Before this season, if you had asked a group of randomly selected Wild fans to raise their hands if they were familiar with Guillaume Latendresse
, the chance that many of them would be thrusting their paws in the air would have been highly unlikely.
They cannot be blamed; however, as even the current head coach of the Wild was barely aware of the player who was stuck down the Montreal Canadiens depth chart in the early part of the season.
“I didn’t know Guillaume that much,” says Todd Richards, who admits his role in bringing Latendresse to Minnesota was rather limited. “[GM Chuck Fletcher and Richards] talked about the trade but I couldn’t really comment on it much because I just didn’t know that much about him.”
This much the Wild, as well as anyone else who followed the Canadiens closely, did know; Latendresse was far from happy in Montreal, who felt the former second round pick and hometown kid (he grew up in the Montreal suburb of Ste. Catherine) was not popping in the goals as often as he should.
Enter Fletcher, who swung a deal with then Montreal boss Bob Gainey that sent former first round pick Benoit Pouliot to Quebec in a straight swap for Latendresse just before Thanksgiving. Pouliot has performed well with the Canadiens, but Latendresse’s early performance has put the league, as well as fans in both cities, on notice. His 21 goals lead the Wild, despite the fact that he has appeared in just over half of the team’s games. Combine that with the two he had at the time of the trade, and the total becomes 23 and counting for a player who had never scored more than 16 in any of his three previous NHL seasons.
While Richards isn’t necessarily surprised by the numbers, he admits that finding the team’s leading goal scorer was not the plan all along. “You never envision this type of success for a player,” he says, “You see the skills and you hope they’ll be successful. He had those skills when I first looked at him. He’s a big, strong kid with good hands and he’s got a good shot. Once I saw him he reminded me of a guy I coached in San Jose, Ryane Clowe,” Richards says, speaking of a player who had a career-high 22 goals and 30 assists in 71 games last season, when Richards was an assistant with the Sharks.
Among the qualities that Richards listed, perhaps most striking was Latendresse’s skating ability. The 6’2” 230 pounder may not be the most graceful looking skater, but he gets wherever he needs to go, and quickly.
“He’s not a Paul Kariya or a Brent Burns,” says Richards, referring to a pair of players with textbook skating strides. “But he gets around pretty well.”
Linemate Martin Havlat, who has assisted on roughly half of Latendresse’s goals, sums up Latendresse’s game more succinctly, “He scores goals.”
Indeed, and Havlat has benefitted from Latendresse’s presence. The Wild’s biggest off-season free-agent saw his numbers take off after the trade brought Latendresse south of the border, and the two make no secret that their styles complement each other perfectly.
“He’s great for a guy like me to play with. He finds open ice well, and he’s great around the net,” says Havlat.
Most of Latendresse’s goals have come from below the face-off circles, and with a hint of self-deprecation, he admits that is not a coincidence. “I have to get close. I can’t score from outside,” says the 22-year old with a wry smile. On a more serious note, he has high praise for the all-star on the other wing. “Marty is a great playmaker. If you can get yourself open, he’ll find you.”
As much as Havlat has found his new teammate on the ice, Wild fans are beginning to find him more frequently outside the rink. Matt Freiberg, the Wild’s Director, Retail Operations, Number 48 jerseys and t-shirts were printed in a matter of days after the trade, and the Wild’s merchandise department says they have been racing to keep up with demand as his number has become a top seller. Latendresse also admits that fans are starting to pick him out of a crowd on a more regular basis.
When asked if he gets noticed around town, Latendresse says “I’m starting to, maybe a couple times a week. It’s pretty cool.”
If Latendresse seems an unlikely candidate to become jaded by the increased exposure, he comes by it honestly. He speaks both French and English fluently, and as someone who both grew up and played in hockey’s most intense city, he knows first-hand that Montreal fans are not shy about telling players exactly what they think of them in either language.
“[Fans] here are pretty much the same thing as in Montreal on the ice. They support you the same, but off the ice it’s different. You don’t feel the pressure. Whether you win or you lose, they are still behind you and they don’t try to bash you. It’s great.”
The bearded winger with the rolled-up jersey sleeves didn’t take long to reward his new city. In just his second game in a Wild uniform, he scored the game-tying-goal in an eventual shootout win in Colorado. Four nights later in St. Paul, he scored again and set up Andrew Ebbett’s overtime winner against Nashville. Again two nights later he capped off a late comeback against Anaheim by scoring the shootout winner. Countless other moments have followed, including his first career hat-trick, but one night stands above all the rest for him.
“Scoring two goals against Chicago,” he says, referring to the comeback win over the Blackhawks on January 9th, when the Wild erased a four-goal deficit in the game’s final 13 minutes. When Latendresse slipped a one-timer through the legs of Chicago goalie Cristobal Huet with 1:33 to play to tie the score, he heard the maximum decibel level of 19,310 fans in attendance.
“I’d only heard one other crowd that loud, and I was playing for Canada in the under-20 [World Championships],” he says of the moment. That’s heavy praise from a player who has suited up for both his country and his hockey-obsessed province, but the soft-spoken forward seems eager to let the river of compliments that he’s received from the fans flow both ways.
After all, he speaks like a man who is enjoying life and breakthrough success in a new home, and if anyone else in the State of Hockey saw any of this coming at the start of the season, please raise your hand.
Didn’t think so.