The Dallas Stars still believe that Francis Wathier
belongs in the latter category. At 25 and completing his fifth minor league season in the organization, the burly left winger has excelled for the Texas Stars, helping the AHL club based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park reach the Calder Cup Finals.
Following a Game 1 victory on the road in Hershey Thursday night, the Stars lead the best-of-seven series 1-0 against the defending champions.
Even though he missed giant chunks of time due to injuries in two of his five pro seasons, Wathier has still demonstrated steady progress over the last couple of years, culminating in an outstanding 2009-10 performance.
Not only did Wathier enjoy a breakout offensive year, compiling career highs with 19 goals and 40 points in 76 regular season games, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound bruiser also made his NHL debut this season, appearing in five games over the course of three different call-ups to Dallas.
“It’s a huge season for me,” acknowledged Wathier, who also compiled 101 penalty minutes this year, second-most on the club. “This has been by far the best year of my career, through juniors and pro - 40 points, still a couple of (fighting) majors, and just the ice time and the opportunity that the coach has been giving me on the power play and the PK. So I got a bigger role as far as responsibilities on the team, bring a little bit of leadership - with all the injuries, it forces a person (to mature) and it helped me through those years, to be able to face adversity and be able to be a better player in the room and on the ice. It’s just hard work. Hard work brings you where you want to be and in this game. You can never stop and you can never have regrets.”
“Francis, he’s come a long way in the last three years and he’s a guy that does everything well,” said Texas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “He scored 19 goals this year, which is a career high, he fights for the hockey club, he goes to the net, he finishes every check. He’s just a meat-and-potatoes guy - he’s a great penalty killer. He’s been invaluable for us. His niche will probably be to get on that fourth line with Dallas and he’s a quality character person, too, so those are the kind of guys that Dallas is trying to bring up through their system.”
During the AHL playoffs, Wathier has continued his usual expert penalty killing and effective two-way play, recording a goal and six assists in 19 post-season contests while also providing a valuable physical presence. His considerable experience with long playoff runs has influenced Wathier to keep his emotions level and make sure he has fun during the ride.
“Definitely, as a group, we’ve been having a great season this year, and you’ve got to enjoy the moment,” said Wathier, who helped his junior team, Gatineau, win back-to-back QMJHL championships in 2003 and ‘04, while also contributing to the ECHL Idaho Steelheads’ run to the Kelly Cup in 2007. “We got that on our board, ‘caught in the moment,’ in the locker room. It doesn’t happen every year that you get a successful team through the season, through the playoffs. We’re battling for each other, we want to be successful and you’re caught in the moment - you just got to enjoy it and make the best out of it. We’re facing a good club - we faced a lot of good teams, but we are a good team. We know that and we just got to execute our game and stay consistent on our game plan.”
Skating most of the time on a rugged line with fellow hard-hitters Raymond Sawada
and Warren Peters, Wathier and his line have really helped the Stars set the tone physically, punishing opposing defensemen with big hits multiple times a game, while also generating scoring chances.
“He takes a pounding and he gives it out,” said Texas Stars General Manager Scott White. “The regular season, with Watty, fighting’s not an issue, he sticks up for his teammates. That line that he’s on with Warren Peters and Ray Sawada, it’s big, hard to play against. Opponents remember them.”
Besides his physical prowess and offensive contributions, Wathier also makes an impact on both special teams, excelling as a penalty killer and camping out as a big body in front of the net on the power play. He’s also a respected leader in the dressing room. What NHL squad couldn’t use a player like that?
“Francis is the consummate pro,” White said. “He’s earned his time up in Dallas this year. He prepares, he’s a great teammate. He’s an effective penalty killer here at the American Hockey League level. He’s a physical presence for us and he’s been very consistent throughout the season. I think probably, in the playoffs, Francis would like a couple of extra goals, but he adds to our team with his physical game and his grinding-out style, which is necessary, not only in the playoffs but during the regular season as well.”
Getting called up to Dallas earlier in the season was a huge thrill for the St. Isidore, Ontario native, especially for his NHL debut on Oct. 21 at Anaheim.
“It was unbelievable,” said Wathier, who fired three shots on goal and dropped the gloves for his first NHL fight in just 5:59 of ice time in the Stars’ 4-2 victory that night. “You work your whole life for that opportunity, it’s a reward. You work so hard and you get there and you know you still have a lot to learn, you know you have to work even harder. Those guys, they don’t ever take a day off during the season, they keep going every night. The biggest thing, I think, is just execution. You got to get rid of the puck an extra second faster, because everyone knows what they’re doing. You go to your position, the puck will be on your tape, but you got to make sure you’re there and make that play. It’s fast, it’s the best of the best, so you make sure you do everything to go back, because that’s your dream.”
Wathier certainly made a positive impression on Dallas management, as evidenced by the fact that they recalled him twice more during the season for four more games.
“When I was getting sent back down, I was always asking the coaches there, Coach Crawford, what I got to improve to come back,” said Wathier, the Stars’ sixth round selection (185th overall) in the 2003 Entry Draft. “I think that’s one thing you have to concentrate on when you get sent down, because you take everything in and you want to work on something to get back and I think it shows them that you care.”
For Wathier to make it this far is a testament to his perseverance, especially considering the obstacles he’s already overcome in his career.
In his first professional season, 2005-06, Wathier injured both of his shoulders and skated in just 11 games for the Stars’ former AHL squad in Iowa that year. He came back with a pretty solid year the next season, despite spending some time in the ECHL with Idaho, but that allowed him to win a championship there. He also chipped in 14 goals in 57 games with Iowa in ‘06-07, leading to speculation he could possibly be ready to win a spot on the Dallas roster the next season, but ‘07-08 was derailed by more shoulder problems, as Wathier suited up for just 19 contests in Iowa.
“My first year pro, I got injured, had surgery on both my shoulders, missed 60 games,” Wathier recounted. “My second year, a really good start in the ECHL a little bit for rehab and then had a really solid season in the American League. Then, third season, high expectations, I go to (Dallas training) camp trying to get a spot or looking for a call-up during the season, bust a shoulder again, so it was really disappointing.”
Last season was a challenge for a different reason, as the Stars didn’t have their own AHL affiliate and their prospects were scattered across the league. Wathier ended up staying in Iowa, a place he was very familiar with, but he skated alongside Anaheim farmhands all year.
“We were all spread out everywhere, but it kind of worked out fine,” said Wathier, who recorded six goals and 16 points, as well as 127 penalty minutes, in 77 games in 2008-09. “Iowa was my home for the last four years and I got along with the coaches real well, they still gave me good ice time. It’s always better if it’s in your own system, but I can’t complain, I was really fortunate to be able to play somewhere at least.”
That’s one more aspect of Wathier that makes him so special - his humility. A guy from a small town who cherishes every day on the ice, Wathier never takes his hockey career for granted.
“I’m just happy I have a place to play,” Wathier said. “I’m just a farm boy. For us, you work hard all day so you can have bread on the table, so to be able to play hockey for a living is a blessing. You enjoy it for every day more, and that’s all you can ask for.”