Pascal Dupuis, the newest member of the New York Rangers, has never been afraid to stand out in a crowd.
Dupuis, who joined the Blueshirts in a trade with the Minnesota Wild last Friday, is also no stranger to big cities, having grown up in the Montreal area. It was there, in the province of Quebec's largest metropolis, that he began differentiating himself at a very young age.
You see, young Pascal Dupuis was a Quebec Nordiques fan. And growing up in Montreal, in the shadow of Les Canadiens, you had to be very brave or very crazy to root for the Nordiques in public.
"I always liked underdog teams," said Dupuis. "Montreal was the big team, and Quebec was kind of the underdog that was not getting recognized."
Dupuis, however, had a good reason to support the hated Nordiques. His father, Claude, had been drafted by Quebec and played for the team's AHL affiliate during the mid-1970s when the Nords were still part of the old World Hockey Association. Claude Dupuis was also a star junior player in the early 1970s, playing left wing for the Laval National on a line with future Hall of Famer Mike Bossy.
Like father, like son. Young Dupuis followed in his dad's footsteps, also making it to pro hockey as a left wing. Since his father was already retired by the time he was a boy, Dupuis found himself emulating his NHL idol, Michel Goulet. For most of Dupuis' childhood in the 1980s, Goulet was widely considered the best left wing in all of hockey, scoring 50 goals in four consecutive seasons for the Nordiques.
Despite his admiration for Goulet, Dupuis initially saw himself making it to the pros as a defenseman. He continued to play defense well into his teens, when he finally made the switch to left wing because whenever he tried out for teams as a defenseman he "got cut all the time."
Playing defense was hardly a waste of Dupuis' teen-age energy, as it had taught him valuable lessons that would help him tremendously in his NHL career.
"Even after they made me a forward, I always had it in my own mind to come back in my own zone and play well defensively," said Dupuis, who holds the Wild franchise's single-season record plus-minus rating (plus-17)
Switching to forward also turned out to be a great move because Dupuis himself was already standing out from other local kids for his hockey skills as well as his love of the Nordiques. Lightning-fast speed on the ice made Dupuis hot commodity in the major junior ranks, and after making the trip up to Northern Quebec to join the QMJHL's Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in 1996, the 17-year-old had little trouble standing out from the pack.
The only thing that could slow Dupuis down back then was an injury. He missed nearly half of his rookie season with a broken leg and was passed over in the 1997 NHL draft. Eligible again in 1998, he had managed only 16 goals for Rouyn-Noranda and Shawinigan in 1997-98 because he was still recovering from his major injury. As a result, he went undrafted again.
Returning for a third major-junior season in 1998-99, Dupuis was finally healthy, and his numbers reflected it. He scored 30 goals and 72 points in 57 games, earning himself an invitation to the Calgary Flames' 1999 training camp. Unfortunately, he failed to catch on in Calgary and landed back in the QMJHL as an overage junior for 1999-00.
At age 20, Dupuis raised his game to the highest level. With Shawinigan in 1999-00, he scored 50 goals and 105 points in 61 regular-season games and then added a remarkable 15 goals and 22 points in 13 playoff games.
When NHL training camps opened in the fall of 2000, Dupuis was one of the hottest unrestricted free agents coming out of junior hockey. He could have gone anywhere, but he opted to take a risk and sign with the expansion Minnesota Wild, who had yet to play their first game.
"I guess I figured that because it was an expansion team and the coaches were French they would let me know what they needed from me and give me a chance, and they did," Dupuis said.
He spent most of his rookie pro season in the minors, but by getting into the Wild's last four games of the season, Dupuis can claim the distinction of having been part of the inaugural Wild team. By the time he was traded to the Rangers last week, Dupuis, Marian Gaborik
, Manny Fernandez and Wes Walz were the only original Minnesota players still with the franchise.
The highlight of Dupuis' six seasons in Minnesota was certainly the 2002-03 season and playoffs. During the regular season, he scored a career-high 20 goals and 48 points to go along with his outstanding plus-17 rating. In the playoffs, Dupuis had four goals and four assists in the Wild's run to the Western Conference Finals, where they fell to Anaheim. It was an exciting time for the entire team and its fans.
"They had a good fan base already from the North Stars," said Dupuis of the great support the Wild enjoy. "They love hockey over there. They skate outdoors in the winter there. It's not like a lot of other states in the U.S. It's a hockey state. ... From what I heard the fans are great here in New York, too.
Dupuis says there's no question why the Wild became Cup contenders early in their history. Head coach Jacques Lemaire, a former Cup-winning coach in New Jersey, stressed a defense-first approach and a system that made life miserable for the Wild's opposition.
"The system was great over there. It was so tight, and the guys were all confident in the system and wanted to play in the system," Dupuis said. "So I think that was the main thing."
Rangers head coach Tom Renney agrees with his new left wing on that count.
"Coming from that system, he has to be a sound defensive player," said Renney. "That's a real good foundation. At the same time if he's able to create some offense for us and bring some speed to our game and help our attack game, that's great. I don't want to say it's a bonus, because some of that is an expectation. He does have the type of speed that comes with being a successful player."
In Minnesota, Dupuis was primarily used in a checking role and as a penalty killer, but that performance in 2002-03 offered a glimpse of Dupuis' potential as a scorer. Dupuis said he looks forward to opening up his game a bit more now that he's playing in the Eastern Conference.
"Just from watching games, I'd say it's a faster pace (in the East)," said Dupuis, expected to make his Rangers debut at Carolina on Thursday. "It seems like a more offensive-minded conference. But that's only based on watching it. I've got to play in it to really feel it, but it's probably more wide open. I can probably skate a little more than I'm used to from the West, so I can use my speed a little bit."
Dupuis isn't just excited to be in the East, he's also really happy to be part of the Rangers organization, even though he didn't know a single member of the current team before his arrival last weekend. Being on the Blueshirts is certainly a big change from the environment of an expansion team like Minnesota.
"All I heard from the guys in the (Minnesota) locker room when I found out I was coming here is that they treat you really well," said Dupuis. "That's what I heard. And just playing for one of the Original Six teams is always fun. ...You see all of these guys. They're all really good hockey players and they've proven it over the past two seasons. So I'm excited to play with these guys. It's a great bunch of guys."
Dupuis also expects to thrive at The Garden because he has already had great success there as a member of the visiting team.
During his years with the Wild, Dupuis first played at MSG on Nov. 6, 2001. He scored the Wild's lone goal in that game. Returning to The Garden on Feb. 4, 2004, Dupuis helped the Wild beat the Blueshirts 4-3 - the only time in franchise history that Minnesota has beaten the Rangers on the road. Last season, Dupuis was back again on Dec. 5, 2005, and he once again scored the Wild's lone goal, spoiling a Henrik Lundqvist
shutout bid with 28 seconds to go in the second period.
"It (The Garden) is always fun," said Dupuis. "It's always different with the atmosphere over there. Everybody always talks about the Garden, so it's good to play there."
Two goals in three previous visits is a pretty good track record, and Dupuis hopes that once he hits the Garden ice again, he can keep adding to that brief legacy of success. And if he does make a name for himself in short order, it will be nothing new for Dupuis. He is, after all, a guy who likes to stand out in the crowd. Perhaps such non-conformity is one reason Dupuis asked to become the first Rangers player ever to wear No. 61 after learning that No. 16, his first choice, had already been taken.
"I think I can help the team with defense and penalty killing, but I'm going to score goals, too, if I get the opportunity," he said. "I know I can."