QUEBEC CITY – It is a rare thing that a nation, which usually alternates between the World Championship top pool and Division I, is able to beat a “big nation”. Indeed, there have already been surprises like Germany (11th) beating Slovakia (6th) or Switzerland (8th) beating Sweden, the number one in the World Ranking, this year in Canada. But there are lower-ranked countries that are often predestined to be playing relegation games.
France, as one of the promoted teams, is one of these underdogs. Playing at a higher level often means suffering tough losses against the favourites, learning from mistakes and being prepared for the games against the “close ones”. Now that Switzerland and Sweden have earned their spot in the qualification round, the last Group A game between France and Belarus will decide about to be or not to be. Belarus (9th) with its four NHL players is the favourite against the French (19th).
It will take another upset, maybe even the biggest upset of the tournament so far, for the French to avoid the relegation series against Italy. And if upsets are needed, a top goalie is in great demand. The form of the netminders could be decisive and the French have the better-known goalie in the net with Washington Capitals’ Cristobal Huet. The 32-year-old, who won championships with Grenoble (France) and Lugano (Switzerland) before becoming an NHL goalie with the Los Angeles Kings in 2002, is the second French NHLer after Philippe Bozon. Or the third one, as some count French-Canadian Sébastien Bordeleau as well, while others don’t.
Huet joined the French after having lost the first playoff round with the Washington Capitals. Before, he played as a starting goalkeeper not far from Quebec City, with the Montreal Canadiens.
Cristobal Huet, when the Habs’ management told you that you were traded to Washington just before the deadline in February, what thoughts filled your mind?
Cristobal Huet: I was very surprised that moment but there was nothing I could do. I just had to take on the new challenge and it was much easier for me as we reached the playoffs in Washington.
How different was the lifestyle for you in Washington?
Cristobal Huet: Actually, I spent two months in hotels. The city is nice and I hope to see more of it. We had a great season and I think we captured the interest of the fans and helped hockey grow in Washington.
Now you’re back in the “Belle Province”. Is it special for you to play not far from your old workplace?
Cristobal Huet: Yes, people are coming who knew me from Montreal and who are following the Canadiens. I’ve got many nice messages here.
It’s not so usual to have the World Championship in a francophone region. A good allocation for your team, isn’t it?
Cristobal Huet: Yes, it’s great to be here but not only because we speak the same language but also because people here are hockey-crazy. It’s a great experience, especially for the younger guys. However, everything is unimportant if we don’t manage to stay at this level.
The game against Belarus is the most important one for you in this group. What do you expect from your opponent?
Cristobal Huet: They have some players with great individual skills. It’s a strong team with some big names, but we may be able to win against them. But we have to be focussed for 60 minutes and have to work hard as a team.
You were facing many shots by the Kostitsyn brothers and Grabovsky during the practices in Montreal. Is this an advantage for you?
Cristobal Huet: I know them, but I’m not sure if it’s an advantage for me. The Kostitsyns have very hard and precise shots - they’re able to score as they want.
You’re the only French NHL player right now. When will the next one follow?
Cristobal Huet: That’s difficult to say. It may take some time. I don’t follow French junior hockey closely enough to make a prediction.
What do you think is the best way for a French kid to fulfil the dream of being an NHL player?
Cristobal Huet: You have to work hard for it and need to compete in a good league or play junior hockey in North America.
You went over at the age of 27 after some seasons in Switzerland. Was it the right way for you?
Cristobal Huet: Yes, I think so. It’s a good league and I really enjoyed my time in Lugano.
Let’s talk about the future. You were just a short time under contract in Washington. What are your plans for next season?
Cristobal Huet: I don’t know yet. We’ll have to wait for July 1 to talk about it. But I would like to stay in Washington.