Over the last few months, Anthony Jackson-Hamel has capitalized on each and every opportunity he's had for the Montreal Impact, regardless of where he is on the field. In a little over three years in MLS, the 24-year-old forward has taught opponents they should never leave him alone in front of the net, especially towards the end of the game. While his focus may be on soccer nearly year-round, Jackson-Hamel nonetheless always leaves himself a bit of room to watch the Canadiens during the hockey season. We sat down with the Montreal sharpshooter to find out a bit more about his passion for the Habs.
You were born in Quebec City, and started playing soccer there. Did you also play some hockey growing up?
ANTHONY JACKSON-HAMEL: I played hockey for a long time, but not in an organized league. I would often play at the rink down the street.
What kind of player were you?
AJH: I was a goalie. I played forward too, but I preferred to be in net. I had street hockey goalie equipment and I was stopping real pucks. I thought I was pretty good, I had a good butterfly technique. (laughs)
When you played forward, were you scoring as much as you do now with the Impact?
AJH: Pretty much, yes. I had - and still have - a good wrist shot. It was a bit harder with slapshots, though. During the soccer offseason, I try to go skating every once in awhile.
Your grandfather played the organ for Quebec Nordiques games at the Colisée back in the day. Would he tell you stories about the Nordiques when you were younger?
AJH: He would often tell me about how he would pump up the crowd at the Colisée. In those days, there were no computers or jumbo screens. It was all on him; he would be the one to get the crowd all riled up. Whenever something happened on the ice, he would take the lead with animating the crowd. I would've liked to see him play back then, who knows if the Nordiques will come back. He still plays today and is still a very good pianist.
Seeing how the Nordiques left Quebec not long after you were born, did you become a Canadiens fan as time went on?
AJH: I've pretty much always been a Canadiens fan. There are always some little Nordiques-Canadiens arguments in my family (laughs), but I've always been a big Canadiens fan. But deep down, I'll always leave a little room for the Nordiques.
Do you have a favorite player?
AJH: I always loved Alex Kovalev. I'll always remember those times when he would skate the puck the length of the boards, come back around the faceoff circle and take a shot. That stuck with me, to the point that when I would play on the rink, I'd often try to imitate him.
Do you follow the team during hockey season, when you have the time?
AJH: I go to the Bell Centre pretty often during the season. I love watching Canadiens games, especially in person. I don't miss games on TV very often. I watch as many of them as I can.
It has often been said that there is additional pressure on francophone Canadiens players because they're from here. Would you say you've had a similar experience with the Impact?
AJH: It's different, because the Canadiens are so big here. The pressure is different between the two sports. But sometimes, the fans want the hometown players to perform well.
Do you find that the Impact have become more prominent on the Montreal sporting scene lately?
AJH: Absolutely. We see that there are a lot more fans now. We get recognized in the streets, and people approach us. Sometimes, I'll hop in a cab and the taxi driver will recognize me! It all goes to show that soccer is getting bigger in Montreal.
How proud are you that you get to represent the team in your home province and to be an important part of the Impact?
AJH: I'm very proud to play for the home team, the Impact. It's like when a Quebecer plays for the Canadiens. It's always fun to play in front of your fans, your family and your friends.
You have been selected for Team Canada several times over the last few years. We know Canadians follow international hockey competitions really closely; do you find there has been more interest in the Canadian men's soccer team, especially after the Gold Cup?
AJH: With the run we had in the Gold Cup, with the new generation of players that are making their way up, our sport is gaining traction. It's fun for the fans to see those young guys play. Also, for people from here, the fact there are so many Quebecers on the national team doesn't hurt. As a player, we felt the fans' enthusiasm for the national team - it motivated us to perform.
Over the last few years, several international soccer stars have made their way to MLS. Were there any players you felt a little starstruck playing against?
AJH: The first time it happened was in my first season in MLS, playing against Thierry Henry. I couldn't believe it. I used to watch him on TV when I was five or six years old and he was one of my idols. All of a sudden, there I am on the same field as him, playing against him. It was also nice when Didier [Drogba] came to play with us. Words cannot describe my reaction when I found out he was coming to Montreal.