BREMERHAVEN, Germany – It’s no doubt a huge season for the French ice hockey scene, but when the average fan thinks of French ice hockey players currently dotting NHL rosters, he or she would be hard-pressed to name even one. More informed fans would be well-aware of the Dallas Stars’ super pest Antoine Roussel and perhaps even utility man Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Those really up-to-date will have noticed that French defenceman Yohann Auvitu was signed this past summer by the New Jersey Devils, for whom he’s spent pretty much the entire 2016/17 season thus far. Worth noting is that the 27-year-old’s career path to his latest employee has meant spending eight years of his career in Finland, the last five in Liiga, Finland’s highest level of professional hockey.
Now, what may seem like an unusual path to the NHL for many is one that several of France’s most talented young hockey players have decided to take. Look no further, for example, than the current U20 roster competing at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A in Bremerhaven, Germany.
Leading the way for this team are first liners Gabin Ville and Bastien Maia, both of whom have spent a good bit of time developing their game in Finland. They are also joined by defenceman Hugo Gallet. When looking at their success as the tournament’s top two scorers after four games, it’s no wonder that these students of the game have never doubted the path they’ve taken.
“I’d say Finland is rightfully seen as great place to take the next step,” suggests assistant captain Maia. “It’s got a great developmental program and we’ve all witnessed Finnish success at several levels in recent years. I’ve never regretted having made that move.” And it’s one that came at a young age for both Ville and Maia.
Together with his older brother Malo, France’s current U20 captain Gabin headed to Finland to further his game at the ripe young age of 13, a step almost unthinkable for most families. “We were pretty young at the time, but going with my older brother was a key. After a year in North America several seasons back, he’s even back in Finland right now trying his luck in the Mestis, Finland’s second highest men’s league. Anyhow, the step was huge at the time and then Bastien joined me at the junior stage two years after I started. We were just 15 at the time.”
Worth mentioning of course is that both forwards had a French role model to look up to already in place, the aforementioned Auvitu.
“He actually played in the same program as we were in. We saw him play and practice a good bit and we’d even meet up sometimes for lunch. He’s taught us a lot and is quite the role model. He’s such a hard worker and deserves to be where he’s at. It’s no surprise to us that he’s cracked an NHL line-up and been having an overall good debut. He’s such a well-rounded and smart guy too. He’s graduated from the university and gotten his bachelor and master degrees. He’s an overall beast and deserves everything he’s achieved,” tells Ville.
Particularly Maia has had the chance to deepen his connection with the French international. “I’ve spent quite a bit a time with him. Our practice schedule was such that I’d often see and interact with him. We talked a lot about being a pro and playing for the national team. He taught me quite a bit about the little things that are necessary to go pro and become an all-round good player. He’s definitely someone to look up to.”
The experiences in Finland are just part of the story when grasping the depth of Ville and Maia’s on and off-ice chemistry. “Our parents had played together in the national team,” explains Maia. “We had some contact with each other along the way and then I went to Finland and tried out there. I made it and then we ended up playing with each other in the same team and going to school together for three years. So yes, we’ve known each other for quite a long time and have since really become close.”
Clearly, work ethic, sacrifice, attention to detail and an emphasis on continued education are amongst the most important messages both Gabin and Bastien have taken to heart from Auvitu. It’s seen in both their play and how they carry themselves off the ice.
Despite their young age, the long-time friends show a maturity beyond their years, something that can surely also be attributed to conducting their most recent years of schooling in a foreign country and foreign language. Taking classes in English in Finland, a country ranked highly in academics in worldwide comparison, the boys were well-armed and ready to take on their next challenge, a jump to North America.
“I played a year of high school hockey at Northwood and that did a lot in helping me progress and mature. Then I started off this season with Minnesota of the NAHL, but decided to head back to France to play for a team there for the remainder of the season, which also allowed me to practice a bit with the national program”, explains Ville.
A world away from Minnesota, but in the same league, Maia is currently playing his junior hockey for the Odessa Jackalopes, a Texas-based team only a few miles away from New Mexico. Like most young men suiting up for NAHL teams, Bastien has his eyes set on an NCAA opportunity with a top division program. “My goal is absolutely to play college hockey in the near future. I feel that mixture of intense hockey and academics is the best way to develop myself and get bigger and better in every facet. It will hopefully help me take the next step in life as both a player and a human being.”
As of now, both Ville and Maia are seeing so much of what they’ve worked so long for, what they personally want to achieve in the near future, and what they want for French ice hockey in general all culminating together right in Bremerhaven, Germany, where the boys entered the final day of play against host Germany with class retention – and for many quite unexpectedly – already in the bag.
“We’re so happy to be here and we obviously want to win. Our ultimate goal as a team coming up has been to remain here in this group and stay at this level,” explains Ville. “We absolutely feel that we, the French U20 team, are right where we should be. We’re seeing that it’s only little things that have kept us from being more victorious thus far. And it’s those little details and the need to simply be more consistent that are keeping us from our ultimate goal of progressing even further up the ladder. But all in all, we’re definitely feeling at home at this level of hockey and have seen that we can play against this competition on a day to day basis.”
Maia goes even further in his assessment, “I think it’s huge for the program! The men’s team is in the top division, which also has the largest pool of teams, and now the national program has been working hard to get its junior teams to be regulars within the highest divisions as well. Quite frankly, it’s vital to have stayed in this group. It’s where we need to be in order to develop players that will keep our men’s team in the world’s highest classification for years to come.”
About the best part of these statements and the enthusiasm with which Gabin and Bastien state them is that they’ve been backed up entirely by their on-ice performance in the four games to date. Entering the final day of play, possibly ready to spoil the party for a team Germany that needs a regulation time victory to have any chance of winning the tournament, Ville (10 points) and Maia (9 points) are ranked 1st and 2nd in tournament scoring, each having chipped in four goals in the four games played. In all, they have combined for 66% of France’s goals and contributed a whopping 58% of France’s total offensive output (19 of 33 recorded points).
Retaining the class, in Germany no less, is a huge step in what is ultimately a gigantic year in French hockey. In May of 2017, Germany (Cologne) and France (Paris) will share a role in hosting the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, something that brings a glistening to Maia’s eye.
“This will be a great thing for our people and will help to make the sport more popular. It will be taking place in Paris, where there are obviously a lot of people, and hopefully this will help the sport grow and we’ll be able to get better and better over time. Hopefully a lot of people will come and watch the games, then have their kids give ice hockey a try. Hopefully, it will raise interest like never before.”
Ville explains it in further depth, “We’ve seen Sweden and Finland, for example, share tournaments. It spreads hockey over a bigger range and area. With a group in each country, we’re seeing more specific interest being placed in the games on site while the sport is getting national attention in two nations at once.”
One of the world’s most popular and famous cities, the French capital is known for just about anything other than ice hockey, making it an exotic venue. But holding half of the World Championship there presents enormous potential for the sport in France as well as the country’s ice hockey program in general.
“Ice hockey is quite simply getting bigger every year,” says Ville enthusiastically. “The national team program is putting more and more developmental programs into place every year to get the sport growing and having the players be better trained. We seem to have a bigger pool of players every year, so we can feel how the sport is growing and improving within France.”
“I’m confident that it will bring people to the sport, but it will take time before we really see it grow and see more people playing and getting involved. But I feel it will come and we’ll eventually see the positive effects of Paris having hosted a leg of the World Championship. But it starts with following and rooting for the national team.”
Like so many people across the ice hockey universe, both Maia and Ville expect to be following the happenings in Paris very closely.
Of course, with the way they’ve carried and represented their nation in gaining French class retention in Bremerhaven, it’s not unthinkable that they could part of the big event in Paris right on the ice.