MONTREAL — If you can’t join ’em, buy ’em,
That might be the motto of Montreal’s newest sports team owner, Farrel Miller, who is bringing junior hockey back to the province’s metropolis after a five-year absence.
Farrel Miller, owner of the new Club de Hockey Junior de Montréal, unveils the team’s uniform. [Ron Lemish photo]
He is the sole proprietor of a new Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) team, whose name, the Club de Hockey Junior de Montréal, was revealed last week.
In January, Miller, a local businessman, bought the financially struggling Fog Devils of St. John’s, Nfld., also of the QMJHL, for more than $3 million.
The team will begin playing out of the 4,000-seat Verdun Auditorium next season.
As an undergraduate, Miller, 46, was a forward on the Brandeis University hockey team, a stint that convinced the hockey fanatic he could never make a living playing.
Some 25 years later, however, he is living out any sports junkie’s dream as an owner, and one who will have a strong hand in his team’s development.
“This is a project that many thought could not be accomplished. Some still think that way. We believe Montreal can, and will, support a junior hockey team for many years to come,” Miller said.
The last QJMHL team in Montreal was the Rockets, which moved to Prince Edward Island after four lackluster seasons here. In fact, junior hockey has not had a huge following in Montreal since the days of the Junior Canadiens, a farm team, that disappeared in 1972, and its successor that continued on into the 1980s.
For the next 20 years or so, junior hockey was popular mostly in small towns where the teams did not have to compete for fans with the big leagues.
Things have changed in recent years, Miller said. The quality of play has improved, and the QMJHL and the other Canadian junior leagues are often the source of future National Hockey League players. Superstar Nova Scotia native Sidney Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is a product of the QMJHL and has contributed much to this new prestige, Miller thinks.
QMJHL teams are being bought by major business interests, such as the McCain and Irving families of the Maritimes, and are being better run and marketed.
All five Canadian NHL cities now have junior teams, he added.
Last, but not least, tickets to see a Montreal Canadiens game were not in the vicinity of $100 years ago, and in a hockey-mad town like Montreal, Miller is sure the less costly Junior tickets will be attractive. The club is already selling season tickets.
He also thinks the potential exists for a tantalizing rivalry between the Junior and Quebec City’s Remparts, which are owned and coached by former Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy.
Miller, a McGill University law graduate who worked as an attorney in New York for a decade, has in recent years been a venture capitalist in early-stage technology companies. He is the founder and CEO of SportTV.com, launched last fall, which provides pay-per-view live streaming of international soccer matches.
He founded JumpTV Inc. in 2000 and headed the company until 2005.
Miller believes he can apply to the Junior the skills he has acquired in building companies from the bottom up. He is a bit of a control freak, he admits, insisting on personally overseeing every phase of a business’s launch and management.
One point Miller was insistent upon before getting involved with the league was the assurance that the players, who are between 18 and 20, have the opportunity to continue their education. The players’ college tuition is covered while they play and will be subsidized up to $4,000 a year for four years after they leave, he said, in an arrangement between the league and the team.
The QMJHL has had to change in this respect, Miller said, because many talented youngsters, not willing to drop out of school, were opting to play hockey at U.S. colleges.
The Junior’s colours and logo were also unveiled last week. The uniform is burgundy and white, with three stripes on the jersey’s bottom and sleeves. The logo is simply the word Montreal with a puck serving as the accent over the “e”.
The team’s president is Martin Routhier, who was captain of the McGill University Redman in the 1990s.
Miller said a classic name was chosen because it evokes history and tradition, and the uniform’s clean lines hark back to those of Montreal teams in the heyday of the 1960s and ’70s. Naming the new franchise after an animal or a bird, for example, wouldn’t convey the serious image he is trying to project for a team he is confident can be competitive.
The Fog Devils, many of whose members are from Newfoundland or other Atlantic provinces, made it to this season’s playoffs, which are just getting underway. They finished 11th overall in the 18-team league.
Five players have already been drafted by NHL teams.
Miller said he would welcome Montreal native Benjamin Rubin onto the Junior if the coaching staff think he is good enough to play. Rubin, 19, a promising forward, broke into the QMJHL’s with the Remparts last year, was traded to the Gatineau Olympiques this season, and went down to the triple-AAA St. Jérôme Panthères.
The new franchise has a three-year agreement with the city-owned Verdun Auditorium and negotiations are underway between the team and the borough on the sharing of costs for renovations envisioned for the 70-year-old arena. Former Montreal executive committee member Robert Libman is acting as the mediator.
By this September, the auditorium, where 34 regular season games will be played, will have undergone basically cosmetic changes, a refurbishing of its interior and façade. Over the longer term, Miller hopes to make structural changes, including possibly adding corporate boxes.
Miller is co-chair of the annual Lila Sigal Marathon Hockey Tournament, founded by his hockey buddy David Sigal, in memory of his mother who died of pancreatic cancer in 2004. The tournament raises funds for the McGill Cancer Nutrition-Rehabilitation Program, based at the Jewish General Hospital.