Laval Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard joked last week that he was the toughest coach in the American Hockey League because all of his players have an 8:00 p.m. curfew, a nod to Quebec’s COVID-19 regulations. All teams in the AHL are in a tough spot, including two Canadian teams — Belleville and Toronto — that are not sure where they will be playing their games.
Bouchard’s situation is no daylight-filled walk in the park either. The Rocket head coach has had his players skating but has to balance professionals on the cusp of the NHL or taxi squad with players who would be in the Canadian Hockey League in a normal situation. He also has to plan practices to prepare his team for games, not knowing when those games will come. On top of that, he has 32 players in camp which is a dozen more than he can dress for any given game.
In terms of the first point, Bouchard is intrigued by the mix he has in camp. In the team’s most recent scrimmage on Friday, he mixed the teams up where he had youngsters with veterans in order to evaluate them.
On the second point, the Rocket are planning practices this week as if there will be a game on Friday. There is nothing confirmed, but some reports say there could be action as early as this weekend. There should be some clarity early this week, especially if the plan is for Canadian AHL teams to start their season.
The third point is one that Bouchard is dreading.
“It’s a major headache. I wake up at night thinking about it,” he said. “They haven’t played in a year and they want to play but the reality is the mathematics are what they are.”
As a former player, Bouchard understands the position the players are in and thinks about each of his player’s careers personally.
“It’s their livelihood,” he said. “We’re all in with them, but at the end of the day, there are... I wouldn’t say hard decisions... there are almost impossible decisions in some way.”
He also says that it’s not the player’s fault, or anyone’s fault. It’s just dealing with the reality of the pandemic. He manages to put it in perspective, though.
“If you ask people who are working in hospitals or people who have businesses, they are dealing with something they never thought they had to deal with.”
Bouchard has been someone who has always preached communication and honesty with his players and that is something that will be paramount this year. He will need to balance his lineup that has three goaltenders, 10 defencemen, and 19 forwards with a pandemic world that limits options in sending players to other leagues like the CHL and ECHL.
“That’s the only way I can be. I don’t know how to not be honest with them. Forget this situation, I don’t play games. When I’m happy with their play, I’m happy and if I’m not happy with their play we find solutions together,” Bouchard said, adding that he can be positive after a loss and not so positive after wins depending on what he sees. “As confusing as it is right now for everybody, if I start not talking to them or playing mind games now... That would just be ridiculous.”
“We talked about it today, we talked about it last week... It’s a reality we have to go through together. One hundred percent.”