Joel Bouchard hangs his hat midway between an old life and a new existence. And, really, you still can’t unknot the two.
These days, Bouchard is head coach of the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket, the top affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. For the previous seven seasons, however, Bouchard was all in on the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, one of the most successful outfits in the CHL.
Bouchard’s home is right in between Place Bell, home of the Rocket, and the Centre d’Exellence Sports Rousseau, where the Armada squad he’s the second-largest owner of (behind Quebecor Media) skate. The two rinks are about 20 minutes apart on Highway 15, on the northern edge of Montreal. And, long ago, Bouchard identified the intersection of 15 and Highway 640 — right where the Armada play — as prime hockey real estate.
“If you would ask me one place in Quebec to put [a team], it would have been there,” he says, noting Boisbriand is home to many young families and accessible for the large population of Greater Montreal.
A veteran of 364 NHL games, Bouchard always had an eye on growing the game in his home province. With his partner, former “Q” player Pierre Gendron, Bouchard built the rink in Boisbriand to make it the home of the Joel Bouchard Hockey Academy, which attracts about 4,000 youngsters annually. Before the shovels went in the ground, however, Bouchard made sure it was also going to be an arena that could accommodate QMJHL hockey should the opportunity to put a franchise there every present itself.
In 2011, the Montreal Juniors became the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and they’ve been winning hockey games ever since. In fact, the Armada have advanced to at least the second round of the QMJHL playoffs in all but one of their post-seasons dating back to 2012.
That’s largely because Bouchard — as president, GM and coach of the squad — aggressively pursued the best players on the trade market to supplement his existing core. In 2016–17, he traded for Pierre-Luc Dubois, now a major contributor with the Columbus Blue Jackets. One season later, it was Drake Batherson, a young man who led Team Canada in goal-scoring at the 2018 World Junior Championship and is already making his mark as an Ottawa Senators rookie this season.
Though the Armada lost the league final in both 2017 and ’18 (last spring they were defeated by the eventual Memorial Cup-champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan), they set a precedent of excellence the team continues to chase.
“He wasn’t scared to make a push every year,” says Bruce Richardson, who replaced Bouchard as coach of the Armada this season. “The other thing, too, is the intensity and energy he brings to his teams. I’m the same way. It’s contagious to the players and I think it’s a big part of why this team had success.”
Despite graduating Batherson, league MVP Alex Barre-Boulet and the winner of QMJHL best defensive defenceman honours, Tobbie Paquette-Bisson, the Armada remain a competitive club with a 13-12-1 record. Nineteen-year-old winger Joel Teasdale, in his fourth year with the Armada, leads the team with 28 points in 26 games after signing a three-year entry-level deal with the Canadiens as an undrafted free agent in September.
And even if this is the year Blainville-Boisbriand eventually has to ship out a few players to help re-stock the shelves, don’t expect them to be down for long.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rebuilding year,” Richardson says. “It’s just making sure we keep the same mentality of the way we do things here.”
Whatever course they chart, Bouchard will be in the middle of it. He knows Richardson well — both former pro defencemen grew up in the Montreal area — and speaks with him at least once a week. The Armada are close to his heart, but the team is just part of a broader passion for sculpting young people through the sport he feels has given him so much in life.
“Junior hockey is important to me,” Bouchard says. “I think it’s a big part of our community.”