For a long time France hasn’t been considered a hockey power. Since being back in the top division in 2008, the national team often has been closer to relegation than to the quarter-finals of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
But all this is in a process of change.
Four weeks ago France made the quarter-finals of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk, Belarus, at the expense of Slovakia, Norway and Denmark, who used to be more successful in the last few years. In the post-World War II era, France has only had a top-8 position twice before, at the 1992 Olympic Winter Games on home ice in Albertville and at the 1995 World Championship in Sweden. Both times Les Bleus finished in eighth place, as they did in Minsk.
Finally the work paid off for the team that has been led by head coach Dave Henderson and captain Laurent Meunier non-stop since 2005. Winnipeg-born Henderson has been working in France ever since he came to the country as a player-coach for Amiens in 1975, originally joined the federation as U20 national team coach in 1999 and has a hockey-playing son, Brian, who made the national team in 2010.
But it’s not just consistency and patience that pays off. France is starting to produce more high-calibre talent for the world's top hockey leagues.
But French players don’t need to leave the country to earn their living as a professional hockey player. The 14-team Ligue Magnus runs smoothly and there are three minor leagues played at domestic level anywhere between Dunkirk in the north to Marseille in the south. Fans are enthusiastically following the games of the top league and the atmosphere is great. But the size of the ice rinks with capacities mostly around 3,000 limit the clubs’ possibilities compared to major European leagues.
With the level rising, more players have the courage to try the next step by going abroad. Of the 25 national team players who featured in Minsk, 13 earn their money in leagues outside of their homeland.
Mostly they try it first in other European leagues. Three players joined from francophone teams of the Swiss league with goalkeeper Cristobal Huet and forward Damien Fleury playing in Lausanne and Eliot Berthon in Geneva. Also Kevin Hecquefeulle and Johann Morant play in their neighbouring country Germany. French captain Meunier left France in 2006 and spent the last four years in the top German league with the Straubing Tigers. Defencemen Yohann Auvitu left France for JYP Jyvaskyla’s junior team as a 19-year-old and won the Finnish championship last year while Charles Bertrand split the season between Finland and Sweden.
Also playing in Northern Europe was Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who left for Sweden as a 21-year-old. After eight years and back-to-back Swedish league titles with Skelleftea AIK the forward aims for more and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers last week.
It’s the next step of a dream career for the forward who grew up in a multicultural and multisport environment in a Paris suburb. His father was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique that belongs to France, his mother earned a black belt in karate and of his four siblings one brother plays hockey too and two of his sisters practise gymnastics. Rose-Eliandre Bellemare competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
If it works out well, France may have three players in the National Hockey League at the same time. Antoine Roussel finished a 29-point season with the Dallas Stars while Stéphane Da Costa split games between the Ottawa Senators and their AHL affiliate Binghamton Senators in the last three seasons. Both are restricted free agents. And there are even slight hopes to have four Frenchman in the NHL one day as Tim Bozon, who is under contract with the Montreal Canadiens, won his battle against meningitis and is working on his comeback.
Until recently France was only randomly represented in the NHL. Forward Philippe Bozon was the first French-trained player to make it. A strong season in France with Chamonix and the national team earned him a contract with the St. Louis Blues where he played from 1992 to 1994. Goalkeeper Cristobal Huet also made the big league after a strong year in Switzerland and played for Los Angeles, Montreal, Washington and Chicago from 2002 to 2010. In his last year he won the Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks as a backup goalkeeper before he was loaned to Switzerland where he has played ever since. Huet took the Stanley Cup to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and his hometown of Grenoble four years ago.
Also for Bellemare it was his strong season abroad, where the Frenchman was among the top point and goal scorers of Swedish champion Skelleftea AIK, and a strong showing on the international stage that earned him the contract. When he had the chance to prove scouts he can compete against NHL-calibre players, Bellemare performed well and had three goals and five assists in the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, third on his team behind NHLers Antoine Roussel and Stephane Da Costa.
Now Bellemare hopes to become the fifth French-trained NHL player in history. And France hopes that the upward trend for the national team and its players continue ahead of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship the country will host in Paris together with Cologne, Germany.