by Brian McCormack | AHL On The Beat
Hockey fans who are well-versed in the NHL career of San Antonio Rampage assistant coach J.J. Daigneault can rattle off many of the highlights.
Daigneault won a Stanley Cup with his hometown Montreal Canadiens in 1993, and he scored one of the most memorable goals in Philadelphia Flyers history in Game 6 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Final. Yet on Wednesday, Daigneault will travel to Quebec City to commemorate one of the earlier and briefer chapters of his career, one that laid the foundation for the rest of his hockey tale.
Daigneault will be inducted into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Hall of Fame on April 3 as part of the league’s 50th anniversary celebration. The festivities will highlight the top 50 players in the junior league’s history, players like Sidney Crosby, Mike Bossy and Raymond Bourque. Then Daigneault and the four other members of the 2019 QMJHL Hall of Fame class — Francois Allaire, Stephane Fiset, Bob Murray and Mario Tremblay — will be recognized among the best the QMJHL has ever developed.
“It’s fun for me to get into the Hall of Fame on the anniversary knowing that all these players will be there that impacted me,” said Daigneault, now in his first year with the San Antonio Rampage and his 14th year coaching.
“A lot of the older players that were my predecessors, that I went and watched when I was 12 years old and impacted me, will be there. I’m really moved, and it’s something I never really would have thought of.”
Daigneault received a phone call from QMJHL President Gilles Courteau earlier this season with the news that he would be recognized. It is an honor Daigneault never anticipated.
“I didn’t play much in the Quebec League,” said Daigneault. “There are a lot of players who play four or five years in the league and pick up a lot of points, but I only played two.”
Daigneault appeared in 144 games in the QMJHL, starting his junior career in 1981-82 with the Laval Voisins and posting four goals and 29 points in 64 games.
“It was a great league for me to play in. I started when I was 15, and then I turned 16 in October after a good 10 games. It’s very young to be 15 and playing against guys who are 20 years old,” said Daigneault.
“And back then I was 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds. I remember my general manager said to my parents, ‘We’re going to keep J.J. but there are some places on the road like Three Rivers and Shawinigan where they have big physical teams and we’re not going to play him. We’ll bring him along slowly.’ Then I remember we went to Shawinigan for the first game and, sure enough, I’m in the lineup!”
Following a strong first season, Daigneault would be forced to deal with a change of scenery that was not planned.
“I started my junior career at 16 years old with Laval and Mario Lemieux. Following that year, there was an expansion draft with Longueuil and Drummondville. With Laval having some good young defensemen, they chose not to protect me and I ended up in Longueuil.”
Daigneault made Laval regret their decision that season. He posted 26 goals and 84 points in 70 games to win the Emile Bouchard Trophy as Defenseman of the Year, leading the Longueuil Chevaliers to the first of two consecutive Presidents Cup Final appearances.
In addition to his own talent on the ice, Daigneault also had the opportunity in 1982-83 to play for a rookie head coach named Jacques Lemaire, who would go on to win three Stanley Cups as a coach in the NHL and win two Jack Adams Awards.
“Jacques was an excellent coach. Obviously I wasn’t very happy about not being protected by Laval, but it was a great opportunity to play for such a great coach, who probably had the biggest impact on me developing my basic fundamental skills and teaching me to how to manage a hockey game,” said Daigneault.
“Jacques Lemaire played 800 games in the NHL, but he also became an unbelievable coach in the NHL. You could tell that he had a great hockey mind. Not only was he good with systems, but he was also good at teaching individually. It’s probably something I needed at that age, and it probably propelled me to the next level.”
In total, Daigneault would tally 32 goals and 126 points in the QMJHL before leaving for the Canadian Olympic program, and ultimately the NHL.
To be inducted into the QMJHL Hall of Fame is an honor that focuses squarely on a player’s performance in the league, regardless of whatever success a player had before or after they played their junior hockey. With that in mind, as Daigneault reflects on the honor it will be a nostalgia trip back to his formative teen years.
“I think those are the most important years in a young player’s career. It’s incredible for a young kid who wants to learn. There’s not only a lot to learn from playing but from people around you. If you want to be a sponge and absorb things you’ll take with you throughout your career, it’s possible to do so.”
That absorption began not in his rookie season, but years earlier. At the age of 12, Daigneault was a fan of the QMJHL, in the stands cheering on his brother.
“The thing I learned from my brother was about discipline. When I was 16 years old, my brother told me, ‘Talent is not the only thing. You’ll need to be disciplined if you ever want to take this to another level.’
“It was a strong message, not from a coach or from making your own mistakes, but from my brother who had been there before and made his mistakes and seen others make their mistakes. It was a powerful message to relay to his younger brother.”
That’s a level of discipline that Daigneault still maintains as a teacher in San Antonio, molding the next generation of defensemen for the St. Louis Blues. At 53 years old, there is still plenty of Daigneault’s hockey story still to be written. But for one day, he’ll enjoy flipping back to the earlier pages.
“I have to take myself back 35 years, and I might as well go back 45 years to when I was a young kid growing up playing street hockey in Montreal. I’m a forward-thinking guy and I don’t often look back, but now since I’m given the opportunity, it’s special to look back and think about the impact I had on the QMJHL and my youth in Montreal.”
Though his time in the league was brief, Daigneault’s footprint on the QMJHL was a large one and its impact on him perhaps larger. It’s a chapter that he may not have time to read in full.
“There are so many stories that I could probably go up on the podium and speak for 15 minutes, but I’m only given five,” he said with a smile.
“I’ll keep it short.”