LAVAL, Quebec — Claude Vilgrain first walked into the locker room of the Haitian ball hockey team as a consultant for the 2022 International Street and Ball Hockey Federation World Ball Hockey Championships and saw something he had never seen in his 51 years of hockey.
The 59-year-old former NHL forward, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and played 89 games for the Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, stood in front of a locker room filled with only black players.
It was a special moment for Vilgrain, who said he was usually the only black player on a team. It was also special for the players as he is the only NHL player born in Haiti.
After his family moved to Quebec, Vilgrain was first introduced to the sport at the age of 8 through a table hockey game that he received as a birthday present from an uncle. He remembers watching a game in March between the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks — he said he originally thought the “CH” on the Canadiens jersey was for Chicago — and he told his parents he wanted to play. . He spent the summer playing ball hockey, enrolled in ice hockey in the fall and, as he said, the rest is history.
Vilgrain grew up with a desire to be Canadian legend Guy Lafleur. Ainslie Bien-Aime grew up in Montreal and dreamed of being Vilgrain.
“Claude is very humble,” said Bien-Aime, a former Haiti captain and current general manager. “Claude has been in the NHL. He has been through a lot outside the ice rink” [in hockey]so he brings that energy, brings that experience into the locker room, and the fact that he played in the NHL, [he brings] a lot of respect in the room.”
Vilgrain knows a thing or two about playing in a short tournament like the world championships. He played for Canada in fourth place at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, won back-to-back championships with Canada at the Spengler Cup in 1996 and 1997, and coached youth hockey teams in the Alberta Cup. He also drew on his history of playing in Laval, where the tournament was held. He played three seasons with the Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, including scoring 126 points (46 goals, 80 assists) in 69 games in 1982-1983. He was named a Second Team All-Star alongside teammates Mario Lemieux and Bobby Dollas.
During Haiti’s Group A match against the Czech Republic at Place Bell, Vilgrain stood on the bench with his arms folded and didn’t seem to say much. Bien-Aime called him a calming presence. Assistant captain Steven Jean-Denis said he brought that, along with strategy and tactical tips.
“There is no message [I give them]† It’s performance-on-demand,” Vilgrain told NHL.com. “I’m telling them the first shift could cost you the tournament. Be disciplined, stay away from penalties, leave your ego at the door and play as a team and every shift counts.”
The tournament did not go as expected for Haiti, finishing last of eight teams in Group A while a number of players and staff were lost due to coronavirus concerns. Expectations were high after the team won the Group B Championship in 2015 with former NHL forward Georges Laraque as an assistant coach.
†[Representation is] very important,” said Vilgrain of Haiti with a ball hockey team. “I know when they went to Switzerland [in 2015], they thought they were the halftime show. But they got a chip on the shoulder and they won the tournament, so it’s important. I look at the top, I look at the flag with the hockey sticks, and these guys, these guys are proud. They want to do it right. They want to represent well.”
When the idea of building a national team to compete was tossed around in 2015, more than 75 Haitian players showed up for the training camp. It was a defining moment for Bien-Aime, who had played for Canada and won the 2007 ISBHF Worlds.
“I had never played with so many black people,” said Bien-Aime.
The turnout sealed the deal to create the team and reaffirmed his belief that hockey is truly a sport for everyone.
Today, the Haiti team is primarily made up of Canadian-based heritage players, meaning they are descendants of a parent or grandparent who was born in the country; however, they did receive permission from the Haitian embassy to compete under the flag. The hope is that one day the team will consist of players living in Haiti. According to Bien-Aime, the goal is that they will be able to bring ball hockey clinics and workshops to the Caribbean nation by 2023 and that by 2026 there will be programs to build up the roster.
Vilgrain lives in Calgary, where he designs parks and playgrounds in addition to coaching and skills development work. While this may have been his first world championship teaming with the Haitian ball hockey team, he helped lay the groundwork for these players and future generations to play the sport.
“He’s a model, he’s an inspiration,” said Jean-Denis. “The fact that he did this” [and made it to the NHL], it makes us believe, makes us believe that we can do something, we can do something great, and we have the heart to do it. He is like us. He is one of us. He started it, so we’re going to continue the movement.”
Photo Courtesy: ISBHF