Nearly six years have passed since the 40-year-old netminder was loaned to the Swiss Elite League’s HC Fribourg-Gotteron by the Chicago Blackhawks back in September 2010, and Huet and his family have called the Central European country their full-time home ever since.
|Cristobal Huet paid a visit to the Bell Centre on his recent trip to Montreal accompanied by his sons Ewan (L) and Ayden (R). |
For the past four seasons, Huet has been playing for one of Switzerland’s most historic franchises – Lausanne HC. He resides in the resort village of Villars-sur-Ollon with his wife, Corine, and sons Ewan, 11, and Ayden, 7, both of whom have taken up the game that their father – an eight-year NHL veteran and one-time Stanley Cup champion – continues to play at an exceedingly high level.
“It’s a good way of life in Switzerland. Since leaving North America, I’ve been able to play in a pretty good league and still be competitive. My family has a chance to come see my games. That’s been perfect. It’s been great to be able to spend so much time with them,” said Huet on a recent visit to Montreal, his first since going up against the Canadiens in a Blackhawks uniform on March 31, 2009. “It’s been a real change to be home every night because travel isn’t an issue there. The longest trip is maybe four hours away. For Ewan and Ayden, I’m sure it’s a luxury for me to be able to drop them off at school every morning and watch them play hockey. It’s been nice.”
While Ewan is committed to being between the pipes, Ayden is still pondering whether or not the position is for him. Both sport the colors of the local Villars Hockey Club. This past season, Ewan tended goal for several club teams, including the Minis A, Mosquitos B and the Piccolos, and even spent some time working with Lausanne’s Junior side, too. For his part, Ayden suited up for the Bambinis.
“It’s fun, but at the same it’s stressful being a hockey dad. I’ve got to say that I’ve got a lot more respect for my mom and dad now. That’s something I realized fast. But, as long as they like the game and like to play, I’m very supportive of their choices. It’s good to see them enjoying themselves out there,” said Huet, who hits the ice with Villars HC whenever his schedule permits to help train his sons and work with some of the other young goaltenders in the system.
“To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to be that emotional to see them both put on the goalie gear for the first time. It really was. It took a little time to get used to it. Now, I’m just trying to teach them [the importance of] being a good skater and beating the pass. At their age, they have to enjoy playing. They see me play and see a lot of NHL highlights to help them learn,” added Huet, a former seventh-round selection of the Los Angeles Kings in 2001.
Hockey is actually what brought Huet back to Canada this time around. Ewan was tending goal for a team from Nice, France involved in a cultural exchange with local Atom and PeeWee squads from Chateauguay and Gatineau. Twenty-four French youngsters had the opportunity to make the trip and participate in exhibition games in both cities over the course of the six-day exchange. They were also treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bell Centre, which brought back plenty of good memories for Huet. One in particular, though, really stood out.
|Huet came to Montreal in conjunction with a cultural exchange between youngsters from Nice, France and local teams in Gatineau and Chateauguay. |
“It was probably the game against the New York Rangers when we were down 5-0 and we ended up winning 6-5 in a shootout. I didn’t start the game, so it was more of a bonus kind of feeling. When it ended up in the shootout, all I could think was – ‘Don’t let this get away.’ I do remember that I stopped [Jaromir] Jagr on the last shot. Coming all the way back and losing would have left a really bad taste in our mouths, so I was very happy we won,” recalled Huet, who came on in relief of Carey Price on February 19, 2008 after the future All-World goaltender gave up three goals on 11 shots against.
That night, Huet stopped 20 of the 22 shots the Rangers fired his way in regulation time and the ensuing overtime frame combined. Then, he stymied Brendan Shanahan, Chris Drury and Jagr on breakaways to complete the greatest comeback in franchise history – with the help of Saku Koivu’s shootout winner on Henrik Lundqvist, of course.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories from my time in Montreal, especially the overall feeling of playing for that jersey. I was pinching myself, and the fact that it went well for me after some injury trouble was very fun. I loved the city. It was probably three of my best years in the NHL and in North America. I played like I had no pressure at all, and I tried to play like every game was my last,” said Huet, who posted a 58-39-13 record with the Canadiens, along with a .920 save percentage, a 2.53 goals-against average and 11 shutouts in 117 games played.
Huet’s love of the game hasn’t waned from one season to the next. Not only do his teammates in Lausanne continue to keep him fresh, but he’s also tweaked his playing style to ensure he can handle the rigors of being a starter and seeing more and more rubber as the season rolls on.
“I still enjoy being in the dressing room with the boys and competing. We have a lot of fun together. Everyone has a good attitude, and they’re not scared to bug me about my age. I’m more of a leader now, I think, more outgoing. That’s fine by me. As long as I’m playing well and I like it, I’ll keep on playing,” admitted Huet, who credits goaltending guru Sebastien Beaulieu with helping him make important technical changes that have really paid off. “These days, I play more of an energy-saver style. I’m 40. You have to think differently at that age and really keep it simple. I have enough experience to play that way. My hands are full, but I can handle it.”
Huet is currently sporting France’s colors at the World Hockey Championship for the sixth consecutive year and the 12th time overall dating back to his tournament debut in 1997. Playing for les Bleus has always held a special place in the two-time Olympian’s heart.
“I’ve been playing internationally for a long time. I charge the batteries for the World Championship. We can see the progress for France with a lot of the young guys coming up. Two years ago, we reached the quarter-finals, which for us was a big thing. Now, to be able to come into every game thinking we can win is great. I’m happy to be a part of this. I hope we keep improving after I’m done,” said Huet, who is already looking forward to the 2017 event which will be held in Paris and Cologne, Germany next May. “Paris is the biggest stage we can have for our sport there. It will be special to have some of the greatest players in the world come to France and play in front of our fans.”
Come late July, Huet will be making an appearance at the second edition of the Canadiens Hockey School in Switzerland to share his years of experience with youngsters. The Leysin Sports Complex will play host to 200 campers during two week-long sessions featuring top-notch on and off-ice instruction led by Stanley Cup winner Gaston Gingras.
|Huet had a chance to catch up with former teammates Carey Price and Andrei Markov during a visit to the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. |
“I had a goalie camp there when I was 22. My wife is actually from Leysin. That’s where we met, at the rink. I know it perfectly,” said Huet, a firm believer in the Canadiens’ efforts to continue growing the game abroad. “I think they’re going to have a lot of success there again this year. When you combine hockey and the Canadiens jersey, success is around.”
Simply put, there’s no denying Huet’s unwavering passion for a game that has given him and his family so much to be grateful for.
“My life in hockey is more than I expected. I grew up just wanting to play for my home team in Grenoble. Then, things just kept going. I took it all step by step,” said Huet, who played 272 NHL games between 2002 and 2010. “I didn’t look forward to much, but it ended up being awesome. I’m very thankful for everything that’s happened to me.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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