Xavier Ouelett was the first player to step onto the ice on Friday morning when the Laval Rocket practiced on the Place Bell community rink.
His first job was to push one of the nets into place and set it in its moorings before skating over to the bank to grab a bag full of pucks and throw them onto the ice.
Captaining an AHL team isn’t glamorous (or as well paid) as it is in the NHL, but leadership is just as important, if not more so.
“It’s just leading by example,” Ouellet said after practice. “Being a leader is more about doing the right things and not saying the right things. It’s just the way you handle yourself. You prepare for the games: the young people who come in, they can see it.”
Ouellet’s leadership has helped the Rocket advance to the best-of-five North Division final against the Rochester Americans with Game 1 scheduled for Sunday at Place Bell. (7pm, RDS, TSN 690 Radio). Game 2 will also be at Place Bell on Monday. (7pm, RDS, TSN 690 Radio).
This is Ouellet’s fourth season with the Rockets and he’s well-paid for an AHL player, earning $475,000 in the final season of a $750,000 two-year, two-way contract in the NHL.
The Canadiens are paying the 28-year-old defenseman as much for his leadership skills as he is for his talent on the ice. Ouellet has 178 games of NHL experience with the Detroit Red Wings and Canadiens.
The Canadiens used 14 defenses this season, but Ouellet was never called up after playing six NHL games last season, 12 the year before and 19 during his first season with the franchise after signing as a free agent. An upper-body injury limited Ouellet to 61 regular-season games this season with the Rockets, during which he posted totals of 8-33-41. He had three assists during the Rocket’s five-game win over the Syracuse Crunch in the first round of the AHL playoffs.
“I don’t control any of that,” Ouellet said when asked about not getting a call from the Canadiens. “I had an injury this year, I don’t know if it had an influence or not. But you know, it’s part of the game. I am happy with my season. We are succeeding here in Laval. It’s fun, it’s a great place to play. I try to focus on that.”
Being a captain in the AHL involves creating a bond in the locker room between young players just beginning their professional careers and veterans nearing the end.
When the Rocket beat the Crunch 3-2 in overtime in Game 5 of their best-of-five Division North semifinal series Tuesday night in Syracuse, coming back from a 2-0 deficit, they got goals from Alex Belzile, 30 years old. , Cédric Paquette, 28, and Gabriel Bourque, 31. Goalkeeper Cayden Primeau, 22, stopped 32 of the 34 shots he faced, improving his playoff record to 3-1 with an average of 1.96 goals against and a save percentage of .940.
Belzile has only played 13 games in the NHL, including 11 this season with the Canadiens. Paquette, who scored the tying goal with just 39 seconds remaining in the third period of Game 5, has played in 448 NHL games, including 24 this season with the Canadiens. Bourque, the OT hero, has 413 games of NHL experience but was out of hockey last season before signing with Rocket last summer.
“I’m trying to bring the group together and I’m not alone in this,” Ouellet said. “The veteran group that we have is really good and we are all leaders there. Works.”
Head coach Jean-François Houle said Ouellet’s experience is part of what makes him a good AHL captain.
“He’s good with little kids, he knows how to handle them,” Houle said. “He works hard on the ice during practice and games. So he leads by example on the ice and he has a lot of experience. He is someone that young people look up to.”
Houle added that creating that bond between the young and older players on the team is very important.
“I think we started establishing early on at the beginning of the year the way we want to play and the way we want to be as a team,” Houle said. “Having different ages and experience and stuff, it’s a challenge in the American Hockey League. It’s a challenge to get the team together and bring it together, and it’s a challenge to be consistent because you have a lot of calls and all kinds of different things that can happen. But consistency is the key for the American Hockey League to be successful.”
When asked what he likes most about this Rocket team, Ouellet said: “The locker room is amazing. I think we have many types of characters in this room. A good mix of veterans and kids pushing to get on. I think all of that together gives us success.”
Ouellet has played a key role in that.
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