Story and photos by Mark Newman
After playing five hours of hockey, one’s senses tend to blur. And yet for Hugo Boisvert, it was a moment that seemingly crystallized his first professional season.
The date was May 3, 2001 — although by the time Boisvert (bwah-vehr) was mobbed by his tired teammates, it was actually May 4.
“It seemed like the game was never going to end,” says Boisvert, recalling the memorable opening game of the Eastern Conference finals at Van Andel Arena between the Griffins and the Orlando Solar Bears, for whom he was playing at the time.
“We knew it was mentally a big game, that it could mean the difference in the series. We didn’t want to have to fly back home without winning. We had worked so hard for 70, 80, 90 or 100 minutes. We didn’t want to give it up.” It was Boisvert’s rookie campaign and the last season for the IHL. On both accounts, the past several months had been less than encouraging. While the IHL was winding down in its 56th and final year, Boisvert was looking to put an exclamation point on his first pro season.
“Nothing was going right, it seemed,” Boisvert says. “I had been like the 10th or 11th forward for most of the season. I wanted to prove that I could play in that league. I wanted to prove that I could help out my team.”
An injury to a teammate earlier in the Turner Cup playoffs presented the opportunity he sought. When Solar Bears star Mark Beaufait went down against Cincinnati, it meant more playing time for a rookie like Boisvert.
Even so, nobody could have predicted how much time that would have meant on this night.
When the numbers on the clock yawned 12:39 a.m., it signaled a historic moment not only for the IHL but for Boisvert as well.
“I was on the ice when the (public address) announcer said it was the second longest game in the history of the IHL,” he recalls. “The thousand people — or however many were still left in the stands — made a little noise as we got ready for a faceoff.” Boisvert couldn’t have known it at the time, but it would be the most important faceoff of his life.
“I won the faceoff and as our defense barely kept the puck in the zone, I went to the net,” he says. “There was a shot and the rebound went up in the air. I was just trying to get my stick on it, but I got full wood. I don’t know if it went off the post or the bar, but it went into the net.” Stunned, Boisvert didn’t realize he had scored until he saw the referee p ointing to the net, signaling a goal.
“It’s just the greatest feeling in the world, to be able to help out the team and win the game,” he says. “I never thought I would score the winning goal. I was just trying to work hard and help the team.” Orlando, of course, went on to defeat the Griffins in six games, then beat the Chicago Wolves in the finals to win the Turner Cup. Boisvert had four goals and five assists in 16 playoff games after tallying only six goals and 12 assists in 68 regular season contests.
That Boisvert was on a championship roster was a testament to his dedication and determination. Fact is, he hadn’t really thought about a professional hockey career until he was in college.
His parents, Gilles and Denise, always stressed school over hockey — not too surprising, given that his father was a high school French teacher. It was certainly a lesson that had been impressed upon his brother, J-P, a ski instructor who eventually became a teacher himself.
“In Canada, everyone plays hockey. We don’t know why. We just play,” Boisvert says. “I was always a good student, but when I played midget AAA at age 16, my grades dropped a little. My parents let me know if I wanted to keep playing hockey, I had to improve.” A pro career wasn’t something Boisvert thought much about. He was more focused on getting a scholarship to attend college, preferably in the U.S.
Boisvert, it seems, wasn’t happy playing junior hockey in Quebec. “My junior A team in Montreal had a lot of older guys and I was riding the pine w hen I felt I should have been playing more.” For a French-speaking Quebecois, Boisvert made the unusual move to Ontario, playing for a team in Cornwall. Not only would he get a chance to play, but he would be forced to improve his English. “I could kill two birds with one stone,” he says. “Going to university was a priority.” Initially, there was little interest in his talents. “Just being French turns off a lot of schools because of the language barrier,” he says. “By my second year, I was talking to a lot of schools, but nothing concrete happened.” During his third season, he was being recruited by a handful of schools, most notably by Ohio State University. It so happened that his junior coach’s best friend growing up was John Markell, the Buckeyes’ head coach.
OSU recruited Boisvert and his junior linemate, Eric Meloche, who now plays for Wilkes-Barre in the AHL.
“I made my decision when I visited the campus,” he says. “I wanted to live the life of a college student and it was unbelievable how much Ohio State had to offer besides hockey.” Even so, some questioned his decision, but Boisvert couldn’t have disagreed more. “People said, ‘Why are you going there?’ They said that I’d never be a winner, that we’d never make the playoffs, never play in the (NCAA) tournament. But I felt like I could help turn the program around.” Doing well in the classroom was his first challenge. He claims he was driven by the fear of being declared academically ineligible. “Believe it or not, I made the Dean’s List during my first quarter there,” says Boisvert, who led all CCHA freshmen in scoring.
But it was during his second year at Ohio State that he felt truly vindicated. Boisvert led the Buckeyes not only to their first NCAA tournament appearance but also to the Frozen Four. He also was a First Team All-American and All-CCHA selection as a sophomore.
Although his team didn’t fare as well during his junior year, Boisvert nearly matched his sophomore stats. It helped him to decide to forego his senior season and turn pro.
“At my age — I was already 23 — I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “What else could I do? I didn’t think going back to college was going to make me a better hockey player.” He was signed as an NHL free agent by Atlanta in 1999, but his confidence took a big hit when he not only failed to make a good impression on the Thrashers, but also failed to stick with the Orlando Solar Bears, Atlanta’s minor league affiliate.
“I thought I was going to play in Orlando, but the next thing I knew, I didn’t make the team,” he says. “It was very disappointing.” Instead, Boisvert was assigned to the Canadian National Team, which included future Griffins teammate Jeff Ulmer and, briefly, Ottawa Senators prospect Jason Spezza. The experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“It was a real eye opener for me,” he says. “There were guys on that team who were barely making $15,000 and they were still holding onto their dream. I saw there are a ton of good hockey players out there who don’t make it. I realized that the only way I was going to get a chance was to really work hard.” Boisvert traveled the world with the 1999-2000 Canadian National Team, playing against teams in France, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Scotland, England, Russia and Japan. “It was a great year,” he says. “I felt really privileged to play on that team.” Competing on Olympic ice helped prepare Boisvert for the following season in Orlando. He was told that he needed to improve his foot speed, and the larger rinks presented an ideal opportunity to work on his skating.
Excelling for the Solar Bears in the 2000 Turner Cup playoffs was gratifying for Boisvert, who had worked long and hard to prove that he could play pro hockey.
When the IHL and Orlando folded, Griffins general manager Bob McNamara was quick to sign the player responsible for helping to knock his club out of the playoffs.
“Richie (Griffins captain Travis Richards) joked, ‘I don’t know if I want to shake your hand,’ and Chris Szysky had a smirk on his face the whole time,” Boisvert says, recalling his introduction to his new team. “But I had (enforcer) Wade Brookbank with me, so they couldn’t mock me too much.” Boisvert nearly doubled his goal total last season, ringing up 11 in 74 games during his first year with the Griffins. With a month to go this season, he was on a pace to nearly double his total again, having netted 17 goals in 65 games.
“I’m just a third-line guy trying to work hard and play well on both sides of the ice,” Boisvert says. “I accept my role, whether I’m playing in front of the net on the power play or killing penalties and being a defensive guy. I know I have to work hard every game to be effective.” This season marks the third consecutive year that Boisvert has been a part of a winning organization. As far as he’s concerned, he wouldn’t have it any other way, even if it meant getting more ice time.
“Mo (Mark Mowers) and Willie (Jason Williams) are playing really well in front of me, but the team is winning, so how can I complain? I’m not saying th at I would complain otherwise, but it’s always more fun when you’re winning.” Going to the Red Wings training camp in Traverse City was an “ incredible” experience, Boisvert claims.
“We had some good players in Atlanta, but half of the Red Wings team is superstars,” he says. “It’s like a clinic, just watching those guys. It’s really awesome to see what they can do with the puck.” He felt that he showed that he can play at that level. All he needs is the chance. “I’m still hoping, but I don’t really think about it too much any more,” he says. “I just want to work hard and see where things take me.” In the meantime, Boisvert and his wife, Kim, are excited about expecting the arrival of a baby girl in June. “We’re thrilled,” he says. “We’re just really looking forward to having our first child.” Certainly he wouldn’t mind celebrating her arrival with a Calder Cup championship.
“We have a good bunch of guys — this is a group that reminds me a lot of the team that we had in Orlando,” Boisvert says. “We have a good mix of young players and veterans. That’s important, because once the playoffs start, you can’t rely on one or two guys. You need everyone to be chipping in.” “We’re going to be really confident going into the playoffs.”