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Wathier aiming to make his mark

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

For Francis Wathier, this is the year.

After missing most of last year due to injury, the 23-year-old left wing has his sights set on making an impact with the Dallas Stars in the 2008-09 season.

The Stars’ sixth-round selection (185th overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft, Wathier was in town this past week participating in the Stars’ 2008 Development Camp, the fourth one he has attended.

“I’ve been with the organization for the past five years, so this year is my year and I want to do everything I can to make the club,” Wathier said. “And spending a week here was one of my (goals) that I want to bring for the summer and prove to the club that I’m ready to play here and I’ll do anything to make this club.”

With the likelihood that one or more roster spots at forward will be up for grabs when training camp in September rolls around, Wathier figures to be one of the main candidates to land a job. And even if he doesn’t make the club out of camp initially, he will likely be in the mix to be one of the first call-ups during the season.

“He’s made some good steps over the five or six years he’s been with us, so this is just an area that he’s using the week to learn about some puck skills,” Stars’ co-General Manager Les Jackson said of Wathier’s presence at the prospect camp. “He’s a good player for us and hopefully, he’ll have a chance to be on our team at some point this season coming up.”

The gritty 6-foot-3, 201-pound Wathier is also one of the oldest guys at the development camp and as the ‘veteran,’ has taken it upon himself to provide some guidance and wisdom for some of the more recent Dallas draft picks who are getting their first taste of it.

“For me, I kind of want to have a leadership (role) with the young kids here,” Wathier noted. “There’s some (kids born in) ‘90 and I’m six years older than them, so my role here is to give some leadership and make sure everybody’s on the right track.

“As an older guy, you want to get everything, especially on the ice. You want to spend some time with coaches, you want to work on your personal stuff. Ask questions, ask what you need to work on to make the team. I’m sure the coaches like that. They want to see if you really want it. If you really want it, that’s the one that’s going to make the team.”

That proactive, take-charge attitude is one of the things the Stars have always liked about Wathier, a hard-working player who will not quit. He’s a guy that has put a premium on getting into the best shape possible and enjoyed getting the chance to get in some good workouts with strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen and his assistant Manny Hernando, not to mention the skill-developing on-ice drills with guest coach Jack Bowkus.

“This week is going to be good, individually on the ice and I’ll spend some time with Manny and J.J. for conditioning,” Wathier said Monday. “It’s going to be great to continue the summer on a good run and spend some time with Jack on the ice, to work on the individual skills and with Manny and J.J. keep up to date the good conditioning.”

Another good thing is that he’s fully recovered from the serious shoulder injury he suffered on just the third day of Stars training camp last September. He thought he might have had a shot at the big club then, but instead, not only did he not have a chance to make the team, he spent most of the year rehabbing. 

After a lot of hard work, he came back strong for the final 19 games of the season with AHL Iowa, collecting two goals and nine points and contributing his usual brand of physical, solid two-way hockey. 

“Francis, I didn’t see him all year because he was injured, but he came back,” noted fellow Iowa forward James Neal, who will also be battling for a Dallas roster spot this September. “He’s a power forward and he’s a big guy like myself and he’s a real offensive guy and real responsible in his own end and he does a good job all around.” 

While missing that much hockey at such a crucial stage in his maturation as a player undoubtedly interrupted his progress a bit, the Stars were not too concerned.

“Anytime you miss the whole season, you miss games, you miss practices, so that’s going to be a setback for him,” Jackson acknowledged. “But I think he’s a real determined player and he wants to play in the National Hockey League bad. It’ll set him back a bit but it will make him more determined. He still has a good future ahead of him.” 

He got an up-close glimpse of what that future might be like after Iowa’s season ended, when he was among a group of players recalled to the Stars for the playoff run that finally ended with a Game 6 loss to Detroit in the Western Conference Final. While Wathier never actually suited up, just being here and witnessing that first-hand was invaluable.

“Last year, I had high expectations of myself coming to training camp,” noted the native of St. Isidore, Ontario, just across the border from Quebec. “I train real hard every summer, but last summer was real high expectations and third day of camp, I bust my shoulder, so that was real unfortunate. I trained hard, came back for the last 20 games of the season and Dallas rewarded me by calling me up for the playoffs. It was a great experience practicing with the guys and being around a playoff atmosphere. It just gives you a little taste of what the NHL and the playoffs are like. So this year, you really want to make that push to make the club.”

While he didn’t participate in any playoff games last year (Iowa did not qualify), Wathier has extensive experience playing in important post-season games and relishes the chance to compete with everything on the line. His junior club in Canada, the Gatineau Olympiques, won back-to-back QMJHL championships in 2003 and 2004, which also enabled them to advance to two Memorial Cup tournaments for the highest level of junior hockey supremacy. Wathier also helped the Idaho Steelheads, the Stars’ ECHL minor league affiliate (one level below the AHL) capture the Kelly Cup title in 2007.

“The playoffs is the real season, it’s the real deal,” Wathier said. “In the regular season, everybody can play, but in the playoffs, you see the real person. It’s game after game, it takes a lot out of you, and if you want to go to battle, that’s the place to go. For me, that’s probably the best hockey that I love. Every day you play like it’s your last game, which I love. You just hate the opposition, so that’s what I love about it. I cannot wait to bring it to (the NHL) level. It’s a dream for me to win a Stanley Cup, and I’m sure I will one day with this organization.”

And as good as he is on the ice, he’s also a great guy off it. He has participated in several different charitable activities during three years in Iowa and last season was named a finalist for the AHL’s American Specialty/Man of the Year Award for outstanding work in the community, an honor nominated by the Iowa organization. He has gone on many hospital visits, worked with the Des Moines Boys and Girls Club and took part in various camps for the Des Moines Youth Hockey Association.

“It’s something that’s really important to me,” Wathier said of his charitable contributions. “I spend a lot of time with the kids, especially at the hospital. It’s really sad to see young kids that battle cancer and leukemia, it’s really tough. For me, to give a smile on their faces, it’s just a pleasure. It’s easy to spend some time with them, because they’re the one who battle harder than me.

“It was a great honor from the league and of course, my team, the staff. They’re the ones who chose me, so thank you to them, and I’ll keep doing it. It’s something that is in me. I’m a young kid who grew up in a little town and it’s really something I want to give back to the community - the school, the library, and especially the hospital.”

As a guy who has become attached to the Des Moines area after spending the majority of his three professional seasons there, Wathier is a little disappointed the Stars will no longer be affiliated with the team there, which has changed its name and will host Anaheim’s prospects this year. Dallas players assigned to the AHL will go to four or five different teams across the league.

“It was sad, my wife and I bought a house there and we like it there,” Wathier said. “We’re always going to spend a couple of months there in the summer. They’re great fans, they’re going to like Anaheim’s farm team and maybe a couple of guys from Dallas will get sent down there so it’s good for them. But it’s a great city.”

Of course, if he has his way, Wathier won’t be heading back to the AHL at all anyway.  He is completely committed to doing all he can to stay in Dallas, starting with a strong training camp.

“Training camp arrives real fast and you never know what can happen, you just got to give your best shot and see what happens,” Wathier said. “You got to go with the mindset of what you want and what I want is to make that club.” 

He knows he will be in a dogfight to win a roster spot and that his fiercest competition will come from his Iowa teammates James Neal and Raymond Sawada among others, but Wathier claims that going against his friends won’t change anything.

“We’re all good buddies but we’re all fighting for a spot, so it’s going to get that competitive edge out of ourselves, but in the long run, after we’re out of the rink, we’re all good buddies, but we fight for a job,” Wathier said. “It’s going to be the same thing for the veterans. We want to take their jobs and they’re not going to let us do that, for sure. That’s a great thing about hockey. You never know what’s going to happen and you’re just happy to be here and be part of this great organization.”
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