REGINA — Jeffrey Truchon-Viel remembers one home game in his early years with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan where a snowstorm resulted in only 300 people attending K.C. Irving Regional Centre.
Getting excited to play in a game with a crowd that small was difficult for the Titan team captain, who is in his fourth year with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League franchise.
"There's nobody in the rink, you just play hockey in front of almost nobody," he said Sunday prior to a Memorial Cup matchup against the host Regina Pats.
Acadie-Bathurst is one of the smallest major junior hockey markets in the Canadian Hockey League and plays in the community of Bathurst, N.B., which has a population of 15,557.
The team had an attendance of 64,714 this year — third lowest in the QMJHL. Their home rink capacity is 3,162 and they've consistently been at the bottom of the league's attendance rankings.
The community also had a mine that employed more than 2,000 people at its peak close in 2013 and that further affected game attendance.
Low draws, along with talk of possible relocation and poor on-ice results led to the Titan being sold by Leo-Guy Morrissette in 2013.
"We went through some really tough times by years and they (fans) were still stuck with us and credit to them," Titan general manger Sylvain Couturier said. "Today, I think that championship is with them as well."
A group of 28 local investors purchased the franchise, but it was too close to the league draft to implement a plan of action.
The new owners' plan began the following year and Couturier said that it's part of the reason why the Titan won the league title this year.
Couturier has been the team's GM for 13 years and with the franchise for 17, having served for a stretch as an assistant coach. He said that he knows what to expect managing a small-market franchise.
"We have to be wise how we spend our money because of, obviously, our seating is 3,500, which we were sold out for the last 16 (games) of the playoffs," he said. "But during the regular season, sometimes the fans are a little bit less. Then there's less revenue for sure."
Bringing stability to the organization after the ownership takeover was a top priority for the Titan and Couturier said that started with the hiring of coach Mario Pouliot, who is in his fourth season.
Truchon-Viel said that before Pouliot joined the organization, "Bathurst was kind of a cemetery for coaches."
The Titan, who won their opening game at the Memorial Cup over Western Hockey League's Swift Current Broncos in overtime on Saturday, arrived in Bathurst from Laval, Que., in 1998. The Laval teams were made famous by Mario Lemieux, who led them to the Memorial Cup in 1984.
Acadie-Bathurst reached the Memorial Cup in their first year in Bathurst with two-time Olympic gold medallist Roberto Luongo in net. Several years of ups and downs ensued before the sale of the team.
Couturier said that with the new ownership the team is in a stable situation, which has been key to its success.
"We know we're going to be in Bathurst, we know how to operate it and there's more clarity I think in what we're doing every year because we're now a team that knows exactly where we're going to be and it makes a difference for sure," he said.
"There's no more talk about moving or anything like that."
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Ryan McKenna, The Canadian Press