Marc Lafleur is returning to where it all began as he was named head coach and general manager of his hometown Hearst Lumberjacks on Friday.
Among all the excitement surrounding the team's hire of one of the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League's premier bench bosses, it was clearly difficult for Lafleur to part ways with Kirkland Lake where he coached the Gold Miners for the past five seasons.
“You know what, people are talking about going home, and yes, that's great,” said Lafleur on Friday. “It is a tough decision though. Kirkland Lake, over the last five years, has been great to us. Working for these guys here really made it easy for a guy in my position.
“But ultimately, in our profession, it doesn't happen often that we get to go back home and lead the way, so that was something that was very important to me, to get that opportunity that many coaches do not get to have.”
Lafleur started his coaching career with the midget 'AA' Hearst Élans, where he led the team to four titles in a row before moving on to join the staff of the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL as assistant coach from 2010-12.
“I hope to have the same type of success (as we did with the Élans),” he said with a chuckle. “But I mean, we've got to be realistic about it. We're just going to take it month by month, day by day, especially in the summer time in terms of recruiting.”
As Lafleur noted, anyone who knows him would agree it would be an unthinkable stretch for the coach to go somewhere he didn't believe he had a chance to win.
“There's going to be a standard in Hearst, a high standard of play but also of work ethic,” said Lafleur. “Ultimately, my goal and the organization's goal is to win. And when I say win, we're not talking three or four years down the road.
“You play to win today and there will be no difference when we start in Hearst.”
The Lumberjacks came into existence last month when it was announced the franchise would be leaving Iroquois Falls, where it was known as the Eskis, to begin play in Hearst in 2017-18.
Lafleur said he'll get to work in the coming days contacting veterans from last year's Eskis squad to introduce himself and see who plans on following the franchise 260 km up Hwy. 11 to Hearst next season.
Lafleur was named NOJHL Coach of the Year for the 2012-13 season and served as an assistant coach for Team Canada East for four consecutive years at the World Jr. 'A' Challenge.
He was also head coach for Team NOJHL at the 2013 Central Canada Cup Challenge, served as a guest coach for Hockey Canada's 2016-2017 U17 Summer Orientation Camp and was selected to take part in Hockey Canada's Program of Excellence
Lafleur earned his Master's from Bemidji State University and had an eight-year teaching career before turning his focus to coaching.
Looking back on his five years in Kirkland Lake, Lafleur fondly remembers the town hosting last year's Dudley-Hewitt Cup tournament. His greatest memory is lifting the NOJHL championship grail, the Copeland Cup – McNamara Trophy, with the Gold Miners back in 2014.
But he went even a step further.
“Many people forget this, but we also won the Kirkland Lake Citizens of the Year here in town, which we were the first sports team to ever have been selected for that,” added Lafleur. “For me, that was extremely important. This is an off-ice achievement that people often don't look at.
“Of course, winning the championship was also important. I do have one regret, and my one regret is only bringing one championship to Kirkland Lake. We came close a couple more times in the finals, a semi-final berth at the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, but not bringing more championships here is a regret.”
When it comes to recruiting players, the Lumberjacks' multiple tributes to Claude Giroux in the team's crest and uniform scheme and the NHL star's involvement in the franchise as an advisor certainly won't hurt in that department.
Lafleur said it won't be long before Hearst's hockey-mad reputation spreads throughout the junior ranks.
“Again, this is just proof as to what kind of hockey community Hearst is,” he noted. “It is a hockey-mad community.
“You see it in Western Canada where the small communities really embrace Tier 2 hockey, and you're going to see the exact same atmosphere in Hearst, there's no doubt about it. It's a smaller community compared to Timmins, but it's a huge hockey town, and just the logo in itself, there's a lot of dedication put in it in terms of symbolism. There's a dedication as well to Claude Giroux for being able to make this happen.”
When he first heard confirmation that Hearst was getting its NOJHL club, Lafleur revealed his first thought wasn't about returning to his hometown to coach.
Rather, it was a sense of joy for the community as a whole, one he believed was long overdue.
“The atmosphere over there will be mad, and apparently from what I'm being told right now, it's absolutely crazy for the Lumberjacks,” he said with a smile. “It starts with upper-management, and it also starts with the fans and enthusiasm around the community, and there won't be a better place in the league when it comes to that.”