A quick glance at the AHL standings from 1993-94 shows an entire division of teams based on the East Coast of Canada. The St. John's Maple Leafs, Saint John Flames, Moncton Hawks, PEI Senators, Cape Breton Oilers and Fredericton Canadiens all represented Atlantic Canada, and as such, the territory was off-limits to the Q. However, the biggest city in the region, Halifax, had lost the Citadels the year before to apathetic crowds at the giant Metro Centre. The AHL had failed there, and likely wasn't coming back, but at the same time, a giant Canadian city with no local hockey team is like Don Cherry without plaid - hard to imagine. A local ownership group led by Moosehead Breweries politely made enquiries with the Q - would the league consider expanding to Halifax? The issue was debated hotly - it's worth noting that at the time, the closest drive to Halifax from another league city was essentially a full day away - but the lure of a deep-pocketed owner in a big city willing to subsidize the Quebec teams' travel costs was too much to resist, and thus were the Halifax Mooseheads born. This wasn't just a watershed for the league in terms of expanding the Q's footprint and marketing and profile, but also in getting young Atlantic talent to report.
Before 1994, Atlantic Canadians had the option of playing in whatever of the three junior leagues they pleased. Almost none chose the Q. Prior to 1994, there were no support services in place for English-speaking kids - coaches spoke in French to the players, the high schools were entirely French-language outside of bilingual regions like Montreal and Hull, and French was spoken in the houses of the billets. With no assistance available from the league or the teams to adjust a young Nova Scotian or Newfoundlander to day-to-day life in Quebec, what incentive was there for them to play in the Q? The top talents, such as Cape Bretoner Al MacInnis, generally chose to play in the OHL. The marginal talents often saw their development slow down as a result of playing in the junior B Maritime Junior A League, a factor which helps to explain why so few Atlantic Canadians made an impact in the NHL prior to the 1990's. But everything changed with the addition of the Mooseheads. A large, powerful, rich, and English-speaking ownership group forced change; forced the Quebec teams to begin to support their young Anglo talents both on and off the ice. English-speaking coaches and interpreters were hired and day-to-day life all of a sudden became possible in the heart of Quebec for these young Anglos, which started to trickle into the league. The trickle would soon become a flood, as the next year, Moncton joined the Q with the addition of the Alpines, playing out of Moncton Coliseum. The Q suddenly had the rights to all Nova Scotia and New Brunswick-born juniors, and it chose, fortunately, to support them.
Closer to the heartland, 1994 also witnessed the merger of the Verdun Collège Français and the Laval Titan; the new team would briefly be known as the Laval Titan Collège Français. The next season, another new, far-flung outpost that would become synonymous with the success of the new Q joined up, as the St-Jean Lynx moved to the Colisée de Rimouski and became the Océanic. Meanwhile, after a disastrous first season, the Alpines were sold to oil baron Robert Irving, who renamed them the Moncton Wildcats and began to build them into the junior hockey powerhouse that they remain today.
The New Q finally had its coming-out party in 1996. The Memorial Cup was held that year in Peterborough, Ontario, and the home crowd went home disappointed as the Granby Prédateurs - having been renamed the previous year from the Bisons - took home junior hockey's biggest prize. It was the first time in fifteen years that a Q team won the Cup, and the first time for a team from the province of Quebec in twenty-five. The league's expansion had continued that year too, as the St-Hyacinthe Laser moved even farther to the remote frontiers of the province, taking up residence as the Huskies at the Arena Dave Keon in Rouyn-Noranda, a tiny mining town closer to the Ontario border than to its closest Q rival in Val-d'Or.
The following year, 1997, the exodus into the collapsing remnants of the AHL in Atlantic Canada continued, as the same Granby Prédateurs vacated southern Quebec for distant Cape Breton Island, becoming the Screaming Eagles and playing in downtown Sydney at Centre 200. Also at that time, with the NHL having vacated Quebec City for Denver, the Beauport Harfangs resurrected the old Remparts name, moving to PEPS on the campus of the Université Laval. Within two years they would be back at their proper home, the Colisée. 1997 would also continue the good fortune of the Q at the Memorial Cup, as the Hull Olympiques took home the big prize for the first time in their history.
In 1998, the league continued expanding farther and farther away from the Montreal-Quebec corridor, as the tiny north shore pulp and paper town of Baie-Comeau was granted an expansion franchise, the Drakkar (Viking ship), playing out of the Centre Henry-Leonard. 1998 also witnessed the Ice Storm of the Century, and the Drummondville Voltigeurs were forced to spend a month playing their home dates out of the Stade de la Cité des Jeunes in distant Rivière-du-Loup while power was restored back home. Also that year, the league left Laval after a spectacularly successful twenty-five year run there, with the Titan uprooting and moving on to the heart of Acadia - Bathurst, New Brunswick. The Acadie-Bathurst Titan would play out of the K.C. Irving Regional Centre. For the first time, the Montreal region was without a Q team, but the situation wouldn't last, as 1999 witnessed the birth of the Montreal Rocket, conceived as a tribute to Maurice Richard and playing out of the (where else?) Maurice Richard Arena.
With the turn of the new millennium, two things that the Q of the 1980's and early 1990's had been missing were finally in place - stability and success. The Rimouski Océanic won the Q's third Memorial Cup in five years in 2000, and from 1999 to 2003 no franchise moves were made at all, although the Montreal Rocket did move in 2001 to the Bell Centre downtown. In 2003, the Sherbrooke Castors moved into the United States for the second time in league history, and this time made it stick as the Lewiston MAINEiacs, who played at the Central Maine Civic Center. At the same time, the Montreal Rocket gave up on the Q's dream of having a team in downtown Montreal, leaving the sub-1,000 attendances in the cavernous Bell Centre and moving to the Charlottetown Civic Centre to become the PEI Rocket. Also that year, municipal amalgamation in Quebec pushed the cities of Hull, Aylmer and Gatineau together into one city; the Hull Olympiques thus became the Gatineau Olympiques without moving a foot.
The league's aggressive expansion into Atlantic Canada continued in 2005. Two cities named for St. John the Baptist, two new, beautiful buildings, and two willing ownership groups combined for two new teams. The Saint John Sea Dogs were founded in southern New Brunswick, playing out of Harbour Station, the palatial building constructed for the AHL Flames a decade before. Meanwhile, in spite of good fan support, the economic realities of being completely isolated from the rest of the AHL finally caught up to the much-loved St. John's Maple Leafs, who were ushered out of Newfoundland, practically bumping into the incoming moving trucks at Mile One Stadium as the new St. John's Fog Devils moved in. For the first time, the CHL had a presence in every province in Canada.
Unfortunately, it would last a mere three seasons. The Q's arrangement with the Fog Devils' owners was such that the Newfoundland team had to pay 100% of the costs of the visiting teams coming in, from flights to hotels. In addition, St. John's insular and ridiculous city council, who had been beaten out in the bidding for a franchise by helicopter millionaires the Dobbin family, was doing everything they could to make life miserable for the Q team, including a lease widely viewed as the worst in the CHL. In spite of an average attendance over 3,500, the Dobbins were losing money hand-over-fist and sold out in early 2008 to a Montreal businessman. The Devils moved to the Verdun Auditorium for 2008-09, as the Q resumed throwing itself against a brick wall trying to sell junior hockey in Montreal. And finally, in December of 2008, the Cataractes finally closed the ancient Jacques-Plante Arena and moved into their new home, the Shawinigan Amphitheatre.
Change in the Q is an ever-constant, and has continued well into the second decade of the new millennium. In the summer of 2011, the Lewiston Maineiacs officially folded, and the team was semi-reincarnated with different players in 2011-12 back in the Sherbrooke Palais des Sports as the Sherbrooke Phoenix. Meanwhile, the lure of a wonderful lease drew the Montreal Juniors north into the sprawling Laurentian suburbs of the city, where they became the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, playing out of the Centre d'Éxcellence Sports Rousseau. In 2013, the PEI Rocket were sold from the Montreal-based businessmen who had owned the team since their inception to a group of local investors, and were finally given a "made at home" name - they were renamed to the Charlottetown Islanders. And in 2015, Quebec City's NHL pipe dream resulted in a new NHL-ready arena being constructed, and the Remparts moved into the Videotron Centre. Six years later, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gatineau closed Robert Guertin Arena and the Olympiques moved into the new Centre Slush Puppie.
And so it goes. The influx of talented Maritimers and Newfoundlanders continues to change the Q, and the defenseless goalfests of the 80's are but a distant memory to anyone who's been paying attention. While there are still some ignorant people across Canada with their head in the sand about the changes that the Q has made over the past decade and a half, the style and quality of play in today's Q is practically indistinguishable from that of the OHL or WHL. The league today is made up of 18 teams stretching from the Ontario border at Rouyn-Noranda and Gatineau to the farthest outpost of mainland Canada on the Atlantic coast at Cape Breton.
What does the future hold? The city of Trois-Rivières built a new arena in 2021 in hopes of luring a Q team back to town, but ultimately wound up with the Montreal Canadiens' ECHL affiliate instead. A team in Fredericton would complete the list of former AHL cities on the East Coast as well. And in spite of the problems in St. John's, the team was still drawing well - more favourable expansion conditions next time around might make another go worthwhile. But when it comes down to it, the QMJHL today is a sprawling, bilingual, high-quality league unrecognizable from the insular goalfest it was in the 1980's. Long may the Q's successes continue.