Fun for France

Les Bleus are on a roll: how far can they go?

20.05.2014
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Antoine Roussel is one of the leaders on the French team that reached the quarter-finals for the first time in 19 years. Photo: Richard Wolowicz / HHOF-IIHF Images

“It’s just about fun,” a sweaty, grinning Antoine Roussel told IIHF.com after France’s 6-2 win over Denmark to secure a quarter-final berth.

“Right now, we have a lot of fun.”

That could be the understatement of the year. France has already guaranteed itself its best World Championship finish since 1995, when it came eighth in Stockholm, Sweden. But that year, no NHLers took part in the aftermath of the first NHL lockout. So in some respects, this is already a greater feat.

“Fun.” Yes, for Roussel and his linemates in particular, this is like getting a season’s pass to Disneyland Paris, a million euros, and a lifetime supply of butter croissants.

France sits 12th in the IIHF World Ranking, while Denmark is 13th. Yet at the end of the night, the gap seemed much larger, and Roussel did more than his share.

Against the Danes, the abrasive 24-year-old Dallas Stars forward had four points, combining with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Stephane Da Costa for a whopping 11 points. They weren’t just banging in garbage goals. The trio was making the kind of plays that only come from sky-high confidence.

Witness Roussel’s outrageous pass from behind the net to set up Da Costa’s 4-2 tally in the third. That feed was more worthy of Wayne Gretzky or Henrik Sedin than of a second-year NHLer born in Rouvaix, France, who is coming off a career-best season of 14 goals and 15 assists in the Lone Star State.

“We kind of see ourselves pretty well right now,” Roussel said of his line. “So I hope it’s going to keep going this way.”

The never-say-die mentality that 62-year-old Canadian-born coach Dave Henderson has inculcated in his troops has played a big role. At last year’s Worlds, it helped France score a historic 2-1 win over then-defending champion Russia. Roussel netted the winner.

But there are also strong personal bonds on this roster, with 20 players under the age of 30 and plenty of promise for the future.

“It’s just about good friends,” Roussel said, pointing to Da Costa as he walked by in the mixed zone for interviews. “I know that guy for a long time now. We grew up together. So did most of the guys on the team, except the older guys. They’re kind of old now. That keeps the team tight for sure.”

When you think of the fan support that hockey-mad countries like Slovakia, Latvia, and host Belarus have given their teams in Minsk and at other IIHF tournaments, it’s easy to see why the French team needs to stick together.

Sure, they have a small coterie of loyalists who joyously chant: “Allez Les Bleus!” But hockey remains a cult sport in France with just 124 indoor rinks and less than 7,000 registered male players.

Bright spots, like the 2012 triumph of the Rouen Dragons in the IIHF Continental Cup, are rare. Right now, the nation is glued to news about next month’s FIFA World Cup.

So anything France’s World Championship squad can do to make headlines is eminently welcome, with Paris poised to co-host the 2017 tournament along with Cologne, Germany.

“It’s great for our country,” Roussel said. “People may watch it and say, ‘Oh, my kid might play hockey now, instead of playing soccer.’ I hope this win is going to do a lot for us to get more rinks and more respectability in the sports ranking in France. Hopefully it’s going to grow.”

France’s chances of getting past the quarter-finals and contending for its first-ever World Championship medal will grow if it can earn one more win over the Czech Republic to close out the round-robin. Thereby, it would dodge a showdown with Group B leader Russia.

How does Roussel like his team’s chances against the Czechs?

“Great. Everybody can beat anybody, I feel, at this tournament this year. They’re a good team. They have a lot of great players on their team. They have a legend, who’s still playing. He’s 50-something – I played with him,” Roussel said in a smiling, tongue-in-cheek reference to Jaromir Jagr, who suited up for Dallas in 2013. “He’s a great guy, a great player. We just have to play our game and hope it’s going to turn our way.”

Cue Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” – another fine French creation – and let the fun continue.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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