It was a celebration — une grosse fête — thrown by his best friend since childhood.
There was good music, lots of food and drinks and a very special guest in attendance: the President’s Cup trophy.
Charles-Olivier Roussel declined the invitation.
“I didn’t take it personally,” said Olivier Hotte, who hosted the party back in 2009. “We’re still best friends. I would have done the same if I was in his shoes.”
The absence was understandable since Hotte — then a defenceman with the Drummondville Voltigeurs — had just helped eliminate Roussel’s Shawinigan Cataractes from the Quebec Major Junior League final in a huge Game 7 victory.
“It’s a good thing he didn’t go,” said Hotte. “He didn’t want to curse it, by touching the Cup.
“He didn’t want to know the feeling because he wanted to win it by himself.”
Hockey players have always been a superstitious bunch, but it this case it might have helped. Four years later, Roussel finally got a second chance and his own opportunity to hoist the hardware on Thursday night as member of Saint John Sea Dogs. The Sea Dogs defeated the Rimouski Oceanic 8-0 to complete a four-game championship sweep and earn a berth in the Memorial Cup tournament.
With his team up by more than a touchdown, the 20-year-old said he had goosebumps in the third period knowing that he was soon to be a champion. Knowing how close Roussel had come before during his five-year QMJHL career, his Sea Dogs teammates made sure he was one of the first players to lift the President’s Cup.
“You don’t know how much I appreciated that,” said the veteran defenceman. “I couldn’t be more thankful to the guys for winning this with me, for me.”
The weight he had been carrying for so long as a runner-up was finally gone to the point where even the Cup seemed a mere wisp.
“It’s heavy, but when you hold it, it feels like a sheet of paper,” Roussel said. “You don’t even notice. It’s just crazy.”
Back at home, Hotte was cheering for his friend and eagerly watching the time tick down on the game broadcast across Quebec. Seeing Roussel with the Cup was almost like winning for a second time.
“I watched when they handed him the (President’s) Cup and I was emotional,” said Hotte, who grew up two blocks away from Roussel in the Montreal suburb of St-Eustache, Que. “Honestly, I was so happy for him. I cheered for him all year long and we would talk on the phone almost every day and I tried to give him some tips — not about the championship — but about everything, hockey and life, too.
“He deserves it.”
It was a nice finish to a season that began with turmoil for the second-round pick of the Nashville Predators. After finishing the 2010-11 junior campaign with Montreal, Roussel had started preparing to turn pro but his stint in the American Hockey League with the Milwaukee Admirals proved short. The team’s depth at defence with OHL stars Ryan Ellis and Scott Valentine earning AHL spots saw the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Roussel returned to junior, without even playing a single regular-season game.
“I worked so hard in the summer to get in shape to be able to play in the AHL, but the Nashville organization didn’t think it was the best thing for me to play there (in Milwaukee) so they sent me back,” said Roussel, who signed a three-year entry level contract with the Predators in 2010. “It was a lot of disappointment because after four years in the ‘Q’ you don’t want to play when you’re 20. It’s hard when other guys chirp you because you’re a second-rounder in the NHL. You should be playing in the AHL but you get sent back to junior.”
In October when the Sea Dogs heard Roussel was being returned to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, who owned his rights, general manager Mike Kelly wasted little time in adding the anchor to his defending Memorial Cup-champion blue line.
“When he became available (the trade) was probably done within 24 hours,” said Kelly. “It was quick, but when you’re dealing with players coming out of the American League those players want to get right back at it, even if there’s a level of disappointment.”
Kelly believes that spending the extra year in junior was good for Roussel, in terms of his development. He said he noticed a definite change in the second half of the season when Roussel had become more comfortable with his situation and new teammates.
“He came back after Christmas and he told me he really wanted to have a good second half (of the season),” said Kelly. “He became more determined.”
“Everybody develops at a different rate and one thing over the years that we’ve learned is that development is more of a marathon than a sprint. Some guys do benefit from a year of overage hockey with the leadership and being able to dominate more and learning a little bit more about the defensive side of the game. I think (Roussel) has really worked on his game, he’s a bright young man and he’s been great for us as a leader. I know he’s got the respect of his teammates and all those things make a difference in the development of a player.”
In hindsight, with a championship now on his resume, Roussel believes Nashville’s decision to return him to junior was a good thing. It might have even furthered his desire to make an impact with the Predators.
“I believe everything happens for a reason, so for me to come back here it was for the best,” he said. “I haven’t given up I’m going back (to Nashville) next year and I’m going to camp to make the NHL.”
Off the ice, Roussel is friendly and well-spoken in both French and English. He and Hotte first met as kids playing minor hockey in Atom — they’ve been friends ever since. The 21-year-old Hotte says despite the NHL contract and all his achievements in hockey, Roussel is still one of the most humble people he knows.
“He’s so down to earth,” said Hotte, who is studying business management at UQTR and playing for the Patriotes. “He remembers where he comes from, that’s so important to him. He was drafted to the NHL in the second round and he went third overall in junior, but I’ve never once heard him tell anyone that in a social setting. He’s not a cocky guy at all.
“He’s just a really fun guy to be around. He’s not my best friend for no reason.”
Hotte said he hopes to make it out to Shawinigan, Que., for the Memorial Cup tournament which begins on May 19. When he went to the tournament in 2009 with Drummondville, they ended up being beaten in the semifinals. Roussel is hoping to avoid a similar fate.
“The President’s Cup is fun and we’re going to enjoy it, but we’re still focusing on the Memorial Cup right now.”
Once that’s done, win or lose, Roussel said he plans to throw the biggest and best Cup bash possible.
“Oh, I can throw parties so it’s probably going to be fun no matter what,” said Roussel with a laugh. “I have this mentality, I just go hard or go home. I’m not going to do things half-way, it’s going to be fun.”
Hotte said he’s looking already forward to it since the first time they’ll both be able to celebrate the fruits of the junior careers together — without fear of curse or superstition.
“I’m not in junior anymore, so I hope he wins the Memorial Cup because I never got the chance to touch it.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the Junior Hockey Editor at Yahoo! Sports.
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