Former number-one pick ready to play

by Ken Cail

Alexandre Daigle scored the game-winning goal for the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 26 against the Nashville Predators. For the 31-year-old Daigle, it was career goal number 129 in the National Hockey League and his last for the Wild, at least for this season.

The first-overall pick in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft would go on to play four more games with the Wild and pick up a pair of assists before being assigned to Minnesota’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Houston Aeros. Daigle would never play for the Aeros, as he was the victim of a “numbers” situation in Houston where the Aeros already had more than their quota of veterans on their roster.

On Mar. 13, the Minnesota organization loaned Daigle to the Manchester Monarchs in exchange for forward Brendan Bernakevitch. Daigle made his Manchester debut at the Verizon Wireless Arena on Mar. 15 against the Iowa Stars. It was his first professional hockey game since Feb. 9, when he suited up for the final time for the Wild. In his first game as a Monarch, Daigle scored both goals in Manchester’s 5-2 loss.

Daigle first came to the attention of the hockey world in the early 1990’s when, as a teenager, he put up huge numbers for the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Wanting to make him the cornerstone of their new franchise, the Ottawa Senators selected Daigle first overall in the 1993 draft.

The 18-year-old Daigle joined the Senators in their second year of existence (1993-94). As an expansion team in 1992-93, Ottawa posted only 10 wins in 84 games, the lowest win total in NHL history. Paired with Alexei Yashin, the second pick overall in the 1992 draft, Daigle was looked upon by many as the savior of a team that was re-writing the record books in a very negative way. Was there too much early pressure on Daigle?

“Ottawa was a new team when I came in and it was the worst franchise in history,” said Daigle. “The rules for the expansion draft were much different than they are today. Back then, you could protect two goalies, six defensemen and 12 forwards. So you’re going to wind up with minor-league players.

“It put pressure on a guy like me and Yashin and it was unrealistic. It took five or six years to put a winner on the ice,” he explained. “When Jacques Martin arrived, they drafted really well, they made some good trades as well and now they have one of the better teams in the league. It took a while.

“It would’ve been nice to be drafted four years ago, but it’s the cards you’re dealt. A lot of good things happened to me in my personal life and I wouldn’t change it.”

After bouncing around a bit from Ottawa to Philadelphia to Tampa Bay to the New York Rangers, Daigle decided it was time for a break.

“I stopped playing in 2000 after seven professional years. I didn’t feel good about hockey and I didn’t feel good about the life I was leading,” said Daigle. “I just went away. I think it was the best thing I did.

“I didn’t know if I was going to come back. I was playing with no passion and playing just because of the paycheck. After almost two years away from the game, I decided to return, the passion was back and it turned out to be a good decision,” Daigle said.

“During the time I was away from the game (2000-02), I traveled a lot,” he continued. “I think that’s one thing about players and young athletes that a lot of people don’t realize, we never did anything else but play hockey. I wanted to spend my money and see other things and that’s what I did for a year and a half. After that, I started training and came back.

“I missed the game. I did it all my life. You miss the atmosphere of being around 20-something guys. That’s why people don’t stop working. You want to be around people. It’s boring being at home by yourself and traveling by yourself, it’s a lonely life. I was able to come back to that kind of atmosphere and you can only do it for so long.”

There were a number of occasions before his self-imposed exile that Daigle was ambivalent about the game.

“There were times before I took a break that I was just going through the motions,” said Daigle. “Everyone knows you have to train for 12 months a year and I did it for 15 years and thought, ‘This isn’t what I want.’

“Then you have to think about it and discover the reasons you want to go back. I have more passion for the game now. I’m sure six or seven years ago, if I was sent to the [AHL], it would have been much tougher. My spirits would have been down and my pride and ego damaged, but its hockey and you do what you have to do. A lot of people would like to be in my position right now.”

Daigle has made it clear to everyone that his priority is to return to the NHL next season.

“I think I have some good years ahead of me,” said the veteran of 616 NHL games. “Athletes today are playing longer. I don’t know if it’s the quality of the food or the training we’re getting. If I can play another four, five or six years, it would be great. I’m still in hockey, I can still make a contribution and I’m healthy. Hockey’s been good to me.”

There have been reports over the years linking Daigle romantically to several high-profile show business celebrities, but it’s not something he cares to talk about.

“I’m in a committed relationship right now and I’d love to have kids in a few years,” Daigle explained. “I think that’s the point of life. I grew up in a somewhat large family and it makes it fun at Christmas.”

Christmas could come early for Daigle if he finds himself on an NHL roster come October.