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Administrative decisions among biggest surprises in league’s first half
Large player turnover in junior hockey often renders predictions foolish, but this season, the on-ice powerhouses are as expected in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Chicoutimi and Rimouski are battling atop the East Division, Moncton is running a competitive Maritime Division and the Sherbrooke Phoenix have ruled the Western Conference.
There is a candidate for a surprise with the Drummondville Voltigeurs, who hold the second-best record in the Western Conference despite going nearly all in to win last year.
On the topic of trades, it is not a surprise that there were already 30 deals made by "Q" teams just two weeks into the league's annual transaction window.
Moncton is one of the teams expected to buy heavily, having already acquired Benoit-Olivier Groulx from Halifax with the addition of Jared McIssac believed to be impending once the world juniors is complete. But what was unexpected was the Wildcats also adding a coach.
This past January, Moncton made a mid-season switch, bringing in John Torchetti to replace Darren Rumble. Torchetti was a name from the Cats past, having led the New Brunswick side during the 2006-07 campaign. Following his first QMJHL tenure, he had a lengthy stay in the professional ranks — five years as a head coach in the AHL and KHL, and six years as an assistant in the NHL with a stint as interim bench boss of the Minnesota Wild.
Hopes were high for Torchetti's return to the Wildcats, and in his first playoff back his club pulled off an impressive upset over the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the spring. Expectations were even higher going into 2019-20, and Torch's squad was fulfilling them with a roaring 21-5 start.
Things took a strange turn when Torchetti was absent from the trip to Cape Breton for a key divisional game against the Eagles on Dec. 1.
Following the loss in Sydney it remained a guessing game as to what was going on with the Maritime Division leaders — the club stated it was a personal matter, and Torchetti was placed on leave as his players headed on a Quebec road trip.
He would never return as head coach — he was fired on Dec. 14, with the team only citing "internal reasons."
His successor, like Torchetti himself, is a former Moncton head coach.
Daniel Lacroix led the Wildcats for part of the 2004-05 season and was an assistant with the Wildcats for four years. After leaving the QMJHL he spent 13 seasons as an assistant in the NHL and AHL, and last season was a head coach in the top German league.
He became the second new head coach in the QMJHL this fall.
Saint John reeled off a 6-2 record after assistant Jeff Cowan took over on an interim basis from Josh Dixon.
At the opposite end of the circuit, both in terms of geography and in the standings, there has been turmoil with the once-proud Gatineau Olympiques franchise.
The Olympiques have not won a playoff series since 2016 and found themselves out of a playoff spot heading into the league's Christmas break, losing 12 straight games.
Much anger was pointed at director of hockey operations Alain Sear, as many Gatineau fans signed a petition he be ousted from the club.
There were reports of players in the dressing room singing a fight song with expletives directed to Sear, who was in his third year as general manager, and was also one of the club's 10 shareholders.
The situation caused great internal debate among the club's other shareholders and dominated any local media discussions about the team in the middle part of December.
On Dec. 18, Sear resigned as a shareholder. Not far behind was fellow shareholder Martin Lacasse, who was also a spokesperson for the board of directors.
While the Olympiques have gone from 10 to eight shareholders, there is speculation that a number of high profile former players, including hall of famer Luc Robitaille, could now become involved in running the club.
Sear did not get to complete his vision, with his club scheduled to move into a new rink in 2020, and holding four first-round draft picks in June.
Regardless, following the news of his departure, the Olympiques broke the losing streak with wins over the Phoenix and Voltigeurs.
With the QMJHL's trading period concluding Jan. 6, there is more big news to come in the league this winter. It just may not match the drama that's already been seen in the boardroom.
Patrick McNeil is the play-by-play announcer with the Cape Breton Eagles. He received a sufficient amount of Nationals World Series merchandise from Santa Claus & company. Email him at [email protected], or Twitter: cbepbp.