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GREENBERG: Bellemare’s Incredible Journey

by Jay Greenberg / Philadelphia Flyers

No, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare didn’t get lost on the way to soccer practice, actually never wanted to be anything but a hockey player. In fact, Bellemare’s presence in a Flyers uniform is a tribute to his keen sense of direction.

On the night of his 2014 NHL debut, during a television time-out in Boston, he did sneak a peek high into the TD North Garden and say, “Wow, this is the NHL.” But Bellemare, who willingly gave up his days as a big fish in a small pond when he left France at age 21, doesn’t lift his head out of the water much to admire the view. A fourth line guy whose job, basically, it is to make the rink shrink, won’t dare take too many minutes off to reflect upon just how big, wide, and wonderful has become the hockey world.

“When people talk to me about where I came from or I go back to Europe and I see that there’s different eyes on me, then I kind of realize it,” Bellemare said. “But I don’t want to hear it too much because I need to be focused on the next shift.”

There are two players from France in the NHL -- Antoine Roussel of Dallas and Bellemare. Roussel and goaltender Cristobal Huet are the only Frenchmen to ever have played more than 200 NHL games. Only twice in the last 20 World Championships has the French team finished in the top 10 and the country has not qualified for the last three Olympic tournaments.

You can’t even say Bellemare is living a dream. The NHL was beyond his dream, at least until the first expressions of interest in him tricked in at age 27. Roussel, identified as a prospect early, came to Quebec at play junior at age 16. The Flyers didn’t sign Bellemare until he was 29.

“It’s a testament to his drive,” says Flyers General Manager Ron Hextall. “When you look at the rare path he took, the perseverance and desire it took to get him to us really is a great story.

“Work hard and stick with it. Your dream can happen.”

    WATCH: Bellemare goes through his first
                     Flyers Wives Carnival in 2015

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This is the longest of long shots, preoccupied every fourth shift with somebody scoring on him with a long shot. He chips the puck in and goes to get it, creates valuable zonetime with linemates Ryan White and Chris Vandevelde, and comes up with the odd offensive contribution.

Success in the NHL now requires four lines and the Flyers have one of the better ones. On Wednesday night, Bellemare hounded Sergei Kuznetsov into a giveaway, quickly converted by White for a goal in a huge -- who knows, maybe even season-saving -- victory in Washington.

All you quiche eaters out there who think you are going to be first liners, take note. There is another way, and it doesn’t have to wind through Sweden, although Bellemare’s chosen, off-the-beaten, path opened up beautifully for him, better late than never. He has earned, the hard way, every second of the 13:57 he is used by Dave Hakstol on the average night.

That dedication to his next shift, -- le prochain quart de travail, si vous plait -- makes him no accidental tourist, just a guy who fell in love with a sport you can find on television in France about as often as you can order a bad bottle of wine.

“They would rather wait for the next soccer game than watch a hockey game,” reports Bellemare.

Not this guy. At age six, the middle child of five went to a rink in Montpellier, a city of 250,000 in the south of France, largely because his older brother and sister were headed there. “I played soccer in school like everybody else,” Bellemare says. “But I hated to run and I like to do things that are different.”

Frederique Bellemare, a black belt in karate and a successful competitive swimmer, wanted her children to follow their passions, whatever they might be. Younger sister Rose-Eliandre made it to the Beijing Olympics as a gymnast.

Frederique’s husband is estranged and money was tight but, one way or another, Pierre-Edouard had skates and sticks.

“It doesn’t matter whether they were broken, I played with whatever I got,” he says. “Five kids, she was raising by herself; without those sacrifices she made for me, I would never be here.

“When we start hockey she told us right away. You can have fun but you give your 100 per cent because we’re not giving away that money. As we got a little older, she was driving my brother and me to the next town because the hockey was better there. Messing around was not an option, really.

“One of the best teams in Paris saw my brother playing in a tournament and they told my mom that they would like to have him. My mom said, ‘Oh, there’s the little one too,’ talking about me. They saw me playing and said, ‘You guys need to come here and play here next year. We were moving back to Paris (anyway), so it worked out great.”

As a teenager excelling against men for the Rouen Dragons of the Ligue Magnus, the pie in the sky for Bellemare was a career in Sweden, the Czech Republic, or Russia. There were a couple of guys wearing Capitals jackets trying to talk to him at a tournament when he was 18, but he couldn’t understand their English and the coach of the French Under-20 team told Bellemare one thing he had better comprehend is that nobody on this club was going to the NHL ever.

“He said, ‘Don’t get big head, you know this never happen for us.’” And I said, ‘No, no, I know.’”

What he knew was that the hockey was so good in Sweden that no French player had ever played in the Elite League. He aspired to be the first.

“Sweden was Olympic champion [in 2006] so that was the natural thought for me,” recalls Bellemare. “I’m not afraid to say it; I kinda had a big-headed way to think because guys in France had told me, ‘Oh yeah, you can definitely sign in the big leagues.

“My agent said, you should play for a good second-level team that can move up to the Elite League; that is your best chance to get there. Really, I didn’t have so much choice. I only got to Leksands because my best friend, another player, got a job there and they asked for another forward and the general manager there had once been the coach of the French National Team.”

At 21, Bellemare got a trial contract with Leksands, where he reported during the summer of 2006 as one of five guys competing for one spot.

“Leksands had a Finnish coach,” recalls Bellemare. “He did not like French hockey, did not like me whatsoever.

“In September, when there were two of the five left, the general manager said, “I’ve seen you progress; I’m going to sign you because you have way more potential than the other one.

“The day I get my jersey, I took it in the bathroom so nobody could see how excited I was. They had this presentation. I go on the stage and they ask me two questions. I answer, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ twice because I have no idea what they just asked me. So after two questions they’re just like, ‘All right, thank you,’ and let me go down.

“I feel ashamed because I can’t talk the language and can’t speak English, the second language there, either. But I could understand the word “French”, or” French player” whatever the different pronunciation of the world “French” was in Swedish. And I heard that a lot, like I was [labeled]. They didn’t want me there.

“I told my mom, “Wow, this is going to be a tough one. She told me, ‘Learn the language. Show them that you want to stay. If you give 100 per cent every single night, then you will show the team that you really want to be there. Come every day with a smile, show the people that you’re not there to take the money, but to sweat for the jersey.’

“My mom always told me, ‘It’s not the people that give you a little tap on the butt that are going to make you better, it’s the people that tell bad things about you. They are the ones you need to compete against even harder to change their minds.’

“The Swedish players started giving me respect. After six months the team signed me for another year-and-a-half."

By year three at Leksands, Bellemare was a 31-goal scorer. He moved up to the Elite League with Skelleftea, went from star to sluggo.

“I mean, there probably were like 15 players on that team who made the NHL,” he remembers. “I had to re-work everything.”

His nose to the grindstone in a supporting role, he started to re-work his perception of the NHL, too. “Two players who were grinders in the top league got contracts with NHL teams,” Bellemare remembers. “They never made it but I remember thinking to myself at the time, oh, even grinders make it to the NHL. Maybe if I grind as hard as I can, I can make it.

“When I got to the third season at Skelleftea I had a great year (19 goals and 17 assists in 55 games). Somebody from Toronto Maple Leafs talked about me to a newspaper in Sweden. That was the first time ever an NHL team had ever [mentioned] my name but I never heard from the Maple Leafs.

“A year later, Chicago was talking to my agent but then I got hurt. At 26, I thought my chance was gone.”

C’est la vie. Bellemare had come to settle happily in Sweden and continued to represent his country every May in its strafing runs of the hockey powers. “We are getting better,” he says.

Thanks to him they are. Bellemare scored a shootout goal on Toronto goalie James Reimer to beat Canada in a preliminary round game at the World Championships in 2014.

“I mean, Canada didn’t maybe go 100 percent, you know, maybe they were out the night before,” said Bellemare. “I don’t know, don’t really care.

“The year before we beat Russia, doesn’t matter how. We’re France. We call ourselves the Dirty Dogs. Just work your butt off.”

Word is, fine restaurants in Paris allow dogs, although hopefully not dirty ones. The French team’s best player was their hardest worker, what the Flyers came to appreciate over the three world tournaments they watched Bellemare. “He never left you short,” recalls Director of Scouting Chris Pryor. “Competed to the end, just like you see now.”

They didn’t think he needed time at Lehigh Valley, why his 29 years actually had some appeal.

“When you have a player that age, the upside is his experience,” says Hextall. “The level he was playing at (in prime development years) wasn’t great, so his progression was intriguing for us.

“Our guys always had liked him. It got to the point where, as a group, they felt he could help us out.

“Always when you bring in older European players, the question is how they will adapt to the smaller rink and the quicker game. But the more players that make it – and Michael Raffl is one for us – the more comfortable you become to sign a Bellemare or an Evgeny Medvedev.

“The other part, too, is that Pierre-Edouard was in a pretty good situation in Sweden, making a decent chunk of money playing 45 games a season, living a good lifestyle there, Yet, he still was really hungry to play in the NHL. That was an attractive thing for us.

“Obviously we thought he could play here, but he could have gone to the minors, so he was taking some risk. It was a little bit risky for us, too. On the other hand (a one-year deal) didn’t leave us a ton to lose either.

“I remember my first conversation with him, face to face. Pierre-Edouard was very honest about where he was as a player, how far he has come since his late teens and early twenties and how he needs to play the game

“Honesty like you find in his game is very hard to find. He’s played towards the bottom of our lineup but I think we all know he can play up. He can play more minutes, give you good two-way minutes.”

The book the Flyers seemed to have on him, thought Pierre-Edouard, was from the same chapters he would write about himself, why he chose their offer over a similar one from Montreal. Imagine, after all that, he had options.

“It was the way Ron Hextall talked to me, explained my role,” Bellemare said. “I felt more like, all right, this team wants me for a reason.”

His rookie season, he gave reason for the Flyers to want him for two more so they have signed him through next season. Because miles take a toll on a player perhaps even more than years, all those short seasons Bellemare played in France and Sweden may add to his NHL longevity.

Viva la France, But a player without pretense doesn’t have to sing La Marseillaise every day, or look up every home game at 18,000 persons to know where he came from and reflect upon his journey.

Just every once in a while.

“When you’re French, you won’t be a first-round pick,” Bellemare says. “No, we don’t have that kind of ice situation. In France, hockey is not our sport.

“But we for sure can get here, even if it is at 29, right? I’m 30 and still here. And nobody can take that away from me.”

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