📝 by Paige Burnell | AHL On The Beat
In the world of hockey, Joel Bouchard has done it all. He’s been a player, a coach and a general manager.
Bouchard already has a hockey-career hat trick, which poses the question — what keeps him hungry for more?
The answer is simple: he wants to leave his mark on the future of hockey by teaching the next generation of players to be the optimal versions of themselves.
Presently, he’s in the process of doing that for the San Diego Gulls.
“My job is… how can we get our player to be the better version of himself?” Bouchard said. “If everybody is a little bit better every day, then we’re all going to get better. And it starts with me. I really believe in process, I believe in doing things the right way, working together, and (being) as good as I can be. That’s my job to push myself. So really after that everything takes care of itself. The priority’s on the player, it’s not on me. Like I always say, it’s never going to be about me. I don’t play anymore. It’s about the player holding the stick.”
Through its American Hockey League affiliate, the Anaheim Ducks set the standard for the development of young hockey talent.
Players like Jamie Drysdale, Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras and Simon Benoit are currently contributing to a strong start for the Ducks, and all were drafted, developed through the Gulls and elevated to the NHL club.
Anaheim wants more of this and they know Bouchard gets results.
Before Bouchard joined the organization, he was the head coach for the Montreal Canadiens’ AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket, and earned a record of 83-67-14-10 over the course of three seasons.
In the 2020-21 season, the Canadiens made an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final and leading the charge was the young talent the Canadiens brought up from Laval.
“I just really like the connection and the challenge with the Ducks,” Bouchard said. “It came out of left field. We had a great ride with the Habs. I’m very proud of our young players… It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was something that was exciting to me. With the Montreal Canadiens, with the Ducks, with every other organization, every time there’s a challenge I raise my arm ready to take it.”
The incredible work Bouchard did with Laval isn’t the only notable example of player development on his resume. Prior to his time there, he was the general manager of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League from 2011-18, as well as their head coach from 2014-18.
“It’s huge,” Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins said. “When you’re doing what we’re doing as an organization, the development part is massive. Joel’s done a great job before arriving here… I’m excited to have Joel here. Our young players are in very good hands.”
The reason these players make such significant contributions is because Bouchard doesn’t group them together with a one-size-fits-all philosophy.
“It’s that partnership one-on-one with a structure, obviously, and a style of play, but how can we push our player to be the best version of himself day in day out, shift in shift out?” Bouchard said. “So when that call comes, their boxes are checked and they’re ready to go. That’s my responsibility.”
Bouchard works with his players on an individual level, giving each one his time with a dedicated and meticulous approach.
Daniel Jacob, a Gulls assistant coach, was also an assistant coach for Bouchard in Laval and with Blainville-Boisbriand. He saw what Bouchard does for his players on an individual level in multiple capacities, as well as the lists of accomplishments those players go on to make.
“He’s a detail-oriented coach too,” Jacob said. “He spends so much time watching games, watching clips, but also looking at details, the details of the game. He takes the time to teach — he explains the whys, the how and the what, too — so I think the guys enjoy that and they see that it’s working. It’s a good recipe.”
Not only does Bouchard exercise patience in teaching his players, but he’s also been in the exact same position they are currently in.
Bouchard was drafted in the sixth round by the Calgary Flames in 1992. He played in 364 NHL games over the course of his career from 1994 to 2006. Moreover, the former defenseman crafted an impressive AHL career, amassing a total of 145 points over 293 games and earning AHL All-Star recognition in both 1994-95 and 1995-96.
“It helps a lot. I mean they’ve played the game, they know how it goes,” Gulls defenseman Nikolas Brouillard said. “They can put themselves in our situations too sometimes, which is really good for us. It’s been helping us a lot, and this year, for Joel too, it just pushed us in a good way. I feel like he brings a little more maturity to our group too so I like that.”
The growth of every single player on the Gulls is Bouchard’s responsibility and he knows to facilitate that, he must push them past their comfort zones through intensive practices and hard work.
“They’ve been good,” Bouchard said. “Pro athletes are unbelievable; they’re good guys and again, I’m a coach that needs to push players so they get better. To get better, you’ve got to be out of your comfort zone as a coach and as a player… it’s going to be a process.”
The Gulls have bought into this process and if they follow through, the winning will come simply as a by-product, just as it did in the past for Bouchard.
Last season with Laval, Bouchard and his team earned the Frank S. Mathers Trophy for winning the AHL’s Canadian Division with a 23-9-3-1 record. The team’s .694 points percentage was also the second-highest in the AHL.
Additionally, Bouchard posted a 160-80-32-9 overall record with Blainville-Boisbriand and took the team to consecutive QMJHL President Cup Final appearances in 2017 and 2018.
“He really wants us to push hard and he wants us to do well so he’s really working with us,” Brouillard said. “I feel like he has a lot of input on what to do offensively, defensively — little details that sometimes you don’t hear a lot. He’s pinpointing every little detail and I think that’s helped us in a good way.”
The Gulls are just embarking on their season, but the team is already seeing an improvement in results as they progress through Bouchard’s process. San Diego is currently riding a five-game winning streak that began on Nov. 13. The team charged its way from last in the AHL Pacific Division to third place over the span of their consecutive victories.
On an individual player level, Gulls right wing Jacob Perreault posted a career-high eight-game point streak (Oct. 29 to Nov. 19), over which he collected six goals and seven assists. Perreault is the youngest Gull to establish a point streak of that magnitude.
Brouillard established a career-high five-game point streak, collecting two goals and six assists from Nov. 13 to Nov. 26. The St. Hilaire, Que., native also led AHL defensemen in scoring during the month of November with 12 points (3g, 9a).
Brayden Tracey was named AHL Player of the week on Nov. 29 following the rookie’s three consecutive multi-point games, during which he collected three goals and four assists and brought his plus/minus rating to a team-leading plus-10.
“My job is to push them to be NHL players and some of them are trending the right way and some of them are very close, which is exciting,” Bouchard said. “Again, it’s to make sure we push them so they become the best versions of themselves, they become a 2.0 of themselves and then a 3.0. That’s why good players in the NHL are better now than they were four or five years ago… they are reinventing themselves, they’re pushing themselves to be better. Somebody that flatlines it, they’re going to go down, everybody is going to pass you.”
Bouchard is determined to ensure none of his players are passed on their hockey journeys and are on the path to long-term success. Even after that occurs, the knowledge he has imparted on the Gulls will benefit each player now and well after they leave their coach’s charge.