International Ice Hockey Federation

From rugby to hockey

From rugby to hockey

Frenchman Roussel develops at Worlds and in Dallas

Published 05.11.2015 13:34 GMT+2 | Author Erin Brown
From rugby to hockey
French forward Antoine Roussel attempts to score on German goalie Dennis Endras. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
When officials announce Team Europe for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Antoine Roussel hopes French passion is part of their formula.

Under the radar for much of his career, the feisty Roussel admits competing in the elite tournament would only add to a career he – at one point – never imagined.

"Honestly, that could be nice playing with some great players such as [Slovenia's Anze] Kopitar and [Slovakia's] Zdeno Chara and those guys," Roussel said. "I hope there's a slim chance to be on it."

It would be quite the pinnacle for Roussel, who started playing in Paris only after being kicked off the youth rugby team.

The winger struggled with the heat. He would make a dash for the sidelines, his teammates usually in tow, which disrupted practices and games.

"I was too hot outside," Roussel said. "I was dehydrated all the time. I'd go on the sidelines and the coach would say, 'Enough of you breaking all my practices and games because you get everybody on the sideline.'"

Roussel's mother figured a colder sport might lead to less disruption.

Roussel quickly developed a passion for ice hockey, honing his game across the country as the family moved. But he never quite shed the toughness from his brief rugby days.

He developed a versatile style, balancing an aggressive, hard-working effort with the ability to set up teammates and chip in around the net – an agitator with offensive skill. It is an approach Roussel can take complete credit for.

Growing up in France, Roussel did not have the luxury of following the world's top players overseas.

"Back in the day, it was tough. We didn't have anything to watch online," Roussel said. "It was pretty tough to follow any guys. My dad used to buy me a hockey magazine. It came once every month. So you knew Peter Forsberg had a great night – a month later."

The Roussels eventually settled in Canada when Antoine was 16. A year later, he joined the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In four seasons of junior hockey, Roussel amassed 59 goals, 139 points and 417 penalty minutes.

And yet turning professional was not always at the forefront of Roussell's mind.

"To be honest, I wasn't sure I had a chance to be a pro," Roussel said. "I called my old coach from juniors, [Coach Richard] Martel and he found me a two-way contract with the Bruins, Providence and Reading."

In those days, Roussel's focus was not so much on reaching the NHL, rather earning a contract for the following season. In 2010/11, he posted a goal and eight assists in 47 games split between Providence (AHL) and Reading (ECHL). A free agent the following summer, he received an invite to attend rookie camp with the Vancouver Canucks.

"I showed up there in top shape and I earned my contract there for one year," Roussel said. "The year after, I didn't have a great season point-wise, but I felt like I played very good, very intense."

The Canucks opted not to re-sign him, but his fearless style caught the attention of Stars scouts. As Roussel said, "it worked out perfect."

Roussel spent the first half of the lockout-shortened 2013 season with the Texas Stars (AHL), then became only the fourth French-trained and born player to make the NHL after Philippe Bozon, Cristobal Huet and Stephane Da Costa. (Last season Philadelphia’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare made it five.)

In the three season since, he has logged 213 games, 36 goals and 38 points. In two of those campaigns, Roussel ranked among the Stars top three players in hits. Dallas rewarded Roussel with a four-year contract in July.

The success has led to invites to play for the French national team in international competition. Those experiences have also influenced his game. Playing for Les Bleus, Roussel focuses on contributing offensive depth and being a model on and off the ice.

"It took me a while to get on the national team," Roussel said. I started to grow with that team, too, as one of the leaders."

Not being pegged into a single role has actually benefitted the winger. Though Roussel often plays on the Dallas Stars' checking line, he found himself providing support to his team's top players such as Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp and Ales Hemsky.

"I'm not a top-line guy, but I've been up and down the lineup, just helping the team do whatever we need," Roussel said. "If it's playing on the fourth line or the top, I can do it all. It's a good confidence [Coach Lindy Ruff] has given me sometimes. I appreciate that."

Already France's most prolific NHLer, a full season in 2015/16 will put Roussel past goaltender Cristobal Huet as the league's most tenured Frenchman.

"When you play with great players, sometimes you just have to go to the net and pucks come," Roussel said of his success.

Still, he insists remembering his roots is important to what makes him the player he is.

"I can go up and down. Right now it's just about winning games," Roussel said. "It's about having a strong 10 games for us. It's been said and known in the league that we're a team that always really hard to play against."

But while Roussel says he is concentrating being team centric over "individual stuff", displaying his versatility and on-ice passion are likely to be two-fold, helping Dallas to a strong start and piquing interest for the international stage.

"It starts with having a great season this year," Roussel said. "We'll see what happens."

 

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