(Denver, Colorado) André Ruel remembers the cold. It was spring 2008 and our man was in Toruń, Poland. A medieval town, certainly a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but not the mecca of ice hockey.
Posted at 5:03pm
“I took notes, but it was so cold in the arena I couldn’t write! Ruel remembers. To warm myself up I put my hands on the hot water pipes used for heating! »
Ruel, now agent Pat Brisson’s right arm in Quebec, was then assistant general manager at the Voltigeurs de Drummondville. What could he do in Poland? He wanted to spy on a player who could have slipped through the cracks in the system but scored another winner on Friday: Ondrej Palat.
It is often mentioned that Palat was claimed at the very end of the 2011 draft, in its third year of eligibility. But his path was complicated even before that.
It all starts with a descent story. The Czech Republic usually plays in the first division at the World Cup, but this year the country fell back to the second division for the U18s.
Ruel is therefore traveling to Kazan for the U18 World Cup in the first division to observe Dmitri Kulikov there. But a detour to Poland is announced.
“I knew the Czechs had good players,” Ruel recalls. Once there, I sent a report to Dominic [Ricard, le DG] “He’s a damn good hockey player!” But he told me through an interpreter that he didn’t want to come to North America because he wanted to finish school. But I kept my report. »
In that championship, in which he was 17, Palat scored eight points in five games. “They had no competition, they won 6-7 goals against Lithuania and Ukraine. But he even blocked shots at 7-0! I said, “He’s real.” »
A year later he’s back here at the U18 World Championship in North Dakota. This time the Czech Republic regains its place in the first division, but Palat is limited to a small point.
“The year before he was playing on the front row even though he was on the youngest and there he was on the fourth row! says Ruel. I knew the GM of the Czechs, so I will see him to understand him. Ondrej had mononucleosis a month before the tournament. He wasn’t even supposed to go, but he insisted. »
Ruel therefore knew the context behind the performances. Knowing that Palat was now ready to cross the Atlantic, the Voltigeurs challenged him at 10 o’clocke Place in the European Repechage 2009. “A recruiter from the Red line report said we made the worst choice in the history of the European Repechage! ‘ Ruel recalled.
Palat’s arrival at Drummondville coincides with Denis Gauthier’s first post-playing year with the Voltigeurs.
“My first reaction when I saw him was, ‘He won’t last two weeks at Drummond!’ admits the former defender. He did fairly simple exercises and, out of breath, landed on all fours on the rink. He was a hard worker but I didn’t see how he would adapt. »
But Palat eventually found his rhythm and finished his debut season with 40 points in 59 games. In his sophomore year, it’s a blast: 96 points alongside Sean Couturier.
But he’s 19 and playing with one of the brightest talents of his year. So many good reasons to ignore him in the NHL.
“We pushed for him,” recalls Ruel. Guy Boucher was our former coach and he had gone to Tampa. So we passed the word on to him. He checked with the scouts, but they had Matthew Peca on their list for the seventh round.
“We’ll call Guy back. Dom told him: “It shouldn’t be that expensive, a choice of 7e round.” Guy gets up, walks over to Steve Yzerman and makes the deal. »
Lightning gets Coyotes on 201e choice he uses to select peca. Then, at your own choice, at 208e Rank, Tampa gets its hands on Palat.
It is therefore this player who now has 12 game-winning goals in the playoffs, a Calder Cup ring and two Stanley Cups. With the possibility of a third if the Lightning win their next two games against the Colorado Avalanche.
“He deserves everything that happens to him,” Gauthier said. Yes, he fell in the right place at the right time. But he benefited from this dynasty as much as he contributed to it. He didn’t have the easiest path and he kept fighting. It’s an example of determination. We in Drummondville are proud of him. We haven’t forgotten that. »