A new team in Montreal, a harder stance on on-ice violence and fewer regular-season games are in store for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.
The 40th QMJHL campaign opens Thursday with the defending champion Gatineau Olympiques hosting Victoriaville.
The league's void in Montreal has been filled by local businessman and lawyer Farrel Miller, who purchased the franchise in St. John's, Nfld., and relocated it to the province's largest city. Every Canadian city with an NHL team now also has a major junior franchise.
QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau unveiled more severe sanctions for fighting Wednesday, but didn't abolish it despite calls from Quebec politicians to do so after an ugly incident during last year's post-season.
Players who challenge an unwilling opponent to a fight and throw punches face a suspension of up to 15 games.
The regular-season schedule has dropped to 68 games per team from 70 as the 18-team league moves into a four-division format.
The arrival of a franchise in Montreal helped facilitate three divisions of four teams, plus the six-team Atlantic division.
Under the new playoff format, the two teams with the worst record finish out of the playoffs. First-round series will be between teams in the same division and then seedings will determine second-round matchups.
The Quebec Remparts, Shawinigan Cataractes and Saint John Sea Dogs are expected to contend for a league title this season.
After Remparts goaltender Jonathan Roy repeatedly punched prone Chicoutimi goalie Bobby Nadeau during a March 22 playoff game, a Quebec minister and even Premier Jean Charest called for an end to fighting in hockey.
The QMJHL struck a committee to study the issue and chose to beef up the penalties for fighting instead of banning it.
"The sanctions are very dissuasive to any act of free violence and I'm sure that parents, players and everybody who is associated with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will realize we are serious," Courteau said. "We don't want to see any more bad things happen in our league."
It's been a sore point with the league that it hadn't been able to keep a team in its biggest market in the last decade. The Montreal Rocket gave up and moved to Prince Edward Island in 2003 after four years of flat attendance.
The Montreal Junior open Friday on the road against the Quebec Remparts and their home opener is Sept. 20 against the Remparts again.
The hockey landscape in Montreal has changed to the point where a major junior franchise is more sustainable, according to Montreal Junior president Martin Routhier.
He said the NHL lockout of 2004-05 and Canada's current run of four straight gold at the world junior hockey championship has ramped up interest in junior hockey.
Routhier added the QMJHL is more respected because of the involvement of former NHL players such as Patrick Roy (Quebec) and Bobby Smith (Halifax) and deep-pocketed owners such as the Irving family in Moncton.
He also noted the Rocket played in eastern Montreal, while the Junior will play out of 70-year-old, 4,000-seat Verdun Auditorium in Montreal's west end. Routhier said the junior team can tap into the large market of young hockey players there and the Auditorium is easily accessible from a subway station across the street.
Instead of trying to piggyback on the Montreal Canadiens' popularity, the Junior intend to cultivate their own brand and target hockey fans who want an elite level of hockey at a more affordable price.
"We're not expecting to have any help from the Habs," Routhier said. "They've got a business to run and we've got a business to run.
"We've got a good relationship with the Habs' organization. Maybe at some time we'll do some cross-marketing, but for now, we have to focus on our own thing."
The Junior have sold 1,800 season tickets with 2,400 the goal, Routhier said.
Unlike an expansion team, which is made up of cast-offs from other squads, the Junior are an established team and acquired big-name forward Angelo Esposito from the Remparts during the off-season.
The team also boasts among its five NHL draft picks goaltender Jake Allen, who was named top goalie at the world under-18 hockey championship in April after a 29-save shutout in the final.
So Montreal Junior management feels it has a team that can compete and win, which is important in a hockey-crazy town.
"In Montreal, it's known. You have to win," Routhier said.
After nine years coaching and managing the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, Pascal Vincent has returned to his hometown to coach the Junior.
"This team is getting ready to be successful off the ice and it's our job to make it happen on the ice," said Vincent, named the league's top coach at the end of last season.
The Screaming Eagles had the most exhausting travel of any team in the league from Sydney, N.S., but Vincent says there's a whole new set of challenges overseeing teenage hockey players in a mega-metropolis.
"An expansion team would have been different, although we are a brand new franchise and everything has to be built from ground zero, the dressing room, the bus, everything," Vincent said.
"For the players, the first half of the season is going to be a challenge and people have to understand they're teenagers between 16 and 20 in a new town and a big town for a lot of them. It's a new coach, new billets, new school and a new environment.
"In many ways it's a gamble for me leaving an organization that is going super-well and is going to be successful for the next few years, but that was a challenge I wanted to take."
Among coaching changes, Benoit Groulx's departure from Gatineau to coach the American Hockey League's Rochester Americans opened up a head-coaching job for assistant Mario Richer.
Long-time QMJHL coach Mario Durocher, also the head coach of Canada's junior team in 2004, takes over for Vincent in Cape Breton.
The Rimouski Oceanic will host the 2009 Memorial Cup. Sidney Crosby's former junior club will be in the Canadian Hockey League championship tournament as the host team.
Notes(at) - The QMJHL hosts the opening two dates of the six-game ADT Canada/Russia Challenge Nov. 17 in Sydney, N.S., and Nov. 19 in Saint John, N.B. . . . The Montreal Junior will have 80 per cent of their games broadcast on English-language radio station Team 990 and about half will be on the French station CKAC.
QMJHL Top 10 for 2008-09
By Donna Spencer
THE CANADIAN PRESS
The top 10 storylines for the QMJHL in the 2008-09 season:
1. Can the Montreal Junior make a go of it in the province's biggest market? The Rocket left in 2003 after four seasons.
2. The Rimouski Oceanic are the host club of the 2009 Memorial Cup. The Oceanic, a 33-36-1 team last season, will likely make a significant trade or two to be a contender in their own tournament.
3. The Gatineau Olympiques were the class of the QMJHL under Ben Groulx with three titles in six years. Now that Groulx has departed for the AHL, it's up to Mario Richer to continue the tradition.
4. Quebec Remparts goaltender Jonathan Roy is scheduled to be in court Sept. 16 on a charge of assault stemming from an attack on Chicoutimi counterpart Bobby Nadeau last winter. The son of Hall of Famer and Remparts coach Patrick Roy faces a possible fine of $2,000 and six-month prison term.
5. The QMJHL toughened its penalties for fighting with suspensions as high as 15 games because of the Roy-Nadeau incident, but much is left to the discretion of league disciplinarian Raymond Bolduc.
6. Halifax right-winger Jakub Voracek is the heir apparent for the QMJHL scoring title after 33 goals and 68 assists in 53 games last season. That's if the Columbus Blue Jackets return the 19-year-old to the junior ranks.
7. The NHL didn't draft a QMJHL player in the first round for the first time since 2000 this year. The league needs buzz players.
8. The Saint John Sea Dogs are a team on the rise. After just 15 wins in 2006-07, the Sea Dogs won 41 last winter and have the personnel to be contenders again.
9. Montreal Junior forward Angelo Esposito, recently signed by the Atlanta Thrashers, was cut from the last three Canadian junior teams and wasn't invited to Hockey Canada's summer camp in August. That doesn't bode well for his participation in the 2009 world junior tournament in Ottawa.
10. With 18 players returning from last season, including most of their top scorers, the Shawinigan Cataractes should contend for a league title.