Rocket continue tradition of hockey history in Laval

Photo: L’aréna du Rocket inc

by Sarah Kossits AHL On The Beat

The atmosphere at Place Bell in Laval was vibrant that night, and the air was buzzing with excitement. The Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket, played their inaugural game against the Belleville Senators that evening, with a sellout crowd of 10,000 cheering them on.

The team store was lined with scarves proudly displaying the team’s motto for the season: “propulsé par l’histoire.” Translated to English, it means ‘Fueled by History.’ But, what history are they referring to?

Photo: L’aréna du Rocket inc

Many may know of the Laval Chiefs, the team whose enforcers inspired the 2004 documentary titled Les Chiefs.  The Laval Coliseum nicknamed “House of Pain” is also well known in Quebec, but few know the extent of the rich hockey history of the city, which dates all the way back to 1963 and involves names like Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux.

Laval got its first taste of professional hockey with the existence of the Laval Saints, a team which played first in the Metropolitan Montreal Junior Hockey League (MMJHL) from 1963-1967, made its way to the Quebec Junior Hockey League (QJHL) in the 1967-68 season, and eventually ended up in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) for the 1969-70 season. Although the team may not have been well known, their head coach during that final season in the QMJHL certainly was: seven-time Norris Trophy winner Doug Harvey stood tall and proud behind the bench.

Harvey is far from being the only famous name to come out of Laval. When the Laval National started its eight-year tenure in the QMJHL in 1971, it produced another one of the world’s greatest hockey players in Bossy.

Bossy suited up for the National during the 1972-73 season and remained there through 1976-77. During this time, he played a total of 264 regular season games, netted 309 goals and assisted on 223 others. His outstanding production in Laval continued during his 10-year NHL career, which saw four Stanley Cups added to his trophy case along with the Calder, the Conn Smythe, three Lady Byngs, and what would have been two “Rocket” Richards, had the award existed at the time. However, most remarkably, Bossy became the second player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 50 games – and it all started in Laval.

Only five players have ever accomplished the 50-in-50 milestone, and Bossy is not the only Laval alum to do so.

Mario Lemieux was the fourth player to accomplish this feat, and he also played his Junior years in Laval. Prior to his NHL glory days, Lemieux proudly wore the jersey of the Laval Voisins. Lemieux played three seasons with the Voisins from 1981-1984, earned 562 points in 200 games, and earned the record for most points in a single season when he notched 282 points in 70 games – a record which still stands today. In that final record-setting season, Lemieux led the Voisins to a QMJHL title and the President’s Cup.

The Laval Voisins went on to become the Laval Titan in 1985. The Titan was the most successful QMJHL team of their time, winning three President’s Cup titles (1989, 1990, 1993) and participating in the Memorial Cup five times. When Collège français came aboard as a sponsor, the team renamed again, this time to the Laval Titan Collège français – a team who saw another QMJHL star rise through its system.

Francis Bouillon, who has been inducted into the QMJHL Hall of Fame, played part of his Junior years with the Titan and the Titan Collège français from 1992 until 1995. However, the team moved to New Brunswick in 1998 due to dwindling attendance.

The Titan Collège français may have moved because of poor attendance, but the people of Laval are proving that hockey still has its place in the city today. As of January 1, 2018, the Rocket play in front of an average crowd of 6,485 fans at home, higher the current league record for average attendance – 5,982 – which was set during the 2015-16 season.

While Laval’s hockey history has had its share of big moments like Bossy’s 532 points, Lemieux’s record-setting season and four President’s Cup crowns, hockey history continues to be made daily at Place Bell with the Rocket. One of the newest chapters in Laval’s ever-growing history was written by Daniel Audette, who scored the franchise’s first goal.

Photo: L’aréna du Rocket inc

“It was crazy,” recalled Audette. “There were so many people at the game that night, the crowd was insane, [and] it was the first game ever in the Place Bell. It was just a moment I won’t forget, for sure.”

For Audette, who grew up about 20 minutes away from Laval in Blainville, news of the St. John’s IceCaps’ move to Laval was exciting.

“It was exciting because St. John’s is obviously far from home for me. It’s a three-hour flight, so it’s fun to be able to get closer to my parents and all of my friends,” he explained. “And, hockey in Montreal is big,” he added with a smile.

Even the Place Bell is now an important part of Laval hockey history. Though Audette has many happy memories from his seasons in St. John’s, he is appreciating the beauty of the building and is enjoying the comforts of the state-of-the-art arena.

Head coach Sylvain Lefebvre also believes that the new rink is a sight to behold. Having suited up for the Voisins in 1984-1985 and for the Titan from 1985-1987, Lefebvre is able to compare his past experience with what he sees today.

“Laval is way different now than it was back then,” he explained. “We were at the old Colisée in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul and now we have this building here. It’s the center of everything here in Laval, and there are a lot more people now. I think everything is bigger and newer.”

For Lefebvre, the move to Laval represents his career coming full circle. He started his Junior years in the city before wearing the jerseys of five NHL teams: the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Quebec Nordiques, the Colorado Avalanche and the New York Rangers. He eventually found his way back to the Canadiens organization as the coach of the Hamilton Bulldogs, and he followed the team when it moved to St. John’s and then to Laval.

“For me it’s like a second home,” said Lefebvre of the city. “I still have friends that live here in Laval, and my family is still here in Laval.”

Although everything may be different now, Lefebvre still remembers his Junior years in Laval very fondly. Some of his favorite moments were when he signed his first contract with the Canadiens and when his team made it to the playoff semi-final during his last season.

Photo: L’aréna du Rocket inc

Having experienced his minor league seasons in Laval just like the players he’s currently coaching, Lefebvre is able to offer expert advice on how to fully embrace the experience.

“Just be like a sponge and learn,” he said, when asked what he tells his players. “Everything that you learn here will help you for the rest of your career. As a player you need that time sometimes just to make yourself feel better, feel more comfortable and get more maturity physically and mentally. Some players maybe need one year, some two, some more, but you know, just use that time to learn and grow as a player.”

While the Rocket players are heeding their coach’s advice and absorbing everything the hockey-rich city has to offer, they are also working on a much more important task: creating the fuel that will propel future generations of Laval hockey and all that it will entail.