Xavier Ouellet has a hockey pedigree but is intent on becoming a regular in the NHL on his own merit.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When a boy follows in his father's footsteps, there is always the question of whether it was nature or nurture.
Is the decision to pursue the same profession a matter of genes or jeans? Is it some chromosonal material that genetically pushes a boy in the same direction or is it some deep-seated desire that is intrinsically embraced by a boy who wants to put on the same pair of pants as his father.
For Xavier Ouellet, it may be a little of the former and a lot of the latter.
As the son of Robert Ouellet, who played hockey professionally in France and Germany, Xavier was almost born with skates on his feet. "I grew up in a hockey environment, so I just fell in love with the ice," he recalls. "I remember watching every game that I could."
By the age of five, Xavier was going to hockey practice three times a week. His mom, Marie-Josée, drove him to practice or to the rink to see his dad play. "I can remember going into the (dressing) room sometimes," he said.
His father never pushed, never prodded. "He was really supportive, but he never tried to coach me. He always said, 'There's a reason you have a coach,' and he didn't want to interfere," Ouellet said. "The only thing that mattered was that I had fun."
Like his father, young Xavier played center. "As I grew up, I would ask him, 'What can I do?' He really helped me with the mental part of the game, how to get ready for warmups, how to prepare for a game."
Up to his teenage years, playing hockey was almost second-nature for Xavier, who was born in Bayonne, France. Age 14, however, was a major turning point in his career.
"We had a defenseman who couldn't play for our summer team, so we needed someone, and I just tried it and found I liked it," Ouellet said. "I liked the job you have to do on defense. I ended up really liking the position, so I just stayed there."
It was also at age 14 that Ouellet had a rude awakening.
Cut from his Bantam AA team, Ouellet wondered whether he was really cut out to become a professional player like his father or whether he had deluded himself into thinking he was destined to play.
"I was really disappointed – being cut really hurt me," Ouellet said. "That's when I had a talk with my dad and he said, 'If you really want to play hockey, you have some stuff to do.' That's when I really started to put in the effort by working out and practicing all I could."
Accustomed to hanging out with friends during the summer, he rededicated himself to hockey. If he was going to truly excel at the game, it would require extraordinary effort. The fact that his father played professionally would matter little in the long run.
At age 16, Ouellet was a first-round pick of the Montreal Junior team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he would play the next two years before the franchise moved to Blainville-Boisbriand.
He credits head coach Pascal Vincent and assistant coaches Dominique Ducharme and Joel Bouchard with providing the necessary guidance while showing great faith in his play. "They gave me a lot of responsibility at a young age and helped me grow in my junior career," he said.
Ouellet earned the trust of his coaches. His excellent work ethic and steady performance allowed him to become a solid two-way blueliner – a young player who was mature beyond his years. His strong hockey sense and vision, along with his ability to make a great first pass, propelled him to near the top of many team's draft lists.
It was no surprise when Ouellet was selected in the second round (48th overall pick) by the Red Wings in the 2011 NHL draft. He had already established himself as a top prospect before finishing his junior career with two solid seasons as captain of his team.
Ouellet also represented Canada at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, notching three points (one goal, two assists) in six games. "It didn't go as well as we wanted as a team, but as a player, it was a great learning experience," he said.
He joined the Griffins at the end of last season and although he didn't see action in any games, witnessing the team's run to the Calder Cup championship was an invaluable experience.
"I had no idea what the AHL was like, so to come last year and see a few games, it really helped," he said. "It's not fun to watch from the stands, but there are good things that you can get out of the experience, and I think watching the team helped me a lot in terms of getting ready for this season."
He came into training camp with the Red Wings with one thing on his mind. "My goal has always been to play in the NHL. I didn't know when it would be, but it was my main goal," said Ouellet, who knew adjusting to pro hockey would be a challenge.
Five games into his AHL career, Ouellet got the good news. He was recalled by the Red Wings and made his debut against the San Jose Sharks on Oct. 21.
"I wanted to scream and yell everywhere, but I kept my emotions in control," he said. "I wasn't that nervous or scared – more excited than anything. I couldn't wait for the game to start. When my first shift was done, I was really into the game and I felt pretty good."
Ouellet logged 17:15 of ice time and, by all reports, did everything that was expected of him.
"I thought he was real good, I thought he was steady," said Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock. "I liked him through training camp, (so) it's not a big surprise to me. He's smart, doesn't make lots of mistakes.
"As a young D, often it's not so much what you do, it's how few mistakes you make. Conscientious, trustworthy, you get to play a lot. He did a good job.''
Ouellet was recalled a second time in early November, earning starts against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets. "I've always been motivated, but playing a couple of NHL games gave me a little taste of what it's like and made me hungrier to get back," he said.
At age 20, Ouellet is showing the kind of poise and puck prowess that some scouts believe could eventually make him a Top-4 defenseman.
"Xavier is a very mature young player, and that shows in his game," said Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill. "He handles risk management very well; he doesn't take more risk than the reward. He's able to be a fairly efficient hockey player in the sense that he can create offense and defend well without giving up much. That's why when he's gone up to Detroit, he's done a good job because he's played a fairly simple and manageable game."
In less than two months, Ouellet has earned the faith of his coaches in both the AHL and NHL.
"If you can earn the coach's confidence that you're good defensively, no matter what position you play, you're going to be put into a lot more positions throughout the game, and he's gained the confidence of the coaching staffs in both Grand Rapids and Detroit," Blashill said.
Of course, Ouellet is still young, so he's bound to make mistakes. "There are always little things that I know I need to improve, so the more I play, the better I feel," he said. "I know when I play a strong game defensively, I'm happy for the night. If I get points, that's a bonus because I want to contribute offensively too."
Ouellet wants to be an asset at both ends of the ice. "I want to be the defenseman who can do everything, whether it's being on the ice when we need a goal or when we need to shut down the other team," he said. "I want to work on every aspect of my game."
With more games under his belt, Ouellet hopes to polish his play. "I'm still adjusting," he admits. "I want to get better every day and get ready to become a good defenseman in the NHL."