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Hockey fortunes back on the rise in France

by Bill Meltzer

The play of Capitals' goaltender Cristobal Huet was instrumental in Team France maintaining its spot at the international elite level.
Cristobal Huet NHL video highlights
Not much has gone right for French hockey in recent years. In 2004, Team France finished last at the IIHF World Championships and was relegated from the elite level to Division I. It took the French three years to get back.

Meanwhile, France’s top domestic league, known as Ligue Magnus, was in declining health. The nadir was reached in 2005, when the previous season’s championship and runner-up clubs both had to withdraw from the league due to financial instability.

In the last few years, however, French hockey has begun to rebound. The timing coincides with the rise of an independent hockey federation to oversee the domestic league and national programs. While considerable work remains to be done, there are signs of progress.

In 2008, Team France enjoyed its best finish at the IIHF World Championships since 2000. By virtue of consecutive victories against Team Italy in the relegation round, the French maintained their spot at the elite level and will compete in the 2009 World Championships in Switzerland.

France also will vie for a spot at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, competing in a qualification tournament to be held in Norway from Feb. 5-8, 2009. Apart from the hosts and the French, the round-robin tourney will include Denmark and the winner of an earlier pre-qualification tournament bracket.

Domestically, Ligue Magnus had one of its better seasons in recent memory in 2007-08. Longtime power Rouen Hockey Elite 76 (better known as the Rouen Dragons) won its ninth French championship in 18 years.

Peaked at the right time –
Entering the World Championships, the French knew they had little chance of avoiding the relegation round of the tournament. The team’s unspoken goal was to peak in the relegation round and finish 14th.  The plan was executed perfectly.

Even with the services of Washington Capitals goaltender Cristobal Huet and former NHL center Sebastien Bordeleau, Team France figured to be outmatched by preliminary-round opponents Sweden, Switzerland and Belarus.

Sure enough, the French were dispatched 4-1 by the Swiss despite a 44-save effort from Huet. The NHL keeper was rested the next game, but as Sweden piled up the score against backup goaltender Fabrice Lhenry – strafing him for seven goals in two periods – Huet was forced to come in to relieve, as the Swedes prevailed, 9-0.
The French gave Belarus a tough game in the preliminary-round finale. The game was tied after one period and France trailed by one goal until the last minute of regulation before succumbing, 3-1. 

Dave Henderson, the Winnipeg-born coach of Team France, was encouraged by the results against Belarus. He expressed confidence heading into a pair of head-to-head meetings with Team Italy in the relegation round. Henderson encouraged his team to play aggressively against the Italians.

“You don't want to focus on the negative side of the equation, the fear of losing,” Team France defenseman Baptiste Amar told “You have to stay positive all the time.”
Team France rose to the occasion, with 3-2 and 6-4 wins against the Italians. Amar, who plays for the Grenoble Bruleurs de Loups during the Ligue Magnus season, was among the six players upon whom Henderson relied to shoulder the heaviest load for Team France. The others were Huet, Bordeleau, forwards Yorick Treille (who plays in Germany’s DEL for the ERC Ingolstadt Panthers) and 2007-08 Ligue Magnus playoff scoring leader Julien Desrosiers of the Rouen Dragons, and Amiens Gothiques defenseman Vincent Bachet.

This group of players carried the heaviest ice time burden for Team France and supplied almost all of its offense, while Huet posted a solid .911 save percentage despite being peppered with tough chances throughout the tournament.

Dual Canadian-French citizen Bordeleau, who has been a standout for Swiss club SC Bern after playing 251 NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes, had a direct hand in six of the 11 goals France scored in the tournament, including a goal and two assists in the clincher against Italy.

Amar led all French players in ice time (26:44 per game), and had two goals and five points in the tourney, a total matched by Desrosiers. Bachet played an average 23:56. 

After downing Italy for the second time, the French players celebrated their accomplishment on the ice as though they had won a medal. They recognized that securing the country’s best finish at the Worlds since 2000 was a step in the right direction for French hockey.

“It's perfect,” said Bordeleau. “Now the goal is for us to stay in the top group next year.”

In addition to France’s successful finish at the Worlds, the French also saw their Under-18 national team finish with a perfect record at the Division II Worlds and earn a promotion to Division I for 2009. At the Under-20 level, France finished fifth at the Division I Championships in Riga, Latvia.

Defenseman Baptiste Amar scored or assisted on five of Team France’s 11 goals at the recent IIHF World Championships. The Grenoble Bruleurs blueliner also logged a team high 26:44 of ice time per game.
Dragons dominate Ligue Magnus –
The 2007-08 Ligue Magnus season was one of the best campaigns in recent years. The Rouen Dragons had a stellar season, posting a 22-3-1 record and leading the circuit in goals. In the playoffs, Rouen easily swept fourth-place Angers in the semifinals and then dispatched second-place Briancon in three straight games in the final.

Five of the league’s top 10 scorers were Rouen players. For the second straight season, former Montreal Canadiens prospect Marc-Andre Thinel led the circuit with 25 goals and 60 points in 26 games, followed by one-time Atlanta Thrashers prospect Carl Mallette (29 goals, 59 points), Canadian-born club veteran Eric Doucet (26 goals, 59 points) and French national team player Desrosiers (26 goals, 59 points in the regular season and a league-best 16 goals and 27 points in the playoffs).

There’s still a sizeable talent gap between the have and have-not clubs in Ligue Magnus. The best clubs usually have the best imports, although one of the league’s ongoing goals is to develop more homegrown talent.

League runner-up Briancon finished just one point behind Rouen during the 26-game regular season. Grenoble, which won the championship last year, was four points behind Rouen and boasted the circuit’s Albert Hassler Trophy (top native French player) winner in national team defenseman Amar and Jean Ferrand Trophy (top goaltender) honoree Eddie Ferhi. Angers finished fourth, five points behind Rouen. From there, the caliber of the teams dropped significantly.

Apart from the performance of the top four teams in the league, there were other signs of hope. Most notably, the in-season French national cup tournament was a smashing success for the second straight year. Last year, the finals at the Palais Omnisport in Paris drew a crowd of 12,200 fans.

In February, the 2008 finals drew even better, as 13,000 fans turned out for the series between Rouen and Grenoble. The Bruleurs slew the Dragons, 3-2, in a tightly contested game that ended in a shootout.

The real winner was French hockey, which received its widest domestic exposure in years. Coupled with the NHL success of Huet, the results at the 2008 Worlds and the likely selection of Canadian trained dual Canadian-French citizen Maxime Sauve, a QMJHL forward ranked No. 26 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, in the early rounds of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, hockey in France finally headed in the right direction.

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