KOSICE - For the French team at this year’s IIHF World Championship it is, unashamedly, already “Mission Accomplished”. Their 2-1 overtime win over Belarus on the final day of the Preliminary Round assures them of a place at the Big Table next year in Finland/Sweden.
“For us, it’s our gold medal,” said tired, but thrilled, French goalie Cristobal Huet. “For us to go through to the next round and play some good teams is a big thing. It’s what we need.”
You won’t be confusing France with Canada or Russia anytime soon. But then, that’s not really their measuring stick right now, is it? For France, it’s more about continuing to evolve their national program and getting more kids interested in playing the game. It’s about the future.
“Our team now, everyone is born and raised in France,” says Huet proudly. “We don’t have all French-Canadians like we did in the '90s; so that’s a step forward. Our play here, I played in the NHL, Philippe Bozon played in the NHL, Stéphane Da Costa is probably going to play there… it’s a good example for kids playing in France and for the media and it gives us a little bit more attention.”
Probably as significant as any single victory for France on the ice, was a major victory won off the ice back in 2006 when the Federation Française de Hockey sur Glace was formed. It was the first time in the modern era in which France had a stand-alone federation dedicated to ice hockey only. Prior to that, ice hockey was part of a larger federation that oversaw 14 different winter sports.
“Now the decisions that are made at the top are made by hockey people and not by figure skaters or bobsledders or curlers or whatever,” says French national team head coach Dave Henderson.
Federations, by their very nature, are bureaucratic. So you can imagine how difficult it must have been to get things accomplished for a single sport that was part of a federation of 14 different sports, each with their own agenda.
“I think that in the five years since we’ve had a new federation, we’re on a good track,” says French team captain Laurent Meunier.
Meunier, 32 years old, has lived through the development of the game in France. He’s been one of France’s top players since he entered the U18 program back in 1995. He’s played in the domestic league, the Olympics and the World Championship. He’s also played in leagues in Switzerland, Sweden and, right now, in the DEL in Germany with the Straubing Tigers.
“I think that everybody in the federation has been trying to improve hockey in the country and get people interested,” Meunier continues. “A good example is when we played against Canada [in a pre-tournament exhibition game] in Paris in front of 13,000 people. We need that, the good competition. That kind of thing is a good step forward for French hockey.”
There has also been a concerted effort to improve the quality of minor hockey coaching in the country in the last few years and to put together a cohesive national team program.
“We’re all trying to work together,” says Henderson. “The U20s, the U18s, the U16s. I look after a group of U23 players. We’re all trying to work to develop what we need.”
What they need, of course, is a bigger talent pool to draw from. There are only 16,026 registered players in France. Contrast that with a country like Switzerland, with approximately one-tenth of the population, that has 25,000 registered players to draw from and you begin to get a bit of an idea of the challenges being overcome by French hockey officials.
But, it’s getting there.
“We have a little bit more finesse than we used to, and that’s probably because of the quality of some of the coaches in the minor hockey system,” says Henderson. “Every club has their minor hockey system that goes right from little kids up to juniors… there’s a lot of good work being done there.”
So when France takes to the ice for the next game (vs. Sweden on Friday) there will be a few more people paying attention back home than there would have been five years ago. The hard work is starting to pay off.