HELSINKI – France entered the tournament with a low profile. The team had their focus on their second game of the tournament, against Kazakhstan, which was considered a key game in their fight against relegation. While France now seems to be in the top division to stay, they have has alternated good years with bad years.
In 2008, their first year back in the top division after a seven-year absence, they had to play in the relegation round. In 2009, France finished twelfth without. In 2010, they were back in relegation round, and last year, avoided it again.
They beat Kazakhstan, then Switzerland, and last night, Belarus, and suddenly France has a shot at making the quarter-final. All they have to do is beat Slovakia.
“It’s a derby between us and Switzerland, and after beating them, we started to believe that something else is possible,” says Yohann Auvitu who scored the game winning goal with a little over a minute remaining in the game against Belarus.
France has only made the quarter-finals once, in Stockholm in 1995, and the nation’s best World Championship finish is sixth, in the 1930 tournament in which they only played two games.
“Making the quarter-finals would be historic for hockey in France,” says Philippe Bozon, who played on that 1995 team.
“That would encourage young French players to work harder, do more, get our of the country into the bigger leagues, and once there, they’d get better, and more experienced, and with that, the French team will be better as a whole,” he adds.
The team in Helsinki has 13 players from leagues outside France, but only two play in Sweden, two in Finland, and two in North American leagues.
“We're starting to have some players in highest leagues in Europe and we can see here that we can beat teams like Belarus which we didn't used to do,” says Auvitu who won the Finnish title with JYP Jyväskylä this season.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare played in the Swedish Elitserien final again, just like he did last season, and Laurent Meunier extended his contract with the Straubing Tigers in the German DEL, having tried his luck in Sweden and Switzerland first.
In 2001-02, there were three French players on the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s team: forwards Meunier, Yorick Treille, and defencemen Baptiste Amar. All three are in Helsinki today. Meunier is the team captain, Amar alternate captain, together with Bellemare.
That’s the recipe for success for France. Send their best players to better leagues, and like some sort of reverse missionaries, bring them home to tell the others what they’ve learned.
“Right now we don’t have a choice. A good French player must leave France and play in another league where they’ll learn to be more professional, and work like a professional,” says Bozon.
“When you play on a higher level, you realize that every day is a new day, everything has to be earned, and you have to get better all the time, because if you don’t, you won’t play, and you go home. That’s what competition is all about,” he adds.
Sometimes, though, the fact that the French players try to impress scouts and GMs of the bigger league is also the thing that messes things up for them, says Bellemare.
“When we come to the national team, we have to be on the same page. We have to work as a team, that’s our weapon. Often we don’t work as a five-man unit, but instead, maybe 3-4 players are moving and the fifth just waits,” he says.
“I think it’s got something to do with the fact that everybody wants to play abroad. Maybe they want to impress the scouts a little too much, and forget to play as a team,” he adds.
Also, success breeds success. When Bozon was playing in the quarterfinal in Stockholm, and in the NHL, Meunier, Amar, and the rest were back in France, watching his every move.
But when France then got relegated from the top division in 2000, the French hockey idols also disappeared, so now 22-year-old Yohann Auvitu didn’t have any French hockey player idols growing up.
“My idol? In hockey? I don't know who it was, but I had no French players as my idol,” he says, and adds grinning:
“I watched more football than hockey to be honest. [Former captain of French national team] Zinedine Zidane was my idol more than any hockey player.”
But a win over Slovakia, and maybe Auvitu, Bellemare, as well as Meunier, Amar, and Huet will be the idols for a new generation of French players.
“I think they played better against Switzerland but we have a tendency to relax after one good win, so it was important to get another big win,” Bozon said on Monday night.
“Now we can dream for another 24 hours,” he added.