Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Plattsburgh Pioneers Junior Hockey’s biggest mistake

By Brennan Dowd

The 1984-85 season for the Québec Major Junior Hockey League was experimental. Previously, a winning team would get two points and the loser zero. That year, the league introduced a single point in the standings for losses in overtime, but more experimental was their decision to expand across the border to the United States for the first time with the Plattsburgh Pioneers. 

The expansion was the work of Denis Methot, a sports science professor from Trois-Rivières, Québec. He saw potential in Plattsburgh, New York. The city, just one hour south of Montreal, already had a strong hockey connection with the Plattsburgh State Cardinals of the NCAA. Methot put down a majority of the start-up costs and was certain that his plan would go well. He was wrong. 

The league, Quebecois to its core, was already nervous about expanding beyond its borders. The Québec league’s inception was intended to showcase the best hockey talent that the province had to offer, but for the first time, they were going to be having games outside that area. As a result, the league did not grant Plattsburgh a typical expansion draft, an opportunity to pick adequately talented players from the rosters of the current teams in the league. This eliminated the possibility of any Canadian players from playing in Plattsburgh. As the current teams had exclusive rights to any players born in the province, a rule that allegedly went all the way up to the NHL. Because of these rules and the league’s unwillingness to help, the Pioneers were only able to sign a squad of mainly New York and Massachusetts-born players. 

The NCAA rules state that if students play junior hockey at a pro level,they waive their eligibility to sign with a college squad. So, scouting young talent, who were willing to risk that, was difficult. The Pioneers only found 17 players, less than the typical 23 on any active roster, to give up a college career and play for the team. They, “simply weren’t talented enough to compete at the major junior level,” according to the QMJHL’s website page for the Pioneers. All these factors resulted in the team’s dismal performance on the ice. 

They actually had a decent start. The Pioneers were set to play in Plattsburgh’s Crete Civic Center along the coast of Lake Champlain. However, the building was in need of repair and could not be completed in time for the start of the season. The team held their home opener  Sept. 15, 1984 at the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena, the home of the Plattsburgh State Cardinals. They played in front of a crowd of 1,500 people, a number they never reached again. 

The Pioneers faced the Hull Olympiques, with future hockey hall-of-famer Luc Robitaille leading the opposing squad. After a line brawl in the second period saw three players on each team thrown from the game, the Pioneers fought back from a 4-1 deficit, found themselves tying the game 6-6 and forcing overtime. 

Plattsburgh did end up losing, as Hull’s Joe Foglietta won the game in overtime, but they got a

point out of the match, as per the new league rules. This would be the only point they ever received. 

Plattsburgh Coach, Yves Beaudry, left the team after just the one game, clearly unhappy with what he saw. Methot, already the team’s owner and general manager, stepped in to coach the rest of the season. This decision was not necessarily one of arrogance, but financial trouble. The team’s home ticket sales dropped sharply after the first game, and they struggled to collect enough money to make rent, or in this case pay for more staff. 

In an article with The Hockey News, then-president of the QMJHL Gus Morrissette said, “the problem is the structure of his organization … He’s doing too much himself. He’s a one-man show. You can’t run practice and look for players at the same time.” 

Even with the critiques, the league didn’t do much in the situation to help the struggling franchise. It also certainly didn’t help that the Pioneers didn’t have any French-speaking staff, as all league communications came in French. 

For the remainder of their games, the Pioneers had results varying between below average and downright awful. The significantly smaller squad ramped up ice time for each of the players, which tired them out much quicker. Some games were close, like their 6-4 loss to Chicoutimi Oct. 5, but some were just embarrassing. They allowed nine or more goals in 11 of their 17 games. Their hardest loss came to the Granby Bisons on Oct. 19, where the second-to-last place Bisons slaughtered them, 17-1. 

On Oct. 27, after eventually moving over to the smaller and cheaper Crete Civic Center, the Pioneers were set to play the St Jean Castors. They were in need of the ticket money, and hoped to begin their turnaround that game. But just the franchise’s luck, the ice compressor for the arena broke down, the game was cancelled, and all the tickets were refunded. 

 

The next day, after only a month and a half of the franchise’s existence, Methot and the league finally pulled the plug on the franchise following a 9-3 loss in Drummondville. They didn’t finish the remainder of their 53 games, and thus cut the league’s season short. Their final record of 0-16-1 sealed the Plattsburgh Pioneer’s fate as the worst ice hockey team to ever take the ice.  

The fallout of this experiment was an embarrassment to the league, as can be shown with their decision on how to handle the games played against the Pioneers. They stripped Plattsburgh from the record books, didn’t archive the stats or information from their games, and essentially treated the matches against the Pioneers at the same level as exhibition matches. 

Any win against Plattsburgh was removed and any points earned from the players revoked. The games simply didn’t count. 

In addition, that experimental point for a loss in overtime was removed after just one season.

There’s nothing directly connecting that decision to the abysmal Pioneers, but the team wouldn’t have had a single point if not for that rule change. 

In the time since the Pioneers left, Plattsburgh has seen significant growth in the hockey world. The Plattsburgh State men’s hockey team has won multiple conference titles as well as two National Championships in 1992 and 2001. The women’s program which began in 2001, has  seven National Championships, five of which came in their last six full seasons. 

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