Griffins defenseman Patrick Boileau is feeling pretty good about his decision to join the Red Wings after being a mainstay in the Washington Capitals' minor league organization.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side.
Patrick Boileau spent seven long seasons in the Washington organization.
In that time he played 488 games in the minors and saw action in seven NHL games with the Capitals.
When Detroit called this summer, he made the decision to pack his bags.
On the surface, it seemed at best to be a long shot. At worst, it was pure career suicide.
Not many guys would have the courage to go from a team that failed to make the playoffs to the defending Stanley Cup champions and expect to earn a job in the NHL.
Call him foolhardy if you wish, but Boileau sensed that this was finally the opportunity to play in the NHL that he had been waiting and hoping would one day come his way.
“It gave me new life,” Boileau says. “It really wasn’t that difficult a decision. I don’t think Washington had big plans for me and I knew I needed to move on if I was going to keep my NHL dream alive."
Even so, he sought the advice of Glen Hanlon, the former NHL goaltender who had been his coach at Portland in the American Hockey League during the previous three seasons.
Go for it, that was the advice of Hanlon, who had to make a similar decision of his own this past summer when he accepted an assistant’s position on the coaching staff of former Griffins coach Bruce Cassidy in Washington.
“He said, ‘Patty, if I were you, I’d be jumping on that,'” Boileau recalls. “He was my mentor in Portland and when he said that he thought I’d have a better shot in Detroit, I listened."
Boileau was encouraged by the fact that Detroit was calling him after not re-signing Steve Duchesne, Frederik Olausson, Jiri Slegr or Uwe Krupp. “The fact that they were losing a couple of D-men made my choice a little easier,” Boileau says.
“Going to Detroit, I knew I probably wouldn’t make the team right away, but I knew I would have a better shot at playing in the NHL than if I stayed (in Portland with Washington)."
He couldn’t be happier about his decision. Three months into his first season with the Red Wings organization, he had already seen action in six NHL games, just one less than he saw in seven years with the Capitals.
Griffins head coach Danton Cole is thrilled that Boileau is getting the chance to play in the NHL.
“It’s great to see a guy like Patty rewarded,” Cole says. “It’s really a tribute to him. It’s not easy to stay in the minors that long and maintain the commitment, but he’s been nothing but a pro here. I know the guys here have been happy to see his success."
Boileau’s opportunity followed injuries to Red Wings defensemen Mathieu Dandenault and Jesse Wallin. After getting eight minutes of ice time in his first couple of starts, Boileau saw his playing time increase to the point where he was averaging nearly 10-1/2 minutes per game.
“It’s been great,” he says. “I was a little nervous the first game, but all the guys there make you feel so comfortable. You’d think with all those Hall of Fame players, they wouldn’t even talk to you, but they go out of their way to make you feel welcome."
It’s been a long journey to the NHL for Boileau, a Montreal native who grew up in Blainville, a town north of the biggest city in Quebec.
Boileau started playing hockey when he was only three years old. “I skated with my dad and he showed me how to play the game,” he says.
He always had the full support of his father, Michel, a family practice physician specializing in sports medicine, and his mother, Marie, who works as a secretary in his office.
“They never pushed me, but I loved hockey, so they didn’t have to push me all the time,” he says. “My dad coached me a couple of years when I was younger and he was the team doctor when I played in midget AAA and juniors."
Boileau always played close to home, first for the Laval Regents in AAA and then three years for the Laval Titan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Even the 1993 NHL Draft in which he was taken by Washington was held nearby in Quebec City.
“I think I had about 30 persons at the draft,” he recalls. “All my family was jumping up and yelling -- it was a real trip. My dad was even crying."
Like most kids, Boileau figured he was going to beat a quick path to the NHL. The idea that he would have to endure an extended stay in the AHL with the Portland Pirates never crossed his mind.
“I remember being at a couple of meetings at the beginning of my rookie season and thinking, ‘I don’t really need to listen to this. I’ll only be here a couple of weeks or a month and then I’ll be in the NHL.’ “Eight years later, I’m still in the minors. So, now I listen to those meetings."
Boileau had a memorable rookie year in Portland. He played a team-high 78 games and led all defensemen with 38 points. He saw action in 19 more games in the Calder Cup playoffs as the Pirates went from the worst team in the league at the halfway point to game seven of the finals.
“It was a great thrill,” Boileau says. “It really was awesome. At the time, I thought, ‘Oh well, we lost this year, but we’ll win it next year.’ But I’ve never been back to the finals again."
He earned his first NHL recall the following year during the 1996-97 season. It was only one game, but the fact that his NHL initiation happened close to home in Ottawa made it even more special.
“One of my best friends always promised me that, no matter where it was, he would be at my first NHL game. Lucky enough for him, it was less than two hours from home,” Boileau says, laughing.
“I still remember the game like it was yesterday. I really wasn’t that nervous. My adrenaline was so high, I didn’t think about it. I just went out there and played my game."
Boileau saw action in four NHL games a couple of seasons later and two more games again last year, but it was clear that he was going nowhere fast.
He took inspiration from long-time teammate Steve Poapst.
Poapst spent seven seasons with the Pirates after a couple of years in the East Coast Hockey League. A career minor leaguer, Poapst switched teams and finally earned a spot with the Chicago Blackhawks at the ripe old age of 32.
At 27, Boileau knows time is still on his side, but realizes he can no longer be considered a prospect. That’s fine with him. Call him a depth player, an experienced pro, a solid veteran. Whatever. He doesn’t care, as long as somebody still calls him.
“The NHL dream is always there,” Boileau admits. “It’s what you keep driving to achieve. You always hope that one day you’re finally going to get the call and get the big break."
After seven years in Portland, he knew it was time to take a dive into the free agent pool. After all, pools have been good to the Boileau family.
His sister, Myriam, 25, won the gold medal for 10-meter diving at in the 1997 World Championships. She was third in the 2000 Olympic trials for the Canadian team, finishing behind Anne Montminy and Emilie Heymans, who teamed to win a silver medal in the synchronized event. Montminy also took home a bronze medal in the 10-meter event.
“My sister was originally a gymnast, but she got to be too tall, so she switched to diving,” Boileau says. “Right now she’s coming off a back injury, but her main goal is to make the next Olympic team in 2004."
Boileau is no stranger to pools himself. “My father made me swim for workouts when I was younger,” he says.
His NHL hopes have obviously not sunk with the Red Wings. He was recalled to Detroit for a second time this season when veteran Chris Chelios went down with an undisclosed ailment.
“You get one or two games in the NHL and you want some more,” he says.
“Sure, the pressure (to perform) is there, but hockey’s all about pressure.
When you’re down 2-1 with two minutes to go and you’re going on the power play, you learn all about pressure."
If anything, Boileau feels his years of experience have helped him to become more relaxed.
“I think you learn to appreciate your chances more,” he says. “You can get a foot in the door, but it’s so hard to push it open. You keep trying.
Hopefully, you eventually open some eyes."
As he has chased his NHL dreams, Boileau has leaned on the support of his family. He married Caroline, his high school sweetheart, four years ago and the couple welcomed the birth of their first child, Samuel, in May 2000.
“My wife has been unbelievable,” he says. “Through all my ups and downs, she’s always been really supportive. It’s not always easy, but she’s always been there for me."
Adding another member to the family was a completely different story, but one that promises a happy ending.
“It’s been unreal -- it changed everything,” he says. “Before Sam, everything was focused on my career, getting to play in the NHL. Now that I have a family, I know there’s something else besides hockey."
Maybe it’s a combination of everything -- a new attitude, a new family, a new home and a new team -- but Boileau has never felt more comfortable than he does today.
Who said the grass isn’t greener on the other side? Samuel recently took his first spin on skates during “The Great Skate,” the 24-hour fundraising marathon recently held by the Griffins at the outdoor Rosa Park Circle rink in downtown Grand Rapids.
“We taped it,” Boileau says. “We borrowed skates from Pic (Michel Picard) and he absolutely loved it. We’re going to have to do it more often now."
Whether his two-year-old son eventually plays hockey is totally up to him, but Boileau has a fairly good idea of which way he’s leaning.
“He’ll wake up at eight o’clock and he’ll come to me in bed and he’ll ask, ‘Daddy, you want to play hockey?’ and I’ll say, ‘Not now Sam. It’s only eight o’clock in the morning!’ But he doesn’t give up -- ‘No, no. I want to play hockey.’” Samuel is constantly playing hockey in the basement of the new house that Boileau built two summers ago in Boisbriand, not far from where he grew up.
“I knew zero about construction, but I have friends in the business,” he says. “They’re the pros -- they knew what they were doing."
Building a house wasn’t something that Boileau had set out to do. “We visited a couple of houses, but we didn’t like the counter in one, the floor in another. Finally, we decided to build our own house."
It was one time when Boileau knew he could get what he wanted. If only getting to play in the NHL was so easy.