HELSINKI – If you’re a French hockey fan and someone asks you about your national team, the appropriate response is, “ça va bien”. Since returning to the elite division of the World Championship in Quebec City in 2008, Les Bleus have managed to avoid relegation.
Last year, coach Dave Henderson’s team posted a ninth-place finish. That was France’s best result in the modern era since coming eighth in 1995. And don’t forget, the 2012 French squad was just one shot away from making the quarter-finals. The Slovaks, the eventual silver medallists, needed a late goal from Branko Radivojevic to lift them to a 5-4 win over France in the game that decided the final quarter-final berth in Helsinki.
France fell short at the 2014 Olympic qualifiers in Riga, Latvia, failing to make the Winter Games for the third straight time. But there’s justifiable optimism that the nation bidding to co-host the 2017 Worlds with Cologne, Germany will be able to keep its place among the world’s top 16 hockey countries at this tournament.
Only one French goalie has starred in the NHL, and Cristobal Huet remains the national team’s go-to option between the pipes. A former Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks (2010), the 37-year-old recently helped Lausanne HC return to the Swiss National League A after seven years of languishing in the second division. As Huet showed by making 38 saves in France’s upset 4-2 win over Switzerland last year, he’s still capable of stealing a game.
Huet will be backed up by two netminders from the French league: 40-year-old Fabrice Lhenry of French champion Rouen Dragons, whose first puck-stopping stint at the Worlds came in Russia 2000, and Florian Hardy, a 28-year-old who plays for the Angers Ducs.
France will have to overcome one key loss. Longtime blueline anchor Baptiste Amar, who had represented France at some level of IIHF competition annually since 1996, is unavailable due to a hand injury.
But this creates an opportunity for Yohan Auvitu to elevate his game in familiar surroundings. The 23-year-old rearguard plays for JYP Jyväskylä of the Finnish SM-Liiga, and last year he led France’s defence with a +3 plus-minus rating. His two goals and two assists tied Kévin Hecquefeuille (3-1-4) for the points lead among team blueliners.
At age 35, hard-working assistant captain Vincent Bachet retains the confidence of his coach.
As a group, the defence will have to play a smart, conservative game, because they’ll be hard-pressed to keep up with the speed, strength and creativity of foes like Russia and the United States.
Last year marked the first occasion since 1996 that France had scored more than 20 goals in an elite-division World Championship. But no forward potted more than two goals (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) or seven points (captain Laurent Meunier).
Without Stéphane Da Costa, currently involved in the AHL playoffs with the Binghamton Senators, extra responsibility will fall on the shoulders of 23-year-old Antoine Roussel, who became an NHL regular this season with the Dallas Stars. Making his second straight World Championship appearance, Roussel can be an effective presence on the forecheck and inspire his teammates with his work ethic, as long as he stays away from untimely penalties.
On an intriguing note, Tim Bozon will make his World Championship debut. The Montreal Canadiens prospect is the son of former French star Philippe Bozon, who played 144 NHL games with the St. Louis Blues. The 19-year-old left wing’s 91 points ranked him eighth in Western Hockey League scoring with the Kamloops Blazers this season.
Dave Henderson has steered France’s ship since 2005. For a country without a deep player pool, that kind of stability has been a blessing. The Winnipeg-born 61-year-old, who served as a player-coach with Amiens of the French League from the 1970s to the 1990s, knows how to communicate his expectations clearly to his team. He’s successfully managed the political challenge of having his son Brian on the roster, and he derives inspiration from seeing what other up-and-coming nations like Norway and Denmark have been able to achieve at the Worlds.
Henderson’s challenge here is to give his players the optimism and mental toughness to move on quickly if they get blown out, which happened against Canada (7-2) and Finland (7-1) in 2012.
May 5 is a key date for France, as it faces newly promoted Austria. That’s a must-win game, and the French will have to find a way to shut down Buffalo Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek. If the French can surprise with a victory over Germany or Latvia, that also will heighten their chances of surviving again to play in the Worlds next year in Belarus. It won’t be easy, but it’s a doable task.