next year, the Longueuil Collège Français, a well-known private school, entered the league with a similar arrangement to that used in the O by St. Michael's College. 1989 was a death knell of a year for major junior hockey in Canada's largest cities. In the OHL, the Toronto Marlboros moved out of town to Guelph, while in the Q, the Verdun Juniors - the living incarnation of the Montreal Junior Canadiens that had been playing since the early 1930s in the Montreal area - moved down the road to St. Hyacinthe, becoming the Laser and playing out of the Stade L.P. Gaucher. Meanwhile, the St-Jean Castors became the St-Jean Lynx.
In 1990, the Q's reputation as the weak sister of the CHL was in full force, with weak teams routinely being blown out at the Memorial Cup; in addition, the phrase "QMJHL Road Trip" was used as a pejorative throughout the CHL, as the longest road trip in the entire league was a mere six hours from Hull to Chicoutimi. However, things would begin to change in the 1990's, and by the end of the decade, the league would be fully unrecognizable from its nadir. In 1990 the Q granted an expansion team to the Quebec City suburb of Beauport, the Harfangs (snow owls). They played at tiny Arena Marcel Bedard, which gave the league a presence in the capital region again while avoiding the necessity of competing with the Nordiques downtown. In 1992, one of the league's last surviving teams still playing out of its original home without having moved once, packed up and left, as the Trois-Rivieres Draveurs moved to Sherbrooke's Palais des Sports, becoming the Faucons. This left nearby Shawinigan as the only remaining inaugural team still left in their original home, a position the Cats still hold today. 1992 was also the last year of the geographically tiny Q, as the next season, the league would begin to be turned upside down.
Val-d'Or is a small gold mining town in the heart of Quebec's remote Abitibi-Témiscamingue region. An isolated city, it was an unlikely place to start a revolution. But a number of city fathers thought that their Palais des Sports (not to be confused with the one in Sherbrooke) would be an ideal place for a major junior team, and in 1993, the Foreurs (miners) began playing as an expansion team. At a stroke, the league added an isolated six hour drive to its farthest western outpost. Moreover, the new team was so successful right off the bat that it was instantly inconceivable to ever leave the region. 1993 was also the year that the Longueuil Collège Français became the latest team to give a try to playing at the Verdun Auditorium, but that, in the grand scale of things, isn't too important. What is important is that 1994 would prove to be the turning point; the year that a pathetic junior league began to turn itself around.