Lessons from the ice

Written by Peter Assaff, October 17th 2019

Proper planning, patience and luck are all keys to success in both  sports and business

Building a successful hockey team isn’t that much different than building a successful business.

Hard work, proper planning and patience all play important roles in taking a business, or team, to the next level.  Sleepless nights, worrying whether risks will pay off, and a little luck are all part of the process as well.

As general manager of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, Sylvian Couturier understands that formula very well.

“It is a long process,” said Couturier, who has been the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team’s GM since 2005.  “It has been proven, it is not just me, it is about being patient with the young guys. It is a process.”

When Couturier first took over as GM of the Titan in 2005, he inherited a talented team that would finish just one win away from a berth in the Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League’s top tournament, in his first season on the job. 

It took the Titan another 12 years to get past the second round of the playoffs.

That doesn’t mean Couturier’s hockey team didn’t have some good seasons over that time. 

A heartbreaking first round exit at the hands of the Victoriaville Tigres in four straight games in 2011, after a regular season that saw the Titan finish with 91 points, comes immediately to mind.  As does a second-round defeat to the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2008, when the Titan blew a game-six lead late in the third period and saw their season come to a crushing end on home ice moments later in overtime.

The thrill of victory and the agony of  defeat

But, like any successful business leader, Couturier learned from all the highs and lows over that time and continued to work on fine tuning his approach in the hope of finding the keys to success.  Those lessons ultimately led the Titan to a Memorial Cup Championship in 2018, but not until after Couturier came up with a plan that he was able to convince the team’s ownership group to trust him with.

“Let me tell you, the year we won there were a lot of long nights, sleepless nights, where I said to myself, it better work,” admitted Couturier.  “I sat down with the new ownership group and explained what we wanted to do. When you go all in, like we did, you know what is coming up too. So, you hope that it is going to work and thank god it worked.”

A group of local owners teamed up to buy the Titan in 2013.  The hockey club had been struggling both on the ice and at the gate and needed to find a way to remedy both situations.  Titan owners and management all believed a winning team was the key to bringing back fans, but that was easier said than done.

Couturier’s plan would take time and involved completely rebuilding the team from the ground up through strategic drafting and aggressive trades when the time was right.  He also knew, the ‘go for broke’ plan meant, whether it was successful or not, the team would find themselves back to square one and rebuilding once again once their window to win was over.

“The way we did it, we jeopardized a lot,” said Couturier.  “We had to win.

“We had to at least be at the Memorial Cup.  Winning the President’s Cup (signifying a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title and earning the team a berth in the four-team Memorial Cup tournament) was our goal for sure.  We knew when we got to the Memorial Cup anything can happen. It (the Memorial Cup) is a tough one to win, believe me, the way the tournament is made. That being said, our goal was definitely winning the President’s Cup.”

Executing the  plan

With the owners on board, Couturier began executing his plan.

“When we decided to do that…the first thing we had in mind, and I remember talking with the owners, was that our fans were overdue,” he said.  “They needed that. It had been 20 years and we hadn’t even been close for the last seven or eight years. We knew we had a chance, and the window was open for that, and we had to take that chance.”

The Titan relocated to Bathurst in 1998 from Laval, Que.  Prior to 2018, their only President’s Cup win since relocating to Northern New Brunswick came in their first season in their new home.  Despite a lineup that included goaltender Roberto Luongo and defenceman Francois Beauchemin, who would both go on to lengthy careers in the National Hockey League, they finished 0-3 at the 1999 Memorial Cup in Ottawa.

Things went much better the second time around.  After finishing the round-robin portion of the 2018 event, in Regina, Sask., with a 2-1 record, the Titan advanced straight to the tournament final where they beat the host Regina Pats by a score of 3-0. 

What followed was a party the City of Bathurst won’t soon forget.  It also meant the team was back to square one and rebuilding all over again.

Starting over  again

“I think, at this level anyway, you look at the Halifax and Saint John models, and Drummondville when they won, you have to expect some difficult years after.”

Those difficult years are the result of a business model that sees a team start young and then reach its peak when those players hit their best years as mature veterans.

“That is just the reality of junior, because it is tough for 17 and 16-year-olds to play against 19 and 20-year-olds.  A lot of times they have as much skill as the 19 or 20-year-old, but physically it is just tough for them. It is tough every night for them, and it is a process.”

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is made up of players who range in age from 15 to 21.  The 15-year-olds must reach their 16th birthdays by December 31 of their first year in the league.  The 21-year-olds must be 20 at the start of their final season in the junior circuit, with their 21st birthdays celebrated no earlier than Jan. 1 of that season.  Either way, the difference in size, strength and maturity between rookies and veterans is literally the difference between boys and men.

“You have to be patient and make sure that when they get to 18 and 19-years-old, when they get mature physically, they get the results that you really want,” said Couturier.  “Like I said, it is a long process and it is (about) being patient.”

Staying true to the  process

The process that led to a Memorial Cup win in 2018 began in earnest at the 2014 QMJHL entry draft when Couturier pulled the trigger on eight trades, including dealing veteran captain Raphaël Lafontaine to the Sherbrooke Phoenix for a 17-year-old forward who had played all of eight games in his rookie season.  That forward, Jeffrey Truchon-Viel, would go on to pick up 251 points, including 144 goals, along with 555 minutes in penalties over four seasons with the Titan (regular season, playoffs and Memorial Cup combined). As captain, in his final season with the team, he won the Guy Lafleur Trophy as playoff MVP before hoisting the Memorial Cup.

Other trades that year saw Couturier send veteran blueliner Alexandre Gosselin to Cape Breton for then rookie Samuel L’Italien and a third-round draft pick.  He also picked up goaltender Reilly Pickard in a multi-player deal with Baie-Comeau.

By the time the Titan were ready to go ‘all in’ during the 2017-18 season, Couturier had pulled the trigger on 61 trades, and along the way picked up players and draft picks that would shape the team he hoped would bring a championship to Bathurst. 

Some of those players, like Viel and l’Italien, would play important roles on that team; while others, like Pickard who was traded for netminder Evan Fitzpatrick during the season, would be moved to acquire the final pieces of Couturier’s puzzle.

Paying attention to all the  details

Draft picks, whether used or traded, also played important parts along the way.

“Each (draft) pick we make is an asset for me and the organization,” pointed out Couturier.  “It is either going to be an asset for you, or it is going to be an asset (you can use) for a trade. 

“A guy like (German) Rubstov for example.  We drafted (Christophe) Farmer in the fourth round (2017).  That was a good asset. A good pick for the fourth round. He was in demand.  People don’t realize that…without Farmer we probably wouldn’t have Rubstov that year.  So, it is an asset.”

The Titan sent Farmer, the rights to Vladimir Kuznetsov (who never played in the QMJHL again) and a trio of draft picks to Chicoutimi midway through the 2017-18 season for Rubstov and a second-round pick.

“Olivier DesRoches was a second-round pick (in 2017),” said Couturier.  “(He) gave us Samuel Asselin. Without Olivier DesRoches in our lineup we probably wouldn’t have gotten Samuel Asselin.”

That deal saw Acadie-Bathurst send DesRoches, along with third and fifth round draft picks, to Shawinigan for Asselin.

Asselin, who was named to the first all-star team at the Memorial Cup, and Rubstov both played important roles for the Titan during their championship season.

“It is an asset for an organization to draft well.  You can either put (the player you drafted) on the ice and he is going to perform for you, or he is going to be a (bargaining) chip for an organization to get what you need to win the Memorial Cup.”

Couturier pulled the trigger on 12 more trades during the 2017-18 season including those that added Fitzpatrick, l’Italien and Asselin to the lineup.

The need to constantly reinvent  yourself

Those trades also left the Titan without many assets left after winning the Memorial Cup.  Those that were left were quickly moved to other teams, either to complete previous transactions or to acquire young players and picks to start the rebuilding process all over again. 

Of course, unlike the model Couturier uses to build his sports team, the process for growing a successful business hopefully won’t include starting over from scratch every few years.  That being said, successful businesses are constantly looking for ways to improve and often reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the game. Either way staying true to your process is the key.

“Here we are two (seasons) later with a Memorial Cup ring, but now we are going through some tough times,” said Couturier.  “It was expected. The fans were happy (when the Titan won).”

Not surprisingly, fan support peaked during the team’s playoff run in 2018 and has levelled off since then.  The hope is that as the team rebuilds again, fans will recognize the process, and as the team continues to improve increased support will follow at a quicker rate.

“Hopefully they understand,” he said.  “They see what we have in hand right now and they will appreciate what we are doing, I think.”

The Titan missed the playoffs the year after winning the Memorial Cup, with a franchise worst 8-54-5-1 record.  They started the next season, the current one, losing nine straight games. Despite their early record they have shown both the growth and potential needed to return to more successful outcomes in the near future.

“We’ve got nine 17-year-olds this year and three 16-year-olds,” said the GM.  “The year we won the Memorial Cup I don’t know how many 17 years old we had, 2 or 3?  And one 16-year-old.”

Logan Chisholm, who is the only member of that Memorial Cup winning roster still with the Titan, was the lone member of the team who was 16 at the start of the 2017-18 season.  Four others, Noah Dobson, Justin Ducharme, Félix-Antoine Drolet and Zachery Bennett; were considered 17-year-olds at that time since they were born in the year 2000.

“That being said, I think we are in a good position right now,” said the GM, of the young lineup the Titan currently have.  “The results aren’t there, but our young guys are good, and we know they are going to be good. Now the patience game is starting (again) and the process.  There is not much we can do (to speed up their growth and maturity). We can’t move up in time. When these guys are 19, we are going to have a good team. We just have to wait ‘til they get there.”

A little luck never hurt  anyone

“And you always have the chance factor,” pointed out Couturier.  “When we won, I don’t remember any big injuries during the playoffs.  Everybody was healthy. They all played with little injuries here and there, but nothing major.  We (didn’t) lose a guy like Jeff Viel in the middle of the second round, or Antoine Morand, or Fitzpatrick. 

“Everybody was playing with some injuries, obviously in the playoffs everybody does, but we didn’t lose any players due to injury.  They were all playing. So, there is a lot about luck. It is not an easy thing to do, believe me.”

As they start the rebuilding process once again, like any business, the Titan know that a good plan includes taking some risks.  It also includes a lot of hard work and patience. It is also what will give them the best chance of finding success.

Taking Care of Business with Contendo

A look at successful small and medium-sized businesses and how they continue to find a way to ‘make it work’

By Peter Assaff

Contendo is a leading software solutions company based in Belledune, NB. Originally focused on safety training solutions for some of the largest companies in Canada’s Oil and Gas Industry, Contendo has taken the lessons they’ve learned and adapted their offerings to uniquely serve small and medium sized businesses on the East Coast. Contendo offers proprietary web-based software products, such as a Training Management System (TMS), online Safety Training courses, custom Client-Specific Online Training and company or site Employee Orientation Packages. Contendo has also developed an in demand, state of the art Labour, Equipment and Materials Summary tool (LEMS) to help businesses control invoicing, project tracking and payroll.

Peter Assaff is Contendo’s Business Development Lead. Peter is also an award-winning journalist, with over 30 years of experience in radio, newspaper and television. Reach out to Peter at peter@contendo.ca if you have an idea for a story on a successful business, or for any information on the products and services Contendo has to offer.