MONTREAL - In a city where hockey is synonymous with the Montreal Canadiens, a Quebec businessman is hoping there is enough fan interest to support a junior team despite a lack of success in the past.
Montrealer Farrel Miller purchased the St. John's Fog Devils for just more than $3 million in a deal announced in late January and plans to move the club to the city's 70-year-old Verdun Auditorium.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League says it is banking on a revival of fortunes in what is the largest market in its territory.
"The whole profile of the league has changed in the last 10 years with teams in Saint John, Moncton and Halifax," Miller said. "That adds a lot of credibility to the league."
It's not lost on Miller that Montreal is the only Canadian NHL city without a junior franchise. Junior clubs are doing well in Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary, while the greater Toronto area is home to several Ontario Hockey League franchises as well as the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies.
But fan-friendly junior hockey hasn't had much success in Montreal. The Montreal Rocket attempted to make a name for itself by invoking the nickname of former Habs great Maurice (Rocket) Richard, but the team failed financially and moved to P.E.I. four years ago.
Currently, there isn't junior hockey for 100 kilometres in any direction from Montreal, with the closest QMJHL team being in Drummondville. But Miller says a team in Montreal would lead to a number of rivalries, notably with the Quebec Remparts.
"I think Patrick Roy has already thrown down the gauntlet when he said to have a team in Montreal would be great and it would be a fantastic rivalry between Montreal and Quebec like the old days," Miller said, referring to the intense rivalry that raged between the Canadiens and the Quebec Nordiques.
Roy, the former all-star goaltender for the Habs, is coach and general manager of the Remparts.
Both the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Calgary Hitmen are owned by their respective NHL clubs, but Miller doesn't think the Canadiens need to play a hand in his franchise to ensure success.
"I think we can be two distinct franchises, just like the ones in Vancouver and Ottawa are," said Miller, adding he has a good relationship with the Canadiens organization.
"I think that people understand that the National Hockey League and major junior hockey are two totally separate leagues and I think there's more than enough room for two teams."
Rejean Houle, a former Canadiens star who played junior hockey in Montreal during its heyday in the late 1960s, says he thinks the city can support the Canadiens and a junior team.
"Everybody wants to see the Montreal Canadiens first and that's fine, but maybe there's still a spot for junior hockey," Houle said.
"I see it as a complementary team for Montreal."
Miller began expressing interest in bringing a club to Montreal last summer. When the Dobbin family, owners of the St. John's club, began saying his family wanted out of the junior hockey business, Miller got a call and had a deal finalized by December.
Miller believes the Montreal team won't face the same growing pains of an expansion franchise as the Rocket did.
QMJHL commissioner Gilles Courteau says the league has a lot riding on a successful Montreal entry.
"The owner, Mr. Miller, knows exactly what happened in the past and the problems the franchises have been facing," Courteau said in a telephone interview from Lewiston, Me.
"He has his own business and marketing plan and he knows that he's going to develop his own clientele and get his own media coverage."
While the move didn't come as a complete surprise in St. John's, where local owners pulled the plug after three money-losing seasons, Miller says he feels for St. John's fans. A lifelong baseball fan, Miller says he still misses the Montreal Expos baseball club, which left in 2004 for Washington, D.C.
"We know the difficulty and pain of losing a franchise (in Montreal) and I understand that it's a tough position to be in," Miller said.