“I had a lot of energy and my mom didn’t know what to do with me,” Roussel said. “At first she put me in rugby.”
Good idea, but it didn’t work out because his coach wasn’t quite sure what to do with him either. He was, well, a little disruptive. The young Roussel was a leader of boys, and in the coach’s eyes, he was leading them astray.
“I shut down the practice all the time because I was thirsty,” said Roussel. “I brought all the boys to get some water, but the coach didn’t like that. He kicked me off the rugby team.”
Up next was hockey. The nature of the game leads to frequent water breaks, and it seemed to be a good fit for the energetic Roussel.
“It was early in the morning, you could skate and get everything done before the day even started. That was just perfect,” said Roussel. “I started skating when I was around four years old, and I just kept playing.”
Now, the 23-year-old is playing at the highest level in the world. Roussel is just one of eight native French players to ever skate in an NHL game. And he is making an impact for the Dallas Stars in the first half of this season, bringing energy by getting under opponents’ skin and chipping in with some offense as well.
“He’s energy, he’s in your face and he’s a pest out there,” said Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk. “That’s an element that we didn’t have.”
“You get an honest effort from Roussel every day because he gives 100 percent,” said Stars head coach Glen Gulutzan. “He’s played well for us this season. He’s got an extra gear of speed and he’s an agitator. He’s a young guy, he’s still a little bit green but you notice him every shift. He’s always trying to do something.”
That was evident in his first NHL game, which came on February 1, when he scored a goal on his third shift, beating Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith with a backhand shot on a breakaway.
“That just broke the ice,” said Roussel. “It was big because it took the pressure off me that I had to do something to standout in the game.”
In a recent game against St Louis, after the Stars fell behind early, he gave the team a spark when he fought Blues forward Chris Stewart and then made a slick pass to set up Erik Cole’s game-tying goal as the Stars rallied for a 4-1 victory.
“Roussel has done everything he can for this team,” Gulutzan said after the game. “The reason he’s having success is because he does everything right. He works extremely hard and he’s fearless. It helps our bench to know that we have guys committed to do whatever it takes to win.”
And whatever it takes includes getting under the skin of his opponents, a Roussel specialty. Dallas defenseman Brenden Dillon is a fan of Roussel these days, but it was a different story last season when Roussel was skating with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL and Dillon was with the Texas Stars.
“I wanted to rip his head off,” Dillon said. “I was one of the guys on our team that was asking him to fight every time he was out on the ice. Not an easy guy to play against. I am much happier that he is on my team now.”
Edmonton’s Taylor Hall doesn’t appear to be a big fan of Roussel. The two fought during a Texas Stars-Oklahoma City Barons game during the NHL lockout, and when the Stars and Oilers met recently Hall and Roussel were jawing at each other during the game.
“I don’t think he likes me,” said Roussel. “That’s good for us. Maybe those guys will get their minds off the game at some point, and that’s where we want them.”
So, what makes Roussel so annoying?
“He yells things at you that no one can understand,” Dillon said with a laugh. “He just works hard. He’s always on you on the forecheck. He’s a hard guy to play against.”
Roussel said annoying opponents came into his game during his days in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“I’ve always been a hard worker and hard work (ticks) people off,” Roussel said. “I picked that up in my second year of junior and kept it going.”
It took a lot of hard work for Roussel to get to the NHL and the road he traveled was a bumpy one at times. It’s a road he may have never even located if not for a decision by his parents to leave France in search of a new beginning.
“My parents wanted to change their lives,” said Roussel.
The family had been to Quebec a few times and his parents fell in love with a resort area in the province and decided to move to Canada to open a bed and breakfast. His parents had their new life, and for the 15-year-old Roussel it meant a new direction for his development as a hockey player.
“I would say that was the perfect timing,” he said. “I thought I had reached the top of the pyramid in France. That was a big time experience and was just perfect for my progression.”
But that progression hit some roadblocks. Playing hockey in France and playing in Canada were two different things, and it took some time for Roussel to land a spot on a team.
“I went to Midget AAA camp and unfortunately got cut,” he said. “I didn’t know how to train. I came into camp, did a 15-second shift and was gassed, so the coaches cut me right away.”
Then, there was another Midget camp.
“Cut again,” Roussel said. “I was thinking to myself I am never going to make anything here. I knew I was able to play, but it was much different hockey and it took me some time to understand how it works.”
Roussel finally figured it out, making Midget AAA and eventually landing a tryout and a roster spot with Chicoutimi of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 2006-07 season. After his second season of junior hockey, Roussel was in the mix for the NHL Draft.
NHL Central Scouting had him ranked 118th among North American skaters for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. Red Line Report, an independent scouting service, had him ranked 140th among all players, and said Roussel “was one of the best defensive forwards available.”
But there were no takers on draft weekend, and after two more years with Chicoutimi the undrafted Roussel turned pro, landing a spot with the Providence Bruins, Boston’s AHL affiliate. He had 8 points (1 goal, 7 assists) in 42 games with Providence in 2010-11, and also spent a few games with Reading of the ECHL.
Up next was an invitation to the Vancouver Canucks’ rookie camp and then the club’s training camp, where he got into three NHL preseason games. He was eventually sent to Chicago of the AHL, where he played 61 games in 2011-12 and registered 9 points (4 goals, 5 assists) and 177 penalty minutes.
“That was a good experience,” Roussel said. “I learned a lot there even if I didn’t score a lot of points.”
Chicago got knocked out in the first round of the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs, and Roussel headed overseas to play for France at the 2012 World Championship in Sweden. He played seven games, registering 3 points (1 goal, 2 assists).
“We had a very good year,” Roussel said. “We almost made it to the quarterfinals but we lost the last game (5-4 to Slovakia). That was a tough loss.”
But during the tournament there was good news on the contract front – Roussel had his first NHL deal, but it wasn’t with the team he expected. He was thinking he’d get a contract with Vancouver, but it turned out to be the Dallas Stars.
“Dallas showed interest in me and that was perfect,” said Roussel. “When someone really likes you and wants you around, you feel comfortable in that situation and it was perfect for me.”
For the Stars, it was another case of the pro scouts searching the American League for energy players. They had found one the previous year in Ryan Garbutt, and this time around it was Roussel.
“There are guys in the American League that get passed by at times,” said Nieuwendyk. “We are pretty pleased with what we are getting from Antoine Roussel. It’s an example of how pro scouting in the American League is important.”
With a two-year, two-way deal in his back pocket, Roussel headed to Cedar Park for the 2012-13 season. Coming into the season he had a reputation as an agitator and a fighter, but he showed a lot more as the Texas Stars season moved along. There were flashes of skill, and he played in all situations for Texas.
“Willie (Desjardins, Texas head coach) and Doug (Lidster, Texas assistant coach) helped me a lot, and my teammates did as well,” said Roussel. “The organization gave me confidence and said, ‘Roussy, we think you are a good player,’ and that helped me with my offense as well.”
Before the midway point of the season, he had almost doubled his points production of the previous year in Chicago. And his overall play caught the attention of those in the Dallas organization that had come to watch during the NHL lockout.
“He stood out every game, every game,” said Gulutzan. “Every game I saw him with his energy, getting on pucks or getting in a scrap, just something to create energy. He was working hard, good speed obviously. “
Once the lockout ended, Roussel got invited to Dallas’ training camp.
“When I heard the news, I was with a French guy and he was more thrilled than me,” said Roussel. “I was excited but I just wanted to make a good impression, play well and stay focused.”
He almost made it onto Dallas’ opening night roster, but was sent back to the AHL just before the Stars opened the season against the Phoenix Coyotes. Less than two weeks later, he was back and in the lineup for the Stars’ second tilt of the season against the Coyotes, scoring that first NHL goal and earning third star of the game honors.
Not bad for a guy who as a kid in France thought that playing in the NHL wasn’t even a remote possibility.
“It wasn’t a dream I thought was possible to achieve,” he said.
But he has made it, and it’s been quite a journey.
“He’s earned his way here,” said Gulutzan. “We’re happy to have him. He’s earned it. He’s earned a chance.”