They’re building it, but will they come?
For the Montreal Canadiens and their new AHL farm team, Laval Rocket, the answer to that question won’t come until next season, when the Rocket debut at Place Bell, their new facility in Laval, QC.
Still under construction, but set to be completed in September, in time for the 2017-18 AHL season opener, Place Bell will seat 10,000 and resides just 40 minutes from the Bell Center, where the parent club Canadiens play.
Historically, minor league teams in the Montreal area have struggled to compete with the NHL product, but hopes are high that Laval’s proximity to Montreal, both in distance and in relation as the Habs’ top farm team, will forge a new era.
And the Rocket need look no further than the American southwest, where five new teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division enjoyed tremendous success at the box office in their first seasons last year, in no small measure because of the close distances between the AHL and parent NHL franchises.
The franchise is relocating to Quebec from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, where the IceCaps have been the Canadiens’ top farm team the past two seasons. Last July, the Canadiens confirmed they would be moving the team to Laval, where Place Bell had been under construction since 2014.
Place Bell, a $200 million project, is located adjacent to a key Metro station, cutting the distance to Montreal’s population center from a 2 1/2–hour flight to a short train ride.
A multipurpose facility, Place Bell will seat 10,000 in the main arena, with a standard NHL ice rink and a total of 46 private suites. Place Bell will also feature a community rink and an Olympic size ice surface. The facility will also host concerts and other entertainment events and will feature a two-story commercial area with retail stores and restaurants.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson helped the Rocket unveil their new logo and uniforms last week in Laval, another key benchmark in the outreach to drive fans to the new arena. But according to the Montreal Gazette, the history of minor league hockey in the Greater Montreal area has been fraught with apathy:
Once upon a time there was a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team called the Montreal Rocket that only lasted four seasons with sagging attendance at the Maurice Richard Arena and the Bell Centre before moving to Prince Edward Island. The QMJHL’s Laval Titan were only drawing about 800 fans a game before they moved to New Brunswick in 1998 and became the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. The Montreal Juniors lasted only three seasons in the QMJHL at the Verdun Auditorium before moving to Blainville-Boisbriand in 2011 and becoming the Armada.
Laval has a population of just over 400,000 and it can be about a 40-minute drive with traffic from downtown Montreal, so the Rocket will have a lot of hockey fans to draw from. The Montmorency métro station is located adjacent to Place Bell, so that will help. But Montreal fans have shown over the years that if it’s not the Canadiens, there are not a lot of them willing to pay to watch lower levels of hockey.
To change that trend, the team is offering several full, half and partial season-ticket packages, with prices ranging from $15-$30.
“We did a lot of research across the American Hockey League and we wanted to be at, or below, the average, and we’ve done that,” Molson told the Gazette. “I think that’s going to be very much appreciated by the people of Laval, and even outside of Laval, that want to come to a game with their kids.”
From the team standpoint, the move from St. John’s to Laval is already a success. Having the team just a 40-minute car ride from their main offices will vastly improve their scouting mission, a sentiment echoed by team officials from the Pacific Division.
“St. John’s is a great city and they’ve been good to us,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told the Gazette. “But it’s a two-and-a-half hour flight and sometimes you could get stuck there for three days (because of the weather). Being 40 minutes away, it will be a lot easier for all of us. Not only me, but our scouts, our assistant GM. All across, it will be easier for us.”