Vilgrain inspired and instilled pride in the Haiti ball hockey team
LAVAL, Quebec — Claude Vilgrain first entered the dressing room of the Haiti men’s ball hockey team as a consultant for the 2022 International Federation of Street and Ball Hockey World Championships and has saw something he had never seen in his 51 years of playing hockey.
The 59-year-old former NHL forward, who was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and played 89 games with the Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, stood in front of a packed locker room only black players.
It was a special moment for Vilgrain, who said he was usually the only black player on a team. It was also special for the players, as he is the only NHL player to be born in Haiti.
After his family moved to Quebec, Vilgrain was introduced to the sport at age 8 through a table hockey game he received as a birthday present from an uncle. He remembers watching a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks last March – he said he originally thought the “CH” on the Canadiens jersey stood for Chicago – and he told his parents he wanted to play. He spent the summer playing ball hockey, signed up for ice hockey in the fall, and as he said, the rest is history.
Vilgrain grew up wanting to become Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur. Growing up in Montreal, Ainslie Bien-Aime dreamed of being Vilgrain.
“Claude is very humble,” said Bien-Aime, who is a former captain of Haiti and its current general manager. “Claude was in the NHL. Off the ice, he’s been through a lot [in hockey]so he brings that energy, brings that experience into the locker room, and the fact that he played in the NHL, [he brings] a lot of respect in the room.”
Vilgrain knows something about playing in a short tournament like the world championships. He played for Canada’s fourth-place finish at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, won back-to-back championships with Canada at the Spengler Cup in 1996 and 1997, and coached junior hockey teams in the Alberta Cup. He also drew on his playing history in Laval, where the tournament was held. He played three seasons with the Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, scoring 126 points (46 goals, 80 assists) in 69 games in 1982-83. He was named to the Second Team All-Star alongside teammates Mario Lemieux and Bobby Dollas.
During Haiti’s Group A game against the Czech Republic at Place Bell, Vilgrain stood on the bench with his arms folded and didn’t seem to say much. Bien-Aime called her a calming presence. Assistant captain Steven Jean-Denis said he provided that, as well as strategic and tactical advice.
“There is no message [I give them]. It’s performance on demand,” Vilgrain told NHL.com. “I tell them the first shift can cost you the tournament. Be disciplined, avoid penalties, leave your ego at the door and play as a team and every shift counts.”
The tournament did not go to plan for Haiti, finishing last of eight Group A teams while losing some players and staff to coronavirus concerns. Expectations were high after the team won the Group B championship in 2015 with former NHL forward Georges Laraque as assistant coach.
“[Representation is] very important,” Vilgrain said of Haiti having a ball hockey team. “I know when they went to Switzerland [in 2015], they thought they were the halftime show. But they got a chip on the shoulder and they won the tournament, so that’s important. I look at the crest, I look at the flag with the hockey sticks, and these guys, these guys are proud. They want to do well. They want to represent well.”
When the idea of putting together a national team to compete in 2015 was floated, more than 75 Haitian players showed up for training camp. It was a defining moment for Bien-Aime, who had played for Canada and won the 2007 ISBHF Worlds.
“I had never played with so many black people,” said Bien-Aime.
The participation sealed the deal to create the team and reaffirmed his belief that hockey truly is a sport for everyone.
Today, the Haiti team is mostly made up of Canadian-based heritage players, meaning they are the descendants of a parent or grandparent born in the country; however, they received permission from the Haitian Embassy to compete under the flag. The hope is that one day the team will be made up of players who live in Haiti. According to Bien-Aime, the goal is that by 2023 they will be able to bring ball hockey clinics and workshops to the Caribbean nation and that by 2026 programs will be in place to constitute the list.
Vilgrain lives in Calgary where, in addition to coaching and doing skill development work, he designs parks and playgrounds. While this may be his first world championship working with the Haiti ball hockey team, he helped lay the groundwork for these players and future generations to enjoy the sport.
“He’s a role model, he’s a source of inspiration,” said Jean-Denis. “The fact that he did that [and made it to the NHL], it makes us believe, makes us believe that we can do something, that we can do something big, and that we have the heart to do it. He is like us. He is one of us. It was he who started, so we will continue the movement.”
Photo courtesy: ISBHF