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Bouillon makes it big

Francis Bouillon to make his official appearance at the QMJHL Hall of Fame Wednesday

by Hugo Fontaine, translated by Dan Braverman @canadiensmtl / canadiens.com

MONTREAL - In June 1992, Francis Bouillon was passed over at the QMJHL Draft. On Wednesday, April 5, 2017, the pantheon of Quebec Junior hockey will welcome him as one of League's all-time greats.

From the first time he put on skates, Bouillon had to battle for every opportunity he earned. No matter the level. Canadiens fans witnessed this for many seasons as the gritty defenseman worked tenaciously to keep his spot on the blue line year after year.

But well before coming to Montreal, he first had to prove himself as one of the most well-rounded defensemen in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 1990s, where he dominated first with the Laval Titan, and then the Granby Prédateurs.

Twenty-one years after finishing his last season in the Q, Bouillon will be officially inducted into the QMJHL Hall of Fame, an achievement he never could have imagined when he first hit the ice at the Colisée de Laval.

"It's an honor. I was surprised; usually it's a recognition that's reserved for players who achieved a lot on an individual level. In my case, it was more overall. I think that the Memorial Cup played a big part. I was also a role model for others; a young player who got a chance in the Junior ranks and found his place. Throughout my entire journey, with of all the accolades I received, none were individual. It was always as a group," explained Bouillon, who joins the 2017 Hall of Fame class alongside Brad Richards, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Gaston Therrien and Luc Lachapelle, who will be honored posthumously.

The accomplishment is even more impressive given that in his QMJHL Draft eligibility year, the 16-year-old was passed over by all 11 teams in the League. While he was preparing to play at the Junior AA level, Titan head coach Bob Hartley called him up to invite him to training camp, which was three days away.

Bouillon may have been skeptical at the beginning, but he ended up seeing it as an opportunity to get in shape for the Junior AA season. He made a good impression at camp, convincing Hartley to keep him in Laval full-time. 

"Going from Midget to Major Junior, I knew that I would be one of the youngest and smallest, but I always had character. I wasn't really intimidated by anyone, but when I looked at guys like John Kovacs or Brant Blackned, they were like monsters!" laughed the former defenseman, who joined the Titan as a 5-foot-8 rookie.

"My mom told me before camp that if I wanted to make the team, I'd have to hit people and show my character. I was ready for that. I grew up in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve and it's sad to say it, but if you were weaker than the others over there, you'd get eaten alive."

He may have been gifted, but Bouillon has always been respectful of his opponents and teammates, especially the veterans he met upon his arrival. The older players appreciated his work ethic and never hesitated to stand up for their rookie blue-liner. One of his biggest advocates was his then-captain, Martin Lapointe.

"He was always a bit reserved and didn't speak a lot. He always made extra time to improve. He knew how to defend very well and he surprised a lot of players in the Quebec Major Junior League with his strength," explained Lapointe, who won the President's Cup with Bouillon in 1992-93. "The first time I met him, he surprised me. Back in our day, the guys were a little bigger and the smaller players really had to stand out. In practice when you were in the corners with him, you really felt his center of gravity. He was very sturdy on his skates. He was naturally very strong."

A member of one of the QMJHL's powerhouses, Bouillon also won the League championship in 1993-94, taking part in a second-consecutive Memorial Cup tournament - this time as the host team. But just like the first go-round, the Laval squad left empty-handed.

Following his third year with the Titan, the New York native found himself on the move to the Eastern Townships, along with some of his teammates and head coach Michel Therrien, when the Morrissette brothers took over the Bisons and renamed the team the "Prédateurs".

As a 20-year-old and one of the best defensemen of the League, Bouillon used the experience he had racked up in those first three seasons to become a respected leader with his new club, earning the captain's "C" immediately upon arriving in Granby. His new head coach gave him a very precise mandate starting in August of that year: become the first player in the QMJHL since Guy Lafleur in 1971 to raise the Memorial Cup. Looking back, Bouillon recalls the challenge was daunting.

"I was a bit intimidated. Throughout my experience in Junior, I was always a shy guy, someone who kept a low profile. I only came out of my shell when I was on the ice. When I was in the room, I never spoke, I was calm. When Michel met with me and named me captain, it gave me a boost and I knew I needed to play a larger leadership role. At the start I didn't know if I would be able to integrate all the new players into the group, but it went really well," admitted Bouillon, who again distinguished himself on an individual level in 1995-96, earning QMJHL Second-Team All Star status.

The Prédateurs cleaned up that year, winning both the regular season and playoff titles. Granby then made it to the Memorial Cup tournament - marking the third appearance of Bouillon's career.

Boasting a star-studded roster, the Prédateurs leaned on Bouillon's calm demeanor and his ability to bring players together during their road to a CHL championship. According to former teammate Georges Laraque, his captain's leadership was a difference-maker, allowing the Preds to end Quebec's 25-year drought in the annual tournament.

"His role in our Memorial Cup win was the most important thing. It wasn't the first time that a Junior team was full of star players for the playoffs. It was a combination of several star players from several different teams that came together in Granby. Sometimes when you have multiple egos together, there can be a lot of issues. As captain, he was composed and a great leader and he kept the team together at all times," declared the Prédateurs' former tough guy, who had known Bouillon for a few years from their days in the Sports-Études program at l'École Édouard-Montpetit.

"No one put themselves above anyone else because our captain led by example by the way he worked and sacrificed for the team. We kept working because our captain showed us the way."

In May of 1996, Bouillon finished his career at the Junior level in spectacular fashion by raising the Memorial Cup. That he did it with a team that had overlooked him just a few years prior wasn't lost on the veteran rearguard.

"Not long after the draft, we went camping in Granby. My mom told me that we should go see the Bisons people to see if they would offer me a tryout. I couldn't believe it. I get my drive mostly from my mom. We ended up going to check out the arena. All the doors were closed except for one. We went inside and a gentleman came to see us. My mom introduced me and said that I hadn't been drafted and she wanted to know if I could get a tryout," Bouillon recalled of his first visit to Léonard-Grondin arena, in 1992.

"The gentleman - who was one of the managers of the building - showed me the lines on a board and said they were already set. Ironically, I finished there four years later, I became captain of the Prédateurs and I won the Memorial Cup. When I got to Granby in 1995, that gentleman was still there and remembered me very well."

The QMJHL's former ironman, who boasted a streak of 164 consecutive games played racked up 143 points in four seasons, regular season and playoffs combined. He graduated as a two-time President's Cup champion and a Memorial Cup winner. These are all accomplishments even Bouillon himself couldn't have imagined having on his Junior hockey resume. 

The now-41-year-old enters the Hall of Fame having paved the way for several players who otherwise would have been dismissed as being "too small", and he did it his own way. Like all of the recognition he's earned during his Junior and professional career, Bouillon prefers to spread the credit around.

"I was always a team guy and I never accomplished anything alone. The only thing I did was show my perseverance. I got my chance and I grabbed it. That's why I deserved everything I got," he concluded. "I want to share this with all my teammates. I've always said that hockey is a team sport. And it's the best team sport there is."

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