Interview by Christine Roger, and originally published on CBC Radio Canada’s Podium website
This document was originally published in French. We apologize for any inaccuracies caused by translation process.
We think this has important messages in it, and we urge players to make careful and calculated decisions. Thank-you, Louis, for sharing your perspective, and we hope we have done it accurately, given the translation.
“Even today, I do not understand what happened. And maybe I will never understand it.”
A flop. A mistake. A failure.
I have heard everything.
I know that my critics were numerous. And they still are.
It was said that I went out to bars, that I was arrogant and lazy.
Honestly, I do not care. These comments never stopped me from sleeping. I know they’re wrong. People who allow themselves to judge are probably not even aware of the sacrifices that must be made to become an athlete.
It’s still crazy. How many players were drafted by the Canadiens and for whom it did not work? I played only 50 games in the NHL and 10 years after being drafted, I’m still stopped in the street to talk about it.
Last week again, I was dining at a restaurant in Montreal and a man approached.
” What happened? ”
I think it will follow me all my life. How to explain that I went from the 18th overall pick … to retired at 25 years of age? The truth is that I have no idea.
Even today, I do not understand what happened. And maybe I will never understand it.
Louis Leblanc is welcomed on the stage by Trevor Timmins of the Montreal Canadiens in June 2009.
As far back as I can remember, I have always been the best player on my team, but “talent” and “potential” did not mean anything to the child born on the West Island.
I jumped on the rink, I had fun. And all I wanted was to have the puck on my stick and score goals. I was good and never questioned myself. People who really know me will tell you the same thing: I’ve always been the one who worked the hardest. When practice was over , I continued to skate and chase the puck. I was unstoppable.
I realized that I really had potential once I reached the midget AAA level. In my first year, I won the scoring championship with 31 goals. The following year I had 91 points, and set a new league record.
At that time, the phone never stopped ringing. I was probably contacted by about thirty universities.
I did not grow up in a family of athletes, in fact, far from it.
My father is a chemist and my mother is a piano teacher. We had never dreamed that I would become a professional hockey player. My mom loves hockey, but I think she could not even say which teams I played, except from the Canadiens.
My parents were the first surprised by the turn of events.
“Your boy is good. We want him on our team. He will be in the first line. He has what it takes to reach the NHL. ”
It is certain that I was tempted by the QMJHL. I had a guy like Patrick Roy, one of the best goalies in history, who wanted me on his team. It was incredibly flattering. But my heart was in Boston.
I had always wanted to go to college and I just could not bypass Harvard.
I know a lot of people in the hockey world thought it was not the right decision for my career, at the time.
I know this is not the typical path, especially for a guy with my potential. But for my family and me, Harvard was the only choice we considered.
While waiting to enter university, I went to play in Omaha, within the USHL. It was my year of eligibility for the NHL Entry Draft.
When the first rankings came out, I was among the top 10 listed. I was with guys like Taylor Hall, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane. I was just coming out of the midget AAA in Lac-Saint-Louis.
I met the leadership of the Montreal Canadiens only once before the Draft. They seemed interested, but nothing more. Buffalo or Anaheim seemed more interested.
In June, the Draft was in Montreal, at the Bell Center.
My family, my friends, my coaches were all in attendance to live this moment with me.
In 13th place, Buffalo selected Zack Kassian. In 15th place, Anaheim chose Peter Holland.
I was not disappointed, but I had no idea what was waiting for me. I knew other teams were interested, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had the 30th pick.
And then, on the 18th pick, Trevor Timmins announces the choice of the Habs.
“From the Omaha Lancers …”
I knew it was me.
I, Louis Leblanc, a Quebecker, was drafted by my team in Montreal. I was so happy. It was a dream scenario.
“Louis, Louis, Louis! ”
I will always remember it. The Bell Center crowd got up and started chanting my name.
At that moment, my life has changed. Instantly, I went from an unknown to a star. I felt that huge dose of love that the supporters sent me, but I also understood from that day that the expectations would be high.
To say that it was a not a long shot would be a euphemism. I was literally catapulted into a world for which I was perhaps not ready.
As expected, I entered Harvard, but quickly, I felt that the Blue-white-red questioned my decision to play college hockey.
At the time, I think the team management thought that Harvard was not the place for my development. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. It’s true that you play fewer games, but many players have proven that you can play well in the NCAA and have a great career in the NHL afterwards.
I never felt they put a gun to my head, but I felt a lot of pressure. I wanted to leave college and concentrate entirely on my career as a hockey player. I think the Canadiens may have felt some urgency. I was a first-round pick and the fans wanted a rising star in Montreal.
I felt stuck, but I finally chose to leave Harvard.
Even today, I think it’s the most difficult decision I’ve had in my life.
The plan of Bob Gainey and Pierre Gauthier was that I play a season with the CHL’s Montreal Junior team and then, they would give me a chance. And they gave it to me, this chance.
The following year, when I started out as a professional with the Hamilton Bulldogs, I quickly collected points and was called up by the big club. I was 20 when I played my first game in the NHL.
I scored my first goal on December 15th at the Bell Center. It’s a moment I will never forget. I received a standing ovation and, and the crowd shouted: “Louis, Louis, Louis! I had so much energy. I think I could have scored three goals in this game. But, ironically, I did not play the rest of the game. The next day, head coach Jacques Martin was fired and Randy Cunneyworth took over.
In my first year as a professional, I did not score many points and my role was rather limited with the Canadiens, but I still played 42 games.
Then Geoff Molson shook everything up. Looking back, I realize that I arrived at a time when there was not really stability in the team. Has it had an impact on my journey? I do not know, but I can say that luck has never really been on my side …
Marc Bergevin took the position of General Manager and hired Sylvain Lefebvre to lead the Bulldogs. It was the lockout in the NHL, so I went to Sherbrooke where all the players were gathered for the training camp of the American League team.
When I arrived, I immediately felt that something was wrong. There was a cold reception. With coaches, maybe? I do not know. I was not arrogant.
I had never experienced that coldness from my peers. I felt like I was not welcome. I had climbed the ladder in hockey and I had always felt at home, both physically and mentally.
Until this moment.
Yet, my confidence was at its peak. I had just played 42 games in the NHL and had had a good summer training. I still had a lot of things to improve, but I had proven that I could play in the American League and even in the NHL.
The season started and my role was not a prominent one. I was playing on the third line, I did not put up the numbers. I did not feel well. I began to question my ability, which I had never done since my first time skating at the age of 3 years.
After three games, I injured my ankle and I was out for six weeks. I thought that this break was going to be beneficial. On the contrary, on my return, the discomfort continued. I did not play well, I did not have energy. It’s probably the worst year I’ve ever had in hockey.
I was wondering how I was going to go back to the NHL and, honestly, it was hard to be optimistic. I had been so close and, a few months later, I felt that my dream was slipping into my hands.
And there, I got caught in the gear. It’s a vicious circle. I spent the year questioning myself. I decided not to give up. I worked hard during the summer and I was able to stand out at training camp the following fall.
I scored goals. I got involved. I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. And then, I was part of the first cuts. I took my bag and left the Bell Center.
I was discouraged and frustrated. I tried to understand. I returned to Montreal for a few games, before being demoted again. It was finished. My three-year contract ended with the Canadiens.
Louis Leblanc Photo: Radio-Canada / Alain Decarie
I realize today that during that year, of questioning myself, I completely lost my bearings. I sometimes see matches from that period and the guy I see on the ice, is not me.
What is my role? What are my skills? Where am I going? It was going fast in my head, but I was trying to stay the course. I could not find the solution.
I needed to change the environment. I was not having fun anymore. I had my wake-up call.
So I was traded to the Anaheim Ducks. Once again, I started the season in the American League. The coach told me that I would be the next player recalled, but this has never happened.
It had been almost a year since I had played in the NHL. Time was starting to squeeze. As I still loved hockey, I signed with the New York Islanders. But right from the training camp, I fractured the orbital bone. I was back to square one.
I then decided to accept an offer from a KHL team before finally joining the Lausanne club in Switzerland.
At the end of the season, I returned to Montreal.
I was 25 years old. I did not want to go back to Europe. I had not played in the NHL for two years. I could not any more. I analyzed the hockey side, I thought of my personal life and I knew I had had enough. I decided to retire.
For almost five years, I moved around a lot. For years that are crucial for the development of a player, I have experienced a lot of uncertainty.
I would be lying to you if I told you that it was easy. It drained me mentally. I am a proud person. I wanted it to work. I wanted to be successful. The body took a hit, but the mind was most affected.
A retirement at 25 years of age is rare. Especially when there is no injury. Especially for a player who had such a promising future. But I felt that I had to move on.
I am not bitter about the turn of events. I think Montreal fans are more bitter than me, actually.
Fans want a Stanley Cup and that’s normal. They are the best supporters in the world. The feeling of playing a game at the Bell Center, there is nothing that can match that. Probably the expectations were higher for me because I am a Quebecker. But on the other hand, the good times probably would not have been so euphoric if I had not been a little guy from here.
What I experienced is unique. The media attention, the ups and downs, I feel that this adventure has made me age 40 years.
I am now one of the assistant coaches with the Harvard hockey team and I love it.
In a few months, I will finish my bachelor’s degree and I will start my career in finance in a Boston office. One day, I see myself possibly becoming general manager for an NHL team.
When I meet people in my new home and talk to me about pressure, it always makes me smile.
Being a Quebecer, drafted in Montreal, by Montreal. That’s pressure.
Today, there is not much that can succeed in shaking me.
I have no regrets, except perhaps one.
In fact, I often wondered if I should have stayed at school rather than leaving Harvard and going into the major junior ranks. Would it have been so bad? I do not think so. Would I have managed to play in the NHL? We’ll never know.
Often, when things went wrong, I thought I should have stayed at Harvard.
I knew that there, I would have played. I would have had stability. I would not have been afraid of being demoted or exchanged.
Did I really have a chance with the Canadiens? I do not know what’s a chance. A chance, for a player, it can be a game. For another, it can be a season. It’s so relative.
I do not blame the Habs. I still have a very good relationship with Marc Bergevin. We will sometimes have a beer together when he comes to Boston. Hockey is a fast sport on the rink, but also on the business side. Managing a team, being a coach, I understand that this is not an exact science, especially since I have this role at Harvard.
I am not upset with the Canadiens. I do not think anyone got up one morning and said, “How can I make life difficult for him? I sincerely believe that everyone had good intentions.
I do not feel that I have been the victim of an injustice either. Professional sport is a business. Decisions are made quickly. You do not have seven lives.
No matter what happened, I remain convinced that the Canadiens made no mistake in selecting me 18th.
I never doubted my talent and my skills on the ice. Some will say that I was drafted only because I am francophone and it was in Montreal. Was the team under pressure to pick a Quebecker? That, I’ll never know, but I know I could have been picked in the first round.
However, I would like Montreal fans to understand that I gave everything. Absolutely everything.
I wish things were different. Believe me. If I had written the screenplay for my career, I would have won the Stanley Cup in Montreal, played in the NHL for 20 years and been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Sometimes, in life, it does not work. That’s all. Life goes on.
It was extremely difficult. Even today, people speak of me as a failed draft pick. Nevertheless, I would start again tomorrow.
If I had to do it again, I would still like to be drafted by the Montreal Canadiens.