A hall of fame effort

by Gary Francoeur

Ray Lalonde, BEd'86, in the new Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame (Photo by Allen McInnis)

Jean-François Mayer studies the tattered jersey that Maurice Richard sported during the Montreal Canadiens’ 1947-48 hockey season. It is his first visit to the team’s pristine new Hall of Fame and he is visibly awestruck by the game-worn garb. “It’s really amazing,” he says, shifting his gaze to a battle-scarred goalie mask once worn by Jacques Plante and a National Hockey League contract the netminder signed in 1953 (he was paid $6,000 that season).

As a lifelong Habs fan, Jean-François has reason to be excited. In fact, he has nearly 1,000 reasons – that’s how many pucks, sticks, skates, hockey cards and other prized mementoes from the franchise’s first 100 seasons that are on display at the hall. There’s even a replica of a rail coach depicting how players used to travel to opposing cities, and a number of interactive displays, including one that allows visitors to ask questions to legendary captain Jean Béliveau, who appears on screen.

Located downstairs in the Bell Centre, the new hockey shrine is the brainchild of Ray Lalonde, BEd’86, the Canadiens’ vice president for marketing and sales. Lalonde invested countless hours over the last three years to create this permanent legacy, including making information-gathering visits to more than 15 arenas, sports shrines and museums across North America. “With so many great accomplishments and legendary moments over the team’s history, it was only natural for us to create a place where fans can really share in those milestones,” he says.

Though demanding, the project was a labour of love for Lalonde, who has always been passionate about sports. He grew up in Trois-Rivières, 140 kilometres northeast of Montreal, and like many boys, dreamed of lacing up his skates for the bleu-blanc-rouge. He played sports through high school and CEGEP, and he brought that same zeal to McGill, where he diligently balanced his studies with playing football for the Redmen.

After flirting with a career as a teacher, Lalonde enrolled at Penn State University to pursue a master’s degree in sports administration. When not in class or studying, he could usually be found on the football field serving as an assistant coach for the legendary Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions.

His first big break after graduation came in 1991 when he was hired as director of football operations for the Montreal Machine of the World League of American Football. When the league folded two years later, he signed on to serve as the National Basketball Association’s marketing man in Europe, working eight years to expand the league’s footprint on that continent.

Upon his return to North America, Lalonde learned of a job opening with the Canadiens and promptly contacted the team to offer his services. “Having the opportunity to work for the team you cheered for as a child has been a unique privilege and an honour,” he says. “It’s the next best thing than actually being on the ice.”

Though Lalonde might not be able to skate with the pros, he’s arguably as important to the organization as anyone on the team. He has devised three highly successful marketing campaigns – La ville est hockey, L’histoire se joue ici, and more recently, Nous sommes Canadiens – which were intended to make one of the oldest brands in professional sports more appealing to a younger demographic; he helped establish a family zone section at the Bell Centre to make it more affordable for families to see live hockey; and he brought in Youppi!, the beloved orange-furred lucky charm of the Montreal Expos, to serve as the Canadiens’ mascot.

“Most kids today aren’t familiar with Serge Savard or Guy Lafleur, and they don’t relate to the Canadiens dynasties from the fifties, sixties and seventies,” he says. “Our goal was to rejuvenate our fan base and really target younger people who now have so many entertainment options available to them.”

Now in his ninth year with the Canadiens, Lalonde is proud of what he and his team have accomplished in establishing the new hall, which provided the finishing touch to the team’s recent centennial celebrations. “We’ve created a space that bridges the gap between the past and the present, and that will hopefully revive some pleasant memories for fans,” he says.

For Jean-François, the diehard Habs enthusiast, it’s been a job well done. “Some of my best memories as a kid were of going with my father to games at the Forum,” he says. “Being able to come here and relive those times is special.”