Joël Bouchard remains convinced there will be an American Hockey League season.
But the head coach of the Laval Rocket doesn’t know whether that will entail home games, before some spectators, of whether it’ll be played in a bubble. He doesn’t know what the schedule might look like or if the season will commence on Feb. 5 — as the league announced this week — after the AHL had hoped to begin in early December.
“We have to deal with the reality of the moment,” the always engaging Bouchard said Friday during a video conference call. “No one has a crystal ball to predict the future. Our guys can’t wait. They’re sick of the situation.
“The date doesn’t change anything,” he added. “I’d be ready tomorrow if I had to. I’m going to be ready no matter what happens.”
The Rocket hasn’t played a game since March 11, when it defeated Belleville 3-0 at Place Bell. When play was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, Laval had a 30-24-8 record and was sixth in the North Division.
Unlike the NHL, there was no post-season. The Calder Cup, emblematic of AHL supremacy, wasn’t awarded in 2020 — the first time that has occurred since 1937.
With the NHL hoping to resume play Jan. 1, Bouchard said it only makes sense for the league’s feeder system to commence a month later. Although only four potential Laval players — Lukas Vejdemo, Jesse Ylonen, Otto Leskinen and Hayden Verbeek — have been loaned to European teams, Bouchard isn’t concerned over the lengthy layoff many will have endured.
He has implored the players to use their time wisely while investing in their futures, even if that carries a financial cost.
“Obviously what they’ve been doing for the last year is going to be very important,” he said. “If a guy was smart, he would push himself into fatigue for a few weeks to see how that feels. I know from talking to the players, they’re passionate. They need to get their minds off the reality.
“Those with a knife between their teeth, those who are passionate, those who are professionals, always do well. Those who like to take it easy, who are less serious, often it costs a year of their career and even, sometimes, it signals the end of a career.”
Although there are 31 teams in the AHL, only four — Laval, Toronto, Belleville and Manitoba — are in Canada. And the border closing, which will continue until at least Nov. 21, has been repeatedly extended. There has been talk of the NHL, when it resumes, having an all-Canadian division. But there are seven Canadian NHL teams, leading to a slightly more varied schedule.
Unless those restrictions are lifted, permitting the Rocket to play teams mostly located in the Northeastern U.S., its schedule could be limited to playing the same three Canadian clubs — unless some NHL teams change the location of their affiliates.
Bouchard said he expects the schedule to be augmented. “There’ll likely be travel limitations,” he noted. “I’m preparing for a different season. Everyone’s life has been different since the start of the pandemic.”
But Bouchard said he wouldn’t see anything negative behind playing the same teams ad infinitum. His mandate is to develop NHL players, preferably for the Canadiens, and that can only be accomplished through competition.
“I just want to put our players on the ice,” he said. “Every game represents an opportunity to develop our players. I just want someone to give me ice cream, players and opponents.
“We could play Belleville 42 times and we’d find ways to work on our hopes. I’m positive about the future. I think we’re in a bit of a storm right now, but it’s our job as coaches, players and as an organization to come out of this better.”