I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with both Francis Paré and Louis Leblanc, next to the Ondrej Nepela Arena in Bratislava, just as they were coming from a team lunch. As we sat down, I mentioned that I had just arrived from Zurich, and saw both Martin Réway and Auston Matthews the previous round in the NLA.
The conversation jumped quickly to hockey, with Leblanc saying that he had played with Réway two years ago in camp, and that he was a "really good player." Paré followed up by asking if Réway was NHL ready, showing that both players still care about the Montreal Canadiens, and hockey in general. It eventually became less of an interview, and more of a discussion of hockey among three enthusiasts.
I mentioned that I thought Réway might benefit from one more year in Europe - be it in the KHL, SHL or NLA, as examples - and that I thought it would benefit both him, and possibly an AHL team, as they get the chance to keep North American talent on the roster a bit longer. You want a Panarin kind of player that can go straight into the lineup.
Paré laughed at that last bit, and countered, "There are not many of those kinds of players around. In my opinion players get a lot better [here]. I remember the player I was in AHL, the player I was after two months in Liiga and the player I was after three-four months in KHL. I mean it's different worlds, playing against the Bulldogs or playing against a guy like Kovalchuk, it's a huge step. People need to know a lot more about the KHL."
It is clear that the guys get along, and they confirmed that they hang out off the ice. It helps that while Leblanc stays in the hotel, Paré and his wife live across the street in an apartment. They say they knew of each other, but even if they had played against each other, they had not spoken that much.
Louis Leblanc: "The move happened so fast, I was in camp in New York with the Islanders and got a shot to the face. I had to put a plate in my right cheek, I went to Bridgeport then [Slovan] offered me a contract so I went. What many people don't understand is that this is not a step down, it's a step up from the American league."
"I have only played three games here so far, but yes, it is a chance to restart and take another step in my career. I had to go down to Slovak Extraliga because of a VISA issue, I wasn't sent down. It has now been sorted and hopefully I can get to start a few games now. I want to help Slovan win some games!"
This set of a rapid discussion about what happened and how it was perceived in Canada:
Zeb: Was it a conditional stint the time in the Extraliga?
LL: "They went to Russia for two weeks [FP: 10 days] and I didn't have a VISA, so I would have to stay here and not play. I hadn't played in a long time so it was a good opportunity."
Zeb: It was reported was that you were sent down, so it's good to get things right.
FP: "Even I read some stuff about Louis on the Internet, on Facebook, and it amazes me how people who have absolutely no idea about what's going on express themselves. I didn't talk with [Louis] about it, he doesn't need to hear that. But they were saying 'he is going to the second league, his career is over.' People have no clue what's going on, there are so many things involved."
LL: "People in Montreal were texting me 'You got released from your team' and I am like, you don't even know what's happening. For me, it was to play some games you know, as a hockey player we all know; you want to play. We can practice but it's not the same. It was good for me to go and play, now I am just waiting to play some games here. I feel good."
Zeb: How big is the difference to come over here and play, the ice, the tactics, etc?
LL: "For me it was the ice. Everyone is far away from each other; the little passes you do in AHL or NHL don't work, it's less dumping, less chips, it's more swinging and long passes, that's the biggest difference for me."
Zeb: Old Russian school - it's a ballet on the ice.
Louis Leblanc, Image Credit: Slovan Bratislava
FP and LL: "Exactly."
FP: "For me it depends on whom you are playing with. I remember going to Finland, it's a different hockey style there as well. A lot more like the AHL, ice is smaller there, there is some hybrid ice, it makes for a better game plan, the trap is involved a lot more. Here it's skating, skating, skating. The first couple of games, I was dying out there. 'What's going on here,' I was just stopping and starting everywhere, then I had to adjust, I was just going with it ... as you said, the ballet."
The Difference between North America and Europe:
LL: "North America is a cookie cutter, you do everything the same on all levels; here, it's more about creativity. You know if you come over the red line and you have no play, you chip, it's going in the corner no matter what. There is no other solution."
"Here you turn back, it's more keeping puck possession. They let you play more. They encourage you to trust your skills and what you can do. In the American League (AHL) you have very skilled players but you rarely see someone try a toe drag because if it doesn't work you are sitting on the bench."
FP: "Liiga is a step up from AHL as well, I thought it was a lot better, I was really, really surprised. I remember talking to my friend there and he had played a little bit everywhere. KHL, Liiga, Germany, and he said 'Don't go to Europe thinking you are a good player, just go there and work as hard as you can because it goes really fast and there are some really good players there.' I got here and it was my first time. The time difference, line changes, language, food. Everything makes the experience much harder but they were awesome to me."
"Turku is a great city, I would go back there tomorrow morning, I would sign there anytime. If I am a free agent one day... Turku is awesome. Finnish people in general are awesome, some of my friends from Turku came to my wedding, I keep in touch with three or four people there, awesome city awesome league."
Zeb: With Auston Matthews coming over to the NLA, do you think that would be a way for American players to go before NHL?
FP: "I followed him a bit, I didn't realize he comes up in the draft this year. Great job from his agent. Every guy's path is different, there is no good way of making it to the NHL, but obviously if I had the choice to play against men, grown men, big time pro hockey players, ex-NHLers. I mean in the Q - and I loved my time in the Q - I would rather have played in Switzerland if I had the chance, if I had the chance to learn from the pros."
LL: "And probably making more money as well, less traveling so you save your body right? You don't need to play a hundred games. In the juniors and AHL you play Friday/Saturday/Sunday, whereas in Europe you play the same amount of games over a week but spread out. Over the season you play less as well. You'd be fresh, when you get to the NHL you'd be more prepared, there is a difference. [If the puck is] in the corner, maybe the guy is 35 years old and against a 16 year old it makes it a tough school."
"In the AHL we play Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday at 3 PM with a four or five-hour bus ride. How could you be at your best at at a Sunday afternoon at 3 o'clock when you play in Binghamton then you have to bus back to Norfolk which is a 12 hour bus ride, and you have a game on the Tuesday? What people don't understand is that here the best kids play against men, back home they'd rather see someone score 100 goals in the Quebec Junior League. For me, I would rather practice with pro hockey players rather than play with junior guys."
The European Experiences:
FP: "Things are so different here compared to North America. When you have two practices a day, you can hone your skills so much better. In Europe they skate so well, the technique is generally better. In North America, group tactics are much more common. I don't know if there is a better way of doing it. It's good for me that I learned both ways of doing it for sure. We get treated so well. People are awesome, the staff is great, you come into the room and everyone is happy, they have treated me very well. I have nothing wrong or bad to say about this whole experience."
LL: "Locker rooms are great, the rink is great, those fans in the stands, the small problem is that the coach doesn't speak English which makes it hard to understand, obviously. You look at the board, and try to figure things out. A lot of the others speak English, probably everyone, and that helps. Coming here, it's an NHL set up, it's a great set up. It's better than most AHL set-ups. Here we get lunch everyday, chartered flights you are not bussing around in the minors. It's a great league, from what I have seen, anyway. I can't wait to go to Russia and experience it further."
FP: "Almost every day, one of the guys comes up to me and asks if everything is okay. "How is the flat?" "How's the wife?" and so on. That makes the experience great. After the contract finishes here I might go back to Finland maybe Sweden, one of my good buddies plays there. I have been playing in Russia for two years so now I am ready for anything."
Francis Paré, Image Credit: Slovan Bratislava
The fans in Europe:
LL: "In North America the fans are quieter, here everyone is standing up cheering."
FP: We have traveling fans, not as much in Slovan as in Russia, but we had like a couple a of hundred at every away game when i was in Russia, it's great to feel that support and you finish the game and you go over and salute the fans. Away fans also brings something to the arena, they rally up the home crowd. The fans spent money and time to cheer you on, travel, come and support the team, much better than to have no one in the stands, they show they care and want us to do well.
LL: "If there is no fans there is no game right?"
FP: "That's why we have a job."
If you were to promote KHL to an American League hockey player:
LL: "The KHL is a step up from the American league. You are going to play against Russians that you have never heard of, and they are going to skate circles around you, you are going to be like 'wow, where did this guy come from?' You do need to be able to skate, big ice, you are moving all over the place, If you are a good American player that thinks you need to improve your game, you should come here, and then you could go back home improved. That's my guess, but, I haven't played enough I don't know much about the league yet."
FP: "I concur. People ask me about the level of play and you can argue there are levels of the league. There are the teams with lots of money, the team that will finish top four every year. There are the teams that will battle for the playoff spot, then there are the lower level teams. That is the difference with NHL. There, this happens during the season. Here you know before the season starts. There might be a surprise now and then, but not often."
Did you hear rumours of Russia before signing?
FP: "There are so many rumours too when I was signed in Russia. Guys were saying 'don't go to Russia, you'll have no career, you'll be done after', 'they don't de-ice the planes, they smoke on the plane.' I was about to sign and I heard those stories, I was like, 'Are you serious?' But I tried it and I tell you right now nobody smokes on the plane, they de-ice the plane. Everything is safe, it's just that sometimes people are so scared to go overseas they will start rumours and I don't think that's fair."
"I think KHL is good for the NHL and for the fans of the NHL; you see a guy like Panarin coming in and be that good I don't think there are many AHL players that can do that. I will tell you right now, that guy was really good here last year. He has been good in the KHL for many years. That's amazing really."
LL: "It goes both ways as well, there are some players in KHL that can be top players in NHL, but they are making great money here. They have their families, they know the language, they have it good. They don't need to go there and work or risk something, you know?"
FP: "I am sure the Russian players coming over to North America, just like we do here, the coach doesn't know how to speak our language. You have questions but you have no way of asking them. You just feel..."
LL: "Lost, alone. Like am I doing the right thing? No one really guides you. Does the coach smile at me or the other guy?"
FP: "It can be simple things, the coach draws something, and you have no clue, but you have no way of asking the question so you won't ask it. Sometimes you think you do the right way but there is an opposite way of doing it. Every day is not a battle, it's an adventure; it's something new. You have to learn new things every day. That's what's good with this experience here, you learn so many new things and a different way of doing it."
Francis Paré, Image Credit: Slovan Bratislava
How was it lifting the Gagarin Cup?
FP: "It was amazing! The best feeling I have had in my life for sure. I went back to back with the AHL and KHL and to be the first Canadian to get my name on it is amazing. Amazing experience, the guys, they are with me for the rest of my life, they are still my friends and I talk to them."
"I still don't remember it all, sometimes it's just incredible I went from the AHL, to the Liiga, to the KHL, the second-best league in the world and I am on the top team playing with guys like Mozyakin and Zaripov. Legends in Europe really, and I was playing with them and it was amazing. I have the replica at home, I have the medal, and I have the golden jersey it's amazing, just amazing."
Zeb: Do you feel you are under-appreciated or forgotten in Canada, that the average Canadian doesn't know what you have achieved?
FP: "Yeah, pretty much nobody knows about it..."
As Francis's voice drops off, Louis jumps to his defence:
LL: "I think people in Canada, they see it as a bad thing when a player goes overseas. They probably think 'oh he is done,' 'the hockey is not good' or 'what is he thinking, he is giving up his NHL dream.' What people don't realize is how good the hockey here is. Guys still care here (FP: Probably even more)."
"It is not like a vacation. Here they work out, practices are hard, sometimes twice a day, guys want to win, guys want to be the best. You still break your stick when you lose, you are pissed, if you don't score one game you are mad, if you are not on the line up you are mad. Obviously everyone wants to be in the NHL but things happen and if you end up in KHL it's not a bad thing, you know what I mean?"
FP: "When I left North America someone in my family said like, not to me but... and I am sure a lot of people thought about it too, 'his career is over' and someone told me that a couple of months later I would just have thought "that guy has no clue". First of all, my career is far from being over, it just started. Obviously I was kind of sad my NHL dream didn't come true. Sure i am sad I didn't get dressed for an NHL game, it might still happen but I am realistic."
"I am honest with myself, I am 28 years old and it most likely won't happen. There are stories for success, Bud Holloway and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, the French guy in Philly, too. Everyone has a different story, a different way of doing it. Obviously there is the awesome way of doing it like Sidney Crosby being the first overall pick, but there are not many guys like that."
LL: "There are like two or three players per year making the NHL at 18."
FP: "There is no perfect way of doing it, if you work hard every single day and you are happy with where you are at, I mean, that's the spot you've got to be in. You can be anywhere in the world, but if you are not happy, not in the right spot you are not going to be at your best, if you are in the right spot, somewhere somehow you will be in the perfect spot."
"It's a matter of timing, be at the right place at the right time, I am not the best player that has touched the Gagarin Cup, but no one can take that win away from me, I was part of that team that won the cup. [Note: With nine points (7+2) in the playoffs he was an integral part of Metallurg Magnitogorsk success]."
LL: "I am challenged every day, it's not like I am here floating around."
FP: "This is the furthest away from a beer league for sure. One thing, even if we are not in the lineup at the moment it's because I am not playing the best hockey. I am not at a level I would like to be, but my job is playing hockey, I am really grateful, I thank God every single day that I wake up in the morning and I am going to the rink, I am going to play hockey."
"I am still a kid in a way, I was playing hockey when I was five years old and I still play, and I will play until I retire one day. Then I am going to play with my kids, push them around, obviously they will fall and I will let them fall but it will let them know some days are harder than others, but that's like with every job."
LL: "It is great for sure, you are 25 guys and everyone has a story about something. Someone has something going on, if I have a bad day someone lifts you up, and the next day its the other way around."
FP: "We are fortunate that here the guys accept us and they don't push us around, we are not here to steal someone's job, we are here to help them. He got experience and I got experience we can all learn from each other. In Grand Rapids I played with Joakim Andersson and Tomas Tatar in Detroit and these guys are like two years younger than me and has two three years experience playing with pros, real pros."
"I was like how come you got these years playing pro hockey when I was in the juniors, It's a different way of doing it from Europe but it helps them a lot, when they get to the AHL, even the NHL some times, they are young men I think their game is a lot more mature, that's my point of view."
At this time we called it quits. I am sure, at least from my end, we could have sat there for another hour or two. It is great to see two Quebecois guys talking about achieving goals, adjusting to their new goal, and to be able to help each other out in tough situations.
They are great guys, and two great ambassadors for the KHL, and the sport of hockey. They might have gone to the far end of the world, but they are still living their dream of playing hockey every day.