by Tom Witosky || AHL On The Beat Archive
Raphael Bussieres knows the day will come when he gets the call to the National Hockey League, but also understands that it likely won’t be tomorrow.
“I still have a lot to learn,” the 20-year-old Iowa Wild forward said. “There are a lot of things that I need to improve, but I am making progress every day.”
Bussieres, the youngest player on the Iowa Wild roster, is one of three rookie forwards to make the Wild roster out of junior hockey or college. The other two are forward Erik Haula, now with the Minnesota Wild, and Bussieres’ roommate in Des Moines, Tyler Graovac.
The Longueuil, Que., native began his Wild career this year after four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League where he began play at age 15 with Moncton, but was traded that year to Baie-Comeau. It was at that point, the 6-foot, 1-inch and 195-pound forward said, that he understood he could play professional hockey.
“I had always loved playing hockey and hoped I would be able to play professional hockey,” he said. “But when I was drafted, I knew I could make a living at it.”
Two years later, Minnesota Wild scouts, impressed with his size, skating ability and physical play, agreed by drafting him in the second round with the 46th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry draft. Last year, Bussieres signed a three-year entry-level contract.
Bussieres attended the draft that day with his parents and friends. When he heard his name called in the second round, it took Bussieres by surprise.
“I had talked to Minnesota a couple of times before the draft and they had indicated they were very interested in me,” Bussieres said. “I didn’t think I had much of a chance to go in the first round, but I started listening much closer when the second round started. When I heard my name announced, I was surprised that they picked me.”
Bussieres acknowledged that Minnesota’s decision to draft him spurred him to take his game more seriously and to improve it while still playing junior hockey. The result was a season in which he scored 29 goals and had 39 assists for 68 points in 60 games as well as 16 points in 19 playoff games helping Baie-Comeau to the QMJHL finals.
“It is my life now,” said Bussieres, who speaks with a French-Canadian accent and has taught himself to speak English as part of becoming a professional hockey player. Bussieres said that learning to speak English had a lot to do with playing for Minnesota and in the U.S.
Kurt Kleinendorst, the Iowa Wild head coach, said that Bussieres has made significant strides in his game both on and off the ice,
“He has come along well, but he is a work in progress for sure,” Kleinendorst said. “He has made a lot of progress in a short period.”
On the ice, Bussieres is in the process of learning the Minnesota Wild system, which demands excellent puck management in both the defensive and offensive end as well as good positioning on both ends of the ice.
Early on, Bussieres displayed some confusion on the ice as well as a lack of confidence, but that has changed dramatically. But, his first professional goal came early in the season – a difficult shot from a face-off circle to left of the goal in a game against Chicago in October.
“The puck came to me off of a faceoff and I looked up and saw small opening at the goal,” he said. “So I took a slap shot and it went. I was a little bit surprised, but really happy.”
Bussieres has earned himself getting substantially more minutes on the ice and in the last 16 games scored three goals and doubled his numbers of assists. He is improving his work in the corners both on defense and offense.
“There is no doubt I have to improve my game without the puck as well as when I have it,” he said.
Kleinendorst said that adjustment to the Wild process takes a while for young players, particularly for players out of certain junior leagues.
“The Quebec League is a very good league, but they play a much looser brand of hockey than most leagues,” Kleinendorst said. “When it comes to structured play, it sometimes takes a lot more work to get guys from that league to adapt to the system play.”
Off the ice, Kleinendorst said that Bussieres has adopted an excellent approach to becoming a pro hockey player.
“For a young kid, I like a lot of what I see in him away from the ice,” he said. “He takes good care of himself. He is in the gym and when he has an injury he gets on top of it as quickly as he can. For a young kid, he is pretty impressive.”
Bussieres said that one big advantage has been playing with veterans like Jake Dowell and Warren Peters. He said that those veterans should be credited with turning the club around this season, becoming a playoff contender.
“The guys are older and they have a lot of experience in the pro game,” Bussieres said. “You look up to them and their leadership and learn about the game from them.”
Part of learning about the game is accepting the fact that there is a lot to learn, he said.
“The speed and the size are just so different,” Bussieres said. “The guys are just bigger and faster. It’s like you are beginning in juniors again.”
Bussieres also said that he has had to learn quickly how to take care of himself. “I have to do the grocery shopping, the laundry, the cleaning of my apartment, so that has been something I have learned,” Bussieres said.
Bussieres said that he and Graovac rent an apartment in downtown Des Moines, which makes it easy to get to work.
“I like Des Moines. It is not a big town, but it certainly is a good place to live,” he said.
How much longer he will remain in Des Moines playing for Iowa is a question that Bussieres says simply depends on his development.
“No timetable. Just training and working out. The call is going to come when the call comes,” he said.