Which is France’s hockey hotbed? Rouen? Chamonix? It might just be Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a tiny archipelago located just off the shore of the Canadian province of Newfoundland.
The archipelago is a self-governing overseas collective of France and the only territory in North America that remained in French possession after the 19th century.
Despite its remote location, and a return ticket to Paris setting one back over €1,000, the tiny island of Saint Pierre has produced more than its fair share of French national team players. Almost every World Championship team of the last two decades has included a player from the archipelago.
The islands were frequented by indigenous and European peoples through the years, but were not permanently settled until the French did so in the late 17th century. After several wars and treaties the French ceded all territories in North America to Great Britain – all but its last bastion to this day, Saint Pierre and Miquelon.
From the eight rocky islands only the two giving the archipelago its name are inhabited. Most people live on the smaller of the two islands, Saint Pierre, about 600 on the largest island of Miquelon. The climate with short summers and dark winters resembles Newfoundland and Northern Europe.
Although the people speak the continental version of French rather than with a Quebec accent and claim to have the best croissants and baguettes in North America, the Canadian influence is obvious due to the geographical location and a lot of imported goods.
And of course, there’s the hockey. In the days before the internet age most TV channels came from Canada. The Montreal Canadiens were more likely to be on the screen than, say, the football stars of distant Paris Saint-Germain.
The most famous hockey player to hail from St-Pierre was former French national team captain Arnaud Briand, who represented France in ten World Championship events and four Olympic Winter Games and even before him there have been French national players from the “rock”, such as Patrick Foliot, France’s goaltender at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.
“Saint Pierre and Miquelon are small islands but we have two hockey teams in St-Pierre that are like families. Either you play for the Cougars, or you play for the Missiles. So if you’re born into a family you already have an idea for which team you’ll play. It’s like a family feud,” says Briand, from the Cougars family.
There’s just one North American size ice rink for the islands on St-Pierre while in Miquelon recreational hockey is played on a frozen lake in the winter.
“The climate is like in Northern Europe, like in Iceland. There’s a lot of wind, there are small fir trees, white-tailed deer and rabbits,” Briand describes the place he comes from with pride. “We eat a lot of cod fish, smoked salmon and lobster.”
“We have a lot of competition with teams from Newfoundland. We also play in the Newfoundland Cup.”
Briand, 45, finished his career after 16 pro seasons, mostly in France but also one season with Lulea as the first Frenchman in the top Swedish league and one in Augsburg, Germany.
He remembers well how he finished his career with a farewell in St-Pierre.
“We had a Canadian team, a team from St-Pierre and Arnaud’s Friends. I think we had four exhibition games and we filled the rink for every game. It was a memorable event for everybody,” he says.
It was a bit different when he started as a six-year-old and the rink even didn’t have boards.
“When I grew up I was watching a lot of hockey on Canadian TV, I saw Gretzky play and got an idea what I wanted to do. I played in St-Pierre and in the summers also went to camps in Quebec. I left for Quebec as a 14-year-old and when I was 19 I left for France to play professional hockey.”
“When I left to play in Bordeaux the hockey culture was something I missed most from St-Pierre and Canada where there was so much hockey everywhere but nowadays it would be easier with the internet,” says Briand, who has been a board member of the French Ice Hockey Federation since its creation as an independent organization in 2006.
Saint-Pierre in hockey is almost as exotic to mainland French as when football teams from Guadeloupe or Martinique play in the French Cup. Ferries connect the islands and in 1999 a new airport opened that can theoretically accommodate planes from Europe, although in reality the flights only leave to nearby Canadian cities.
Luc Tardif, the Quebec-born President of the French Ice Hockey Federation, remembers an anecdote from his early years as a President.
“In 2007 we played in the World Championship Division I in Qiqihar, China, and battled for promotion to the 2008 World Championship in Canada. 30 minutes after winning the tournament I got a call from the mayor of St-Pierre who offered us to have the pre-tournament camp in St-Pierre,” Tardif, who’s also an IIHF Council member, recalls.
He had to explain that it won’t be possible due to the normal pre-tournament schedule with exhibition games against other teams, however, the French team indeed came to St-Pierre at least after the 2008 Worlds.
“Because there are not that many places to stay the players were assigned to host families. They didn’t know in advance but they really enjoyed the great hospitality. We played two exhibition games so everybody involved in hockey could at least attend one game,” he says.
Among the other players who were developed in St-Pierre are four national teamers who were recently active in the French Ligue Magnus. Mathieu Briand – not related to Arnaud – Valentin Claireaux, Gary Leveque and Nicolas Arrossamena, who all moved to mainland France during their junior years. Hockey is more popular among boys but there was also a female player on the U18 women’s national team, Anaelle Champdoizeau.
26-year-old Arrossamena is currently the second-most successful player from St-Pierre having won two French championships – one each with Grenoble and Gap – and most recently the Continental Cup with the Rouen Dragons.
“St-Pierre is a great hockey place. There’s a good number of players born there who play in the Ligue Magnus. It’s a small island that has not that much competition but develops good players that are skilled and good skaters. I never played senior hockey there but I can consider myself a Cougar since my father was their captain,” the 26-year-old says about his island.
He describes St-Pierre as a French place with a Canadian touch with more Canadian than French products in the stores, hockey and a landscape that resembles nearby Newfoundland.
“I return in the summer, my parents and my sister still live there so I’m going to see them and do my summer training,” he says.
Arrossamena started when he was three-and-a-half years old and moved to Grenoble in the French Alps when he was 15.
“It’s a dream for many boys to go over to France and become a professional player. It’s not that easy since there’s not that much competition on the island but if they work hard and follow what other players did they can achieve their goals. The young players learn from the players who have succeeded before.”
With players like Arrossamena succeeding on the French mainland and the profile of hockey on the rise in the country, it’s just a question of time until the next player from the rock 4,200 kilometres west of Paris will be the next to don the French national team jersey.