DALLAS – For a guy never drafted, Antoine Roussel exceeded expectations by excelling in the NHL this year, and continues his strong rookie season by skating for France at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
At the beginning of the NHL season in January, not many Dallas Stars followers, or even hockey fans across North America in general, knew who Antoine Roussel was, but they are surely familiar with him now.
After spending the first half of the 2012/2013 season with the AHL’s Texas Stars, Roussel was recalled to Dallas for the first time on January 30, made his big-league debut on February 1, scoring a goal on his first NHL shot, and has been a fixture on the Stars’ roster ever since.
The 23-year-old native of Roubaix, France, became just the fourth French-born and French-trained NHLer after Philippe Bozon, Cristobal Huet and Stéphane Da Costa. It has been a pleasantly surprising season, surpassing any expectations he had going in.
“Far beyond. I wasn’t expecting to make my debut this year,” said Roussel, who compiled seven goals, tied for fifth on the Stars, and 14 points in 39 games for Dallas. “I was hoping to play a game, but not that quick and to have a little bit of success because of my teammates, that’s lucky. I’m happy to be here.”
When Roussel signed as a free agent with the Stars last summer, it’s like neither he nor club management thought would contribute much at the NHL level this season, but through hard work, impressive speed, and an uncanny ability to rile up the opposition, Roussel provided an element Dallas needed.
“I was hoping for next season,” admitted Roussel, who compiled eight goals and 19 points, along with 107 penalty minutes in 43 AHL games this year before joining the Stars. “My goal was to have a strong season in the AHL and be effective in every aspect of my game. It was good that it happened this way. To come up that quick was a good opportunity for me. I’m happy to be a part of the team.”
The 183-centimetre (6-foot-0), 88-kilo (194-pound) left winger delivered 75 hits, ranking fifth on the Stars, and ended up topping the club with 85 penalty minutes, tying for 12th in the entire NHL, while proving his toughness with seven fighting majors.
“Every shift he works as hard as he can, his work ethic is pretty unreal,” said Stars centre Cody Eakin. “You know you’re going to get the same thing every single night. He’s going to bang and bump and cause a ruckus and do everything he can at both ends of the ice.”
Even though Dallas missed the NHL playoffs, Roussel’s season continues as he suits up for France at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship that begins Friday in Stockholm, Sweden, and Helsinki, Finland.
This is Roussel’s second straight appearance at the World tournament, helping France post a 3-4 record en route to a ninth-place finish at last year’s festivities. In seven games for the French, Roussel contributed two goals and one assist.
“Last season was the first time I represented France as a pro, and that was invaluable,” said Roussel, who moved with his family to Quebec at 16. “Playing against Canada, the U.S., that was a great experience. Obviously, we didn’t win those games, those are top teams, but that was the best French finish since ’98, so that was great. We’ll try to go that far this year and maybe even better.”
With France’s international fortunes improving recently, Roussel believes his home nation will continue to raise its stature to the point where it could one day break into the upper echelon of hockey powers.
He sees the biggest challenge as being able to lure enough top athletes away from football to increase the local talent pool, so that better depth can foster better competition in order to develop more higher-quality players.
“The hockey development is good for young players until peewee,” said Roussel, who began his pro career in 2010/2011, splitting time between AHL Providence and ECHL Reading that year. “Once you get to bantam and those high-calibre young teams, that’s the point where we’re not competitive enough. There is a lot of hockey there, but they need to improve with more rinks and getting more young guys into it. It’s tough, but I think hockey there is developing. It’s going to take some time, but it’s going to come where we have a top team.”
A better professional environment would help, too, allowing more talented young players the opportunity to remain in France instead of having to go to Switzerland, Germany or even Austria to play high-level pro hockey.
“The thing is, you cannot make a living playing pro in France, not anything like a good living,” Roussel said. “Smart guys when they’re young, they see where they can end up and instead of keep pushing, they go to school right away. That’s the difference between France and Switzerland. The young kids there know they can make a really good living playing in their own country, so they might try and you retain those young players. That’s why it’s tough for us to develop, but I’m sure at one point, we’re going to get there.”
Roussel’s pro chances increased significantly after his family’s move to Quebec, as he ended up playing four years of major junior hockey for the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Saguenéens, topping out at 24 goals and 47 points, as well as 131 penalty minutes, in 68 games in 2009/2010.
“It was more a family decision than just me, but it ended up being really good for me,” Roussel said of the move, “because I was reaching the top level over there, and instead of continuing to go up, I would have gone down, so it was good.”
And while it wasn’t quite the culture change moving to Quebec than it would have been had he relocated to the United States initially, Roussel did have to adjust to a new country.
“It’s like British and the U.S., that’s what the difference is like,” Roussel said, referring to both the language and the general social climate. “People spoke the same and some words are different, accent-wise, and culture-wise, how people think. You just have to adapt.”
“It’s a different kind of French,” confirmed Stars defenceman, and Sherbrooke, Quebec, native, Stéphane Robidas. “He’s been living in Quebec since he’s 16, so he’s kind of picked up a few of the slang words, but he’s still got the France French accent. Whenever I talk to him, I talk to him in French.”
As he’s continued adjusting to North America, Roussel has adapted and improved on the ice as well.
“He’s been great for us,” Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. “He’s a pain to play against, he’s an agitator and he works hard, and he chipped in offensively. I love having him. He was not drafted, he’s never been told he can play here, and I think he’s done his job very well for a guy who’s had to battle his way up.”