Grenoble powers to title
by Andy Potts|14 APR 2022
The Grenoble Bruleurs de Loups players celebrate with the Magnus trophy after winning the French championship.
photo: Fabien Baldino
Grenoble Bruleurs de Loup won a record eighth French title, completing a 4-1 win over Angers Ducs in the Ligue Magnus final series.

The team’s success, sealed in front of a capacity crowd at the 4,200-seater Pole Sud rink, was built on free-scoring offence. A 5-1 victory in the decisive game kept up an awesome home record, with Grenoble beaten just three times in 30 games on home ice. And the team blasted 261 goals in its 58 games (regular season and play-off), averaging 4.5 goals per game and recording 31 victories by a margin of three or more goals. Grenoble led the regular season standings by 13 points, with Angers in second place.

Veteran forward Damien Fleury led the way. His 88 points won the Ligue Magnus scoring race, and his 40 goals set a new personal best – at the age of 36.

Fleury’s 88th point of the season came in final game: he had an assist on Sacha Treille’s power play goal to make it 3-1 early in the third period. That proved to be a gamebreaker: Angers had taken the lead midway through the first period, only for Nicolas Deschamps to tie it up. The game remained level until late in the second, when Peter Valier set up Adel Koudri for the go-ahead goal.

After Treille gave Grenoble some breathing space early in the final stanza, Deschamps potted his second of the game and Joel Champagne set the corks popping with more than four minutes to play when his empty-netter made it 5-1.

That enabled Raphael Garnier to come off the bench for the final seconds in place of experienced Czech international Jakub Stepanek. The 25-year-old Angers native, understudy for much of the season, thus got a taste of the atmosphere on the ice as his team defeated his hometown club to win the title.

First-time success for Aho

The mastermind of an impressive season was Finnish head coach Jyrki Aho. He arrived at the club in the summer tasked with getting the team back on top – and delivered in style.

“From our first meeting when I arrived, there was never any doubt: this was our aim and to achieve in one season is magnificent,” he told le Dauphine Libere newspaper.

“It’s incredible to see the guys smiling and celebrating in front of us here. I’m so proud of what they’ve done this season, they’ve worked so hard.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Aho’s players. Forward Peter Valier said: “It’s an incredible feeling. We all worked so hard: this is the result of hours of practice, of pressure, of making sacrifices.

“It confirms what we knew all along – this is the best team in the league. Now we can enjoy that title!”

Defenceman Pierre Crinon arrived partway through the season from Dukla Trencin and providing some title-winning experience after helping Rouen to last year’s crown. He was delighted to see his new club deliver on its potential.

 “This was the aim when I came here, but you never know how it might turn out,” he said. “We built a team that would take it to the end and we proved that tonight.

“We won it in the right way, here in front of our fans. It’s a great feeling. The crowd here pushed us to the end, it helped us enormously. Winning 5-1 tonight is also down to everything they did for us.”

Forward Aurelien Dair admitted that it hadn’t really sunk in yet. “This team is a family,” he added. “We’re like brothers. It’s huge to win it with them. Now we have to come back every year and win it again and again.”

For Aho, it’s a third career championship as a coach. Earlier he won the Liiga twice with Jyvaskyla before returning to the winner’s enclosure this year. With a long wait between trophies, he understands better than most how important it is to savour those victorious moments.

“We talked about it with the boys,” he said. “In my first experience at Jyvaskyla I probably coached more than 60 play-off games [from 2007-2013], but then I had only 20 before coming to France this season.

“That’s why I told the guys that we have to enjoy these moments because we never know when they are coming again, you never know when you will win another trophy.”

Shootout drama

Grenoble’s two road games in Angers were decided in shoot-outs – and that’s something that head coach Aho would like to see change. At present, the Ligue Magnus has 10 minutes of 3-on-3 overtime, followed by a shoot-out if needed to settle any tied games in its play-offs. Aho told l’Equipe: “I’d prefer to play five-on-five until someone scores.

“That really tests the players’ concentration. Maybe it’s a big long for the spectators but I don’t think what we have at the moment is a good format. At the moment [speaking 15 minutes after the shoot-out] we could still be playing. But, of course, it’s easy to say when you’re winning.”

Three retirements

Tuesday’s triumph enabled three long-serving Bruleurs de Loups players to bow out at the top. Christophe Tatari, 37, spent his entire 20-year career with the club and his 703 games are a club record. In that time, Tatari has played as a forward and a defenceman, winning four French championships, three French Cups and four Ligue Magnus Cups.

Julien Baylacq, 33, is another one-club man. He made his Ligue Magnus debut in 2007 and is celebrating his third title this season. The forward has 550 games, scoring 188 (68+120) points in a distinguished career in Grenoble.

Compared to his colleagues, Sebastien Bisaillon, 35, is a relative newcomer – the Canadian import has seven seasons with the Alpine club in a career that included a couple of NHL games with the Oilers before playing in Germany and Austria. This was his third French title, having won with Grenoble in 2019 and Briancon in 2014. He also won the 2017 French Cup with Grenoble.

Club GM Jean-Francois Dufour paid tribute to the departing trio. “We have guys finishing their careers with a title: we owe them a lot and to leave like this is the best of the best.”

Euro ambitions

The next challenge for Grenoble is a crack at the Champions Hockey League in 2022/23. It will be the third time the Bruleurs de Loups have played in the competition, after featuring in 2015/16 and 2019/20.

The first campaign saw Grenoble win just one game from its home and away meetings with HC Litvinov and Espoo Blues. The second campaign brought a memorable win on the road at Skelleftea, but once again Grenoble was unable to get past the group stage. A potential third appearance in November 2020, which would have involved a home-and-away match-up with Adler Mannheim, was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“It’s a new test for us, and a real challenge to take up,” said Aho.

More hockey for Angers

While Angers has lost the final, the season is not over yet for hockey fans in the city as the arena will host the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group A from 24 to 30 April. Host France eyes a return to the top division. The winner of the tournament that also includes Norway, Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands will be promoted to the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.