MANNHEIM – French hockey has yet to produce its answer to football's Michel Platini or Zinedine Zidane. Yet until that glorious day arrives, the national team will persevere with an emphasis on youth and work ethic.
This year's Worlds roster features 14 players born in 1984 or later. And yes, that can result in some growing pains. France has lost two straight games in Mannheim, falling 6-2 to the Czechs and 3-2 to Sweden.
With the biggest confrontations upcoming, the best-known French player, NHL goalie Cristobal Huet of the Chicago Blackhawks, won't be available since his club has moved on to the Western Conference finals against the San Jose Sharks.
But the presence or absence of one big name isn't the focus here. Survival is what preoccupies head coach Dave Henderson, who has kept his troops in the elite division since returning to this level in Quebec City 2008. With a big win over rival Norway on Thursday, the Montreal-born former Amiens forward could avoid, for the second straight year, the perils of navigating through the Relegation Round.
IIHF.com's Lucas Aykroyd spoke with Henderson after France's Wednesday practice at SAP Arena.
After a game like the one against Sweden, do you feel more pride in the way your guys battled to stay in it, or disappointment that you weren't able to pull off the comeback?
I'm always proud of the team, because I know they work as hard as they can every game. Yes, we were a little disappointed as we came back that we weren't able to tie the game and at least get a point out of it. But the way we worked, the way we fought, we didn't let down when it was 3-0. We had a couple of chances to tie it up, but that's the way it goes. Sweden is a hard team to play against, like all the Group A teams are. But we're staying positive.
What did you improve compared to the opener against the Czechs?
We were a little bit more intense. In the first game, we were a little bit back on our heels. We didn't go in hard enough, probably. We made a lot of mistakes trying to get the puck out of our zone that the Czechs capitalized on. Against Sweden, we were more compact defensively. They had a lot of chances last night, but we also got in front of a lot of their shots. Our guys stepped up.
What can you say about the progress this team is making in the big picture?
If we look at the last three years, we've played Sweden three times. We lost 9-0 in 2008, 6-3 last year, and 3-2 this year. So there's progress. We have a lot of young guys in our lineup who are experiencing their first World Championship, too. We're looking toward qualifying for Sochi in 2014, and with that mind, we want to give some experience to younger guys that merit their spots on the team but will also help us down the line.
You have a core group of leaders here in captain Laurent Meunier and his assistants, Baptiste Amar and Vincent Bachet. How do you like the way they've embraced the challenge this year?
They're been the core guys ever since I got here with Pierre Pousse. They always step up and take their bumps with everyone else. They're good for the team, good with the young guys. We have a good mix of veterans and youth, and the older guys help the younger guys out all the time. It's a pleasant team to coach and be with.
When you look around this tournament and see the upsets that teams like Denmark, Germany, and Norway have pulled off – teams, that like yours, have put in their share of time in Division I – does that give you hope too?
For sure. Denmark and Norway, we play them regularly during the season at the IIHF breaks, and the games are always close. If they can beat some of the “Big Seven” teams, why not us? Last night, we came close and didn't make it, but there's always the next game. This tournament is played on the ice and not the lineup sheets. Every game, we go in and try to win. It's not just coming here and hoping not to get blown out. Sometimes, we do, like in 2008, especially. But the objective is to get better, and to have a better result at the World Championship. That'll come either through getting past Norway on Thursday, or the Relegation Round. We're ready for both.
In your mind, how important is it to try to get as many homegrown players as possible into the lineup instead of relying on guys who have been naturalized?
The last two years, we haven't had any naturalized players. All our guys are homegrown. We have some players that have passports, but the young French guys have proven to us throughout the year during the IIHF breaks that they're capable of doing the job, so we've been using them. We haven't ruled out using naturalized players, but we're proud of the fact that we're leaning on guys who have emerged out of our youth hockey programs. They're proving they have the intestinal fortitude and work ethic to do it, and we're hoping it continues that way. You see forwards like Yohann Auvitu and Stéphane Da Costa, and we have others that are coming up. Young guys, 89's. They're skilled hockey players, and they just need a little experience at this level. In a couple of years, they'll probably be the leaders.
Having your son Brian on the team, what are the fun aspects of that and the challenges as a coach?
The hardest thing was determining that he merited a spot on the team as a player. The biggest thing that I always discussed with Pierre was that if he deserves a spot, then he should have it. He proved to us the whole year that he did. For a first World Championship, I think he's doing the job we asked him to.
Looking at France domestically, what needs to happen to keep raising the profile of the sport and the quality of the players?
Well, we started our federation separate from the other ice sports in 2005 when the World Championship Division I was held in Amiens, when Germany was promoted. Since then, the money we receive has been spent on what we think we need. There has been a lot of investment in the U20s, the U18s, U16s, and so on. We want to develop those program. Also, our national technical direction group, with our technical advisors, is working hard with youth hockey and our club teams. We're getting results, and we see it in the kids that are coming up in the last three or four years. They see they have a chance to succeed, and they're working a lot harder. There's more emphasis on off-ice training, which wasn't the case a few years ago. If we stick with that line, we're heading in the right direction, even though it'll be a long, hard journey.
France hasn't hosted a top-level IIHF competition since the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. What would it mean for Annecy, bidding against Munich and Pyeongchang, to secure the 2018 Olympics?
Well, with our national team currently playing in the top division, I think we're getting a lot more interest in the media with television and newspaper coverage. When the Olympics took place in Vancouver, the hockey games were so good, and a lot of people who wouldn't normally stay up to watch were doing just that. It was a fantastic tournament. Since then, our rinks have been pretty much full, whether it's an elite division, first division, or second division game in our league. In some cities, it's been really difficult to get tickets for games. They've been sold right out. We have our national cup, which is like a tournament all year, and it's played at Paris-Bercy, which is 15,000 seats, and we get 15,000 every year. The last five years it's sold out. So it's coming. Having an Olympics would be great.
In the more immediate future, what kind of battle do you expect from Norway tomorrow?
Obviously, we have to win the game to have a chance to get through to the Qualification Round. We're going to battle, and so are they. We play them regularly, as I mentioned, and it's always tough games. We saw from the Olympics and what they've done here that they're a great team. We have to be at our best to play them evenly or beat them. It'll be a hard battle.