Baie-Comeau Drakkar | The small market that thinks big

(Baie-Comeau) “Is this your first time here?” Tie up your hat! »

The advice of friend Alexandre Régimbald, an employee of the Maritimes Quebec Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) who travels through the league’s arenas, was justified on this Thursday evening at the Henry-Leonard Center.

In the second period, Cape Breton Eagles forward Lucas Romeo was chased. The Drakkar’s house announcer speaks. “We’re going back to the power play, are you ready? », spit out the speakers.


Supporters of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar encourage their team at the Henry-Leonard Center.

Then comes a mixture of howls, the sounds of compressed air canisters, rattles and cow bells, a din amplified by the tin roof. The eardrum tickles. The noise level is such that Justin Poirier, big offensive star of the Drakkar, has to put his mouth to the ear of his teammate Niks Fenenko for them to understand each other. As if he was telling her a secret.

Sometimes the referees whistle and we continue to play! We have caucuses, and we have to talk into each other’s ears. It’s not to do anything wrong, the supporters are there with us and want to give us energy.

Justin Poirier

Moments later, Poirier accepts a pass from Fenenko, throws and counts, to tie the game 1-1. It’s crazy. Paul Fontaine, from Radio-Canada, covers the match using a decibel meter. Verdict: 113 decibels, the colleague tells us. We understand better why the kind customer at Tim Hortons that afternoon offered us earplugs.


Celebration for the Drakkar players after the overtime goal

Rebelote in overtime, when Anthony Lavoie gives the victory to the Drakkar, to eliminate the Eagles in five games. For the third time in 27 years of history, Baie-Comeau reaches the QMJHL final, and will try to win a first championship. Not bad, for a town of 20,000 inhabitants, 17e market among the 18 of the Cecchini circuit.

“They call it the seventh player and it really feels like there are seven on the ice,” said Lavoie after the game. But to have such loud fans behind us, it’s incredible. Baie-Comeau lives up to its reputation. »


For the third time in 27 years of history, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar reached the QMJHL final on Thursday evening.

Michel Desbiens is well placed to talk about the craze for the Drakkar. “Often, as mayor, I try to discuss other topics, but everyone brings me back to the Drakkar! », he says to The Pressin his vast office at Baie-Comeau town hall.

Former president of the Alcoa employees’ union, former member of the board of directors of Drakkar, Desbiens has lived in his community. We saw it during the match; his trip to the bathroom was essentially a series of greetings and discussions with his fellow citizens, all of whom he seemed to know.


The mayor of Baie-Comeau, Michel Desbiens

“It’s one of the region’s flagship activities,” he summarizes. Several retirees from the paper mill or Alcoa see their boyfriends there again. We are trying to attract new arrivals because we lack workers. With the Drakkar, the people who come to stay here have an activity, a meeting place. »

However, this was not always the case. During the five seasons before the pandemic, the Drakkar had average crowds of less than 2,000 spectators. After two appearances in the final in a row, in 2013 and 2014, the team began a slow decline until the pandemic.

We are now in another universe. The enthusiasm was perceptible in the summer, when Jean-François Grégoire, head coach and general director, convinced brothers Jules and Raoul Boilard to give up the NCAA to come play on the North Shore. You should know that rightly or wrongly, players have been reluctant, over the years, to come and play here, the best known being Nathan MacKinnon.


The head coach and general director of the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Jean-François Grégoire (right)

“People said to themselves: ‘Usually, they go to other markets, but here, they come to us,’” remembers Grégoire. So we arrive in August, on a Friday evening, one of the most beautiful days of the summer, for a red and white match during our camp. And there are 1200 people. I said to myself: “Something is happening!” »

The results on the ice followed. With a record of 53-12-3, the Drakkar was the best team among the three Canadian junior leagues. It continues in the series.

On Thursday, 3,042 spectators gathered, a more than full house since there were dozens in standing room. Tickets went on sale two days earlier. “It sold out in 17 minutes!” », whispers a ticket office employee.


The Henry-Leonard Center was more than full Thursday evening.

Baie-Comeau also has its challenges.

The Drakkar arrived in 1997 in what was, at the census of a year earlier, a town of 25,554 inhabitants. During the 2021 financial year, there were only 20,687 in Baie-Comois. The slowdown, then outright closure of the Résolu paper company, cost many jobs in the region. The city has a CEGEP, but unlike Saguenay or Rimouski, no university. For higher studies, you must therefore leave the city. We still have to come back to it later.

Result: Baie-Comeau is the penultimate of the 18 markets in the QMJHL. Only Bathurst (12,157 inhabitants) is smaller.

The other particularity of the Drakkar is its owner. Forget the extremely wealthy Tanguay and Irving families that we see elsewhere; here, it is the City which owns the team. The Chicoutimi Saguenéens are the only other team on the circuit with such a model.


Baie-Comeau is the penultimate of the 18 QMJHL markets.

The president of the team’s board of directors, Julie Dubé, is the first to recognize it: the management method of the Drakkar is “polarizing”. Of its expenditures of some $82 million (fiscal year 2022), the City pays $420,000 annually to the club. Negotiations are underway for a new three-year agreement. In an ideal world, she explains, this payment would allow the Drakkar to arrive hot and cold in season, and a long run in the series would generate profits to put back into the City’s coffers.

“It’s a hockey town. But for people who have less interest in hockey, it is an unnecessary expense, not necessary, recalls Mme Dube. Every time taxes increase, we hear people say that perhaps we should invest elsewhere, sell the team. But the $420,000 represents (0.5%) of the City’s budget. That’s not what raises taxes. And it gets people talking about Baie-Comeau. In our eyes, the Drakkar is an investment. It brings a dynamic in winter. It’s publicity we wouldn’t have otherwise. »

Mayor Desbiens admits not having figures on the economic activity generated by the Drakkar. “We did the exercise several years ago and the board of directors would like to do it again. But it’s a lot. Today, there must not be many hotel rooms available. The restaurants are rotating. During the season, the other teams come, the parents of the players too, it keeps the economy going. »

Mr. Desbiens recalls that the City operates with a similar model for the Baie-Comeau Arts Center, funded to the tune of $413,000 in 2023, and for the Mont Ti-Basse ski center. “We don’t give more to the Drakkar than to the others,” he said.

However, it is not at the arena that he will have to defend the City’s investment in the team, or discuss the long-term survival of the Drakkar. It was an already won over audience that filled the arena; imagine after the overtime victory.

“We are very proud, because we did not want to lose our club. When the City bought the team (in 2008), we were in full agreement. It puts us on the map, we make ourselves known,” says Richard, leaving the place with his teenage daughter.

During the post-match celebrations, Solange Pellerin raises her arms in the air and waves as if she is rowing with both arms, the rallying gesture of the fans, as if they were actually on board a longship. She is wearing a Drakkar sweater autographed by players from around ten years ago.


Solange Pellerin

“Before, we were the small team from the North Shore. But it’s a small team that stands strong, insists the lady. The team belongs to the City. It’s not like the Tanguay and the others who have more money. »

This is an organization that has always embraced the underdog role and it seems perfect that way.

“It’s not because we’re a small market that we can’t think big,” insists Julie Dubé, president of the CA. We say that to ourselves almost every week. If we think big, people will feel it. »


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