The City of Moncton was struggling to come to grips with the impending relocation of its beloved American Hockey League franchise in 1994.
The Moncton Hawks were poised to raise the Calder Cup once again and go out on top in their final year of existence. The Portland Pirates and Olaf Kolzig stood in the way of the Cinderella story.
There would be no storybook ending for the city or the Hawks. Kolzig was MVP of the playoffs, and thoughts of the Calder Cup and the AHL turned to heartache for Monctonians.
The love affair was over.
The American Hockey League was gone.
It was never coming back.
In the midst of sadness and denial, the Moncton Coliseum sat dormant without a major tenant for the entire 1994-95 season.
The thought of competitive hockey returning to Moncton was on hold. It may never have returned if it wasn’t for a small group of passionate hockey fans and businessmen.
A local group, which included Clark Buskard, Bernard Cyr, David Hawkins and Greg Turner, joined forces with John Graham. Their goal was to bring the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to Moncton. “John Graham and his group formed the Mooseheads a year earlier and were an immediate success story in Halifax,” said Turner, a current city councillor.
“When Graham came to Moncton to form the Alpines the following season and a mutual friend Bobby White directed him towards me due to my involvement in Jr. A hockey locally.”
Graham enticed a number of individuals from the Toronto area to invest in the franchise. In all, there with 16 partners with various share totals.
The Moncton Alpines were born. However, they faced the daunting and unfair task of filling the void left behind by the professional circuit.
Moncton product Jeff LeBlanc was the Alpines first ever draft pick in the Atlantic Draft, the last time players from Atlantic Canada could choose their junior league.
“To play in the QMJHL at 16 was something that I will never forget,” said LeBlanc. “To play in front of family and friends was extra special.” With expansion, growing pains are inevitable and with only two Maritime-based teams the travel schedule was arduous.
“Expansion in any league is hard. As players we felt it. A losing environment is never a fun environment for anyone. We lost a lot of games that first year,” said LeBlanc, who is the current General Manager of the Amherst Ramblers of the Maritime Hockey League.
“The inaugural year was met with many obstacles especially off the ice,” said former assistant coach Roland Collette said.
Unfortunately the losing wasn’t limited to the ice. The team was also losing ground financially.
“Graham managed the team and was in close contact with the local owners, but attendance never reached the expected totals and by Christmas the franchise was in turmoil,” said Turner. “The local group wanted to prop it up financially, but the absentee owners from Toronto weren’t interested.”
“There was a tug of war, Gerry Steinberg from Toronto finally grabbed control of the team and Graham was ousted as President. Gerry would oversee the operations until the end of the season, working closely with the league, who bought back the franchise at the conclusion of the season,” added Turner.
There are number of reasons why Moncton’s first crack at major junior hockey failed.
“With so many investors from such a distance, it was difficult to get a consensus of opinion and make strategic decisions,” said Turner. “The franchise’s leadership was inexperienced and undercapitalized, a recipe for failure,” confessed Turner.
“The players and staff were very anxious about the future of the team,” added Collette who also acted has the teams educational consultant.
After the failed inaugural season, Turner approached current Moncton Wildcats President Mr. Robert Irving, the City and the Quebec league in hopes of brokering a deal. Turner credits the late Ian Fowler as instrumental in bringing the Wildcats to Moncton.
“When Mr. Irving became apart of the team it gave us stability and hope, the organization really focused on family and community and engaged the south east region and it really rejuvenated the team,” said Collette.
Current Wildcats Governor Jean Brouseau remembers those years very well. “The first year was difficult on and off the ice, to say the least. But because of the vision of these owners, Greater Moncton proved to be a great place for the development of a Major Junior team,” said Brouseau.
Brouseau would see a resurgence of fans in the first year of the Wildcat. “Fans enjoyed watching young and talented players chasing their dream to become pro players,” explained Brouseau.
“The packaging of the Wildcats game was new to Greater Moncton and offered affordable and fun family entertainment,” Brouseau said.
Jeff LeBlanc experienced both franchises first hand and year two of the QMJHL being in Moncton was drastically different. “My first game as a Wildcat in front of a sold out Coliseum crowd is definitely my fondest memory,” said LeBlanc.
“I still remember being the second one out of the tunnel and thinking how different it was from the year before.”
A Perfect Fit
Gilles Courteau understood the importance of expansion into the hockey crazed Maritimes.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner believed expansion would strengthen and solidify his product. After establishing a club in Halifax, Moncton was the next logical location.
“We were very happy at first to have the chance to put a new franchise in Moncton, but with the first ownership group. It just didn’t work the way it was supposed to,” said Courteau.
“We went through a difficult situation, and took over the franchise. We operated the team for the rest of that first season. We were very lucky to have a person like Robert Irving show some interest to have a major junior franchise and we were able to make a deal.”
Since the inception of the Moncton Wildcats in 1995-96 there has been unwavering commitment from the organization to build a community presence and a winning culture. As the AHL began moving out, the QMJHL’s Maritimes Division would soon swell. “We have been very lucky to find the appropriate owners or ownership groups that put the pieces together to bring franchises to those regions and it really helped the league at that time,” said Courteau.
“It really solidified our product.”
Moncton hosted the 2006 Memorial Cup, which Courteau believes left a lasting impression on the city and the league. “I think it was a great experience to have that prestige event in Moncton,” he said. “The City of Moncton deserved that tournament at that time and they did an outstanding job. They had a very good team,” Courteau added.
“It was a first class event for the people of Moncton and New Brunswick. Everyone that came to Moncton from across the entire CHL in 2006 really enjoyed their time there. It was a marvelous event,” said Courteau in an interview in October 2017. Courteau has followed the progress of the new downtown events centre closely, and is pleased with having a new building in the league. “I think when there’s an opportunity to get a new building in the league it’s always a plus,” he said.
“I’ve seen the plans of the building, and the building infrastructure, and have followed the construction over the past few months. It’s going to be a first-class building. All the players on the Wildcats and across the league are going to be very excited to play in that building,” added Courteau.
Courteau believes the new arena will give Moncton a legitimate shot at hosting another Memorial Cup, something that would not be possible in the aging Coliseum.
“I think when they have a building like that, for sure it’s a great opportunity for them, I don’t think where we are today, they would be able to put in a bid forward to have the Memorial Cup as a host team. With a new building they will be able to put a bid forward,” suggested Courteau.
An independent committee for the last several years in the QMJHL has been used for the final decision on the bidding process to host the Memorial Cup. Courteau understands that process will be difficult. “The independent committee will have a big decision to make in their selection because it’s going to be very interesting to see who may bid for the 2019 Memorial Cup, I wish them all the best of luck,” Courteau said.
The Moncton Wildcats lost the 2019 Memorial Cup bid on April 5th to their long time Maritime rival the Halifax Mooseheads.
The heartbreaking decision came a day after the Wildcats upset the 3rdseeded Rimouski Oceanic in the first round of the 2018 QMJHL Playoffs. The upset was the 3rd largest in QMJHL history from a point separation perspective.
The City of Moncton and the Moncton Wildcats will now have to agonizingly wait for the return of Memorial Cup to the QMJHL, which undoubtedly be heading back to the Quebec the next time around.
From the American Hockey League to the Quebec Major Hockey League, the City of Moncton and the game of hockey will be forever connected and seemingly a perfect fit.