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Photo: Scott Thomas

The French Connection

by Megan Cahill | AHL On The Beat

For many players, the first taste of professional hockey comes in the American Hockey League. The league develops young talent and prepares them in hopes of a career in the National Hockey League. Part of this is learning how to be a professional not only on, but off the ice.

Alex Barre-Boulet spent four seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before being signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning as an undrafted free agent last March. After training camp, Barre-Boulet was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch to begin his pro career.

Not knowing anyone, Barre-Boulet quickly connected with fellow Quebec natives Gabriel Dumont and Hubert Labrie.

“It was easy to talk with them at the beginning of the year because they were speaking my language,” said Barre-Boulet of his fellow French-Canadian teammates. “It’s easier than going in there and talking to someone you don’t know who’s not from the same place as you. We had good chemistry from the start.”

Once the season gets going, teams become tight-knit. Players spend hours together at practice, on the road, outside the rink. Everyone builds relationships. Veterans play an important role in shaping that culture.

“When you look at our group of veterans, I think that they mesh pretty well with our younger guys,” said Crunch head coach Ben Groulx.

Photo: Scott Thomas

 

To help foster off-ice friendships, Crunch assistant coach Ken Klee introduced darts and ping-pong tournaments at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. Brackets line the player lounge with photos of the reigning champions.

“We wanted to create an environment where guys want to come for the work, but also, it’s a job, so it’s nice to have something else where they can compete,” said Klee. “They can have some fun and they can get their picture up on the wall. They can bust each other’s chops and it’s not all about hockey.”

For Dumont and Barre-Boulet, the ping-pong tournament tapped into their competitive nature.

“We just started playing ping-pong at the beginning of the year and then it became a day-to-day thing,” said Dumont. “It’s pretty intense, we don’t like to lose. It’s a way to relieve stress and just have fun.”

“It started at the beginning of the year when we were playing ping-pong for fun and he started beating me and I got mad,” said Barre-Boulet. “We play ping-pong every day. On the bus we’re playing some baseball video games. Whenever someone loses, the other one brags about it. It’s a fun competition, though.”

Competitions -– from ping-pong to video games -– gave Dumont and Barre-Boulet something more to bond over.

“Look at those two guys –- outside of both being French and playing in the Quebec league -– Dumont has two kids, Barre-Boulet is a rookie,” said Klee. “I think their stages in life are so different, it’s nice for them to have a common thing. It’s great for them to connect on a different thing than just hockey.”

Dumont, 28, has 87 NHL games and 468 AHL games under his belt over a nine-year professional career. Barre-Boulet, 21, has skated in a grand total of 57 pro games.

“He was drawn to [Labrie and me] early probably just with the language thing,” said Dumont. “It’s funny because I think he’s like four years younger than my younger brother, but I’m hanging out with him.”

A relationship built on a shared competitive spirit has helped the rookie develop confidence in his game and navigate through his first year as a professional.

Photo: Scott Thomas

 

“It helped me on and off the ice,” said Barre-Boulet. “Dumont has played in the NHL. He knows how it works to go up there, so whenever my game is not going the way I want or even off the ice when I’m not happy with my game or whatever situation, he’s always there to help me. Same with Labrie. We go to the rink together since we live in the same building. It’s easy to talk a lot. On the bus, we try to sit together and we eat together most of the time. It made my life easy to start pro with two great guys like that who speak French.”

Coming off a 116-point (53g, 63a) campaign last season with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, Barre-Boulet has put together an impressive rookie season. He leads the AHL with 14 power-play goals and ranks tied for third with 27 goals total. His 52 points in 57 games played are first among rookies and tied for 12th in the AHL. He is third on the Crunch behind Carter Verhaeghe (66) and Cory Conacher (54).

Barre-Boulet credits the veterans, specifically Dumont, for setting a positive example.

“He’s a guy that works hard all the time and leads by example,” Barre-Boulet said of his captain. “It’s just easy to follow him. He’s going to do basically everything to win and try to help the young guys at the same time. When you see a guy like that, you want to do the same on and off the ice. Just by the way he prepares for practice or a game, you can tell he’s a real pro.”

The notable rookie year stemmed from the strong relationships with his veteran leaders and fellow French-speaking teammates.

“It’s helped me with confidence,” Barre-Boulet explained. “At the start of the year, I didn’t know what to expect, [Dumont and Labrie] just told me don’t be nervous, play your game and you’re going to be okay.”