LAVAL, Quebec -- Montreal Canadiens fans will soon be able to keep an eye on the development of their top minor league prospects right in their own backyard.
The Canadiens announced Monday that their American Hockey League affiliate will begin play in Laval for the 2017-18 season.
When St. John's of the AHL is relocated in the fall of 2017 to Laval, an island city north of Montreal, it will be the closest the Canadiens' top farm team has been in 46 years.
"I think for sure the Laval fans will be passionate, just like the Montreal fans are, and they are going to come to the games and they're going to support their team," Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said. "And to have that experience as a young kid who's trying to prepare for the NHL, especially the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens, I think it will better prepare them for the intensity of our fans."
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin played major junior hockey games against the Laval Voisins of the QMJHL from 1982-84 during Mario Lemieux's heyday.
"I don't think that we won too many games in Laval," said Bergevin, who played for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. "Mario was the guy. (Canadiens assistant coach) J.J. Daigneault was there, they had an older team so it was harder to win in Laval. Those Monday night games were long nights, I remember that. The bus ride to Chicoutimi was long."
Laval Mayor Marc Demers is delighted for his city to add a new chapter to its rich hockey history.
"Not only did Mario Lemieux play here, there is also a certain guy named Mike Bossy who played in Laval," Demers said, referring to the former New York Islanders forward. "Vincent Damphousse played his junior hockey here, and Martin St. Louis grew up in Laval and played his minor hockey here."
The AHL team will play at Place Bell, a $216 million (Canadian dollars) sports complex under construction featuring two ice rinks, including a 10,000-seat arena, which is planned to open in September 2017. The facility is centrally located in Laval, close to a major highway from Montreal and its northern suburbs, and adjacent to a Metro subway station.
Video: Vincent Lucier on bringing a team to Laval
"It's huge, it's awesome, it's a dream come true," Demers said. "It's not only a possibility for us to see good hockey, it's a great organization, the Montreal Canadiens. It's good for our citizens, who will see that, and also on the economy side, it's spectacular. It's the equivalent of creating 400 jobs directly or indirectly, so it's an important day for us."
The AHL team's name will be determined by three rounds of internet balloting at www.placebell.ca, beginning with a round of proposed team name submissions until July 22 to compile a list of acceptable names.
"We will do the filtering, and two weeks from now we will outline the most popular names that make sense, and these names will be submitted to a first vote," Place Bell president Vincent Lucier said.
A second round of internet voting from July 26-Aug. 8 will narrow the field of potential team names to three finalists, from which the winning name will ultimately be chosen in an online vote from Aug. 15-31.
Since the Montreal Voyageurs of the AHL moved to Halifax to become the Nova Scotia Voyageurs following the 1970-71 season, the Canadiens' top farm team played in Fredericton (New Brunswick), Sherbrooke (Quebec), Quebec City and Hamilton (Ontario) before moving to St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland, last season.
Bergevin expects the proximity of the AHL team to pay significant dividends. He cited the San Jose Sharks and their AHL affiliate's cross-country move this past season from Worchester, Mass., to San Jose.
"Their farm team was in Worcester near Boston forever," Bergevin said. "Just to make a recall, guys had to travel across country to play that night, so even performance should be a lot better being close."
And the Canadiens and their fans will soon experience that for themselves.
"The NHL is a tough league," Bergevin said. "Not many players can jump from junior hockey to the NHL. I think we have one on the roster, that's Alex Galchenyuk, but that was the lockout year so he was able to play a few more months in junior. So I believe the road to Montreal will go through Laval."
The Ottawa Senators reportedly will move their AHL affiliate from Binghamton, N.Y., to Belleville, Ontario, for the 2017-18 season; the AHL would replace the franchise in Binghamton, the Ottawa Citizen reported.